Argentina’s Ambassador to Venezuela Oscar Laborde has hit out at the local courts over its decision to detain the Emtrasur aircraft held at Ezeiza Airport at the request of the United States, describing it as a plot to "harm" the relationship between Caracas and Buenos Aires.
“There is a feeling of injustice in the Venezuelan people. There is clearly an intention on the part of the courts and many people are suffering from it,” said the envoy on Tuesday, referring to the plane held at Ezeiza since June 8 along with its 19 crew members, of whom five are Iranian citizens.
Laborde went on to declare that the aircraft “is confiscated because the judge has so determined without apparently finding anything to reproach” the crew members still being held in this country. He later described the move as a “hijacking.”
The comments, delivered this week during an interview with the local AM750 radio station, prompted a wave of condemnation from the opposition, which accused the envoy of backing the “illegitimate” government led by Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro.
The Boeing 747 freight aircraft of Emtrasur, a subsidiary of the Venezuelan flag carrier Conviasa (sanctioned by Washington), flying from Mexico was held back in June after landing in Ezeiza with a crew of Venezuelans and Iranians and a cargo of auto parts.
On August 2 the United States asked Argentina to impound the aircraft after a court order which considered that "it was violating US export laws." Emtrasur bought it from Mahan Air, an airline affiliated to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the White House defines as a terrorist organisation.
On August 11, Federal Judge Federico Villena granted the confiscation of the aircraft for presumed terrorist links, as requested by a United States court.
The decision was fiercely questioned by Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro. Marches and protests, led by Chavismo militants, demanding the liberation of the aircraft also took place in cities across Venezuela last week.
"Now they want to impound our aircraft in Argentina because of the decision of a Florida court so that as from now, a court in Florida or New York can decide to take away a ship, an aircraft or any asset from Venezuela or any country,” complained Maduro at a rally.
The President of Venezuela's National Assembly, Jorge Rodriguez, also declared that the prosecutor assigned to the case is a "thief."
“This prosecutor is not autonomous from the US embassy, she is an employee of the embassy,” he declared.
In his radio interview, Laborde claimed that there were pressures beyond the detention of the aircraft seeking to unpick the relationship between Venezuela and Argentina.
“I hope that it will be solved quickly,” expressed Laborde about the confiscated aircraft.
Referring to the US request for the aircraft’s detention and alleged terror links, the diplomat said that Argentina’s intelligence services should intervene “because there are many interests seeking to turn this into a battle to harm Venezuela even further.”
The envoy also revealed this week that he met with Venezuelan deputy Pedro Carreño, who had strongly criticised President Alberto Fernández in a breach of diplomatic diplomacy. The Caracas lawmaker had demanded Argentina’s Peronist leader “demonstrate whether he is a puppet of imperialism or whether he really governs his country."
On a post on his social network accounts, Laborde said that he had reproached the legislator’s "inappropriate and untimely aggression."
"This kind of situation makes more difficult the strengthened bilateral relations and process of integration which #PatriaGrande needs," he added.
Argentina’s main opposition coalition responded to the remarks by calling for the “immediate” removal of Laborde from his post.
PRO party deputy Gerardo Milman criticised the government for allowing diplomats to deliver “misplaced protagonism and privileging personal and ideological positions that damage the image of Argentina and its international insertion."
"Ambassador Laborde is an offence to the tradition of the Argentine foreign service," he added, calling on the executive branch to “immediately remove the official and replace him with a professional diplomatic official."
Ortega enters row
On Monday, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega added his voice to criticism of the Argentine government, calling for the immediate liberation of the aircraft and its crew.
"They have kidnapped 11 or 12 of our Venezuelan brothers on the orders of the Yankees in Washington and then they wash their hands, saying that it is up to the courts," said Ortega, an ally of Venezuela, during a ceremony marking the 42nd anniversary of the Nicaraguan Navy.
"While occupying the presidency of CELAC [Community of Latin American and Caribbean States], Argentina is betraying the principles of CELAC, turning it into an instrument of Yankee imperialism," added Ortega at a ceremony also attended by the chargé d’affaires at the Argentine Embassy, whom the president identified as Jorge Stevens.
Ortega, an ex-guerrilla in power in 2007, invoked Fernández’s “socialist” government to free "the Venezuelan brothers whom they are holding prisoner in Argentina as if it were a district of Miami," calling on his colleague to return "the aircraft to its true owners."
"The CELAC president is performing a sadder, more disgraceful and degrading role than [Organisation of American States Secretary-General Luis] Almagro, who is openly an instrument of the gringos," he considered.
Most analysts saw the comments as a reaction to Argentina’s recent diplomatic manoeuvring. The Fernández government, which has previously criticised the exclusion of Managua from the Summit of the Americas by Washington, last week supported an OAS resolution condemning Nicaragua "for its forced closure of NGOs, as well as the harassment and arbitrary restrictions against religious organisations and voices criticising the government."
Humanitarian groups have counted around 190 opposition figures held prisoner in Nicaragua, whom Ortega accuses of wishing to overthrow him with the support of Washington while a Catholic bishop critical of the government has been prevented from leaving his residence since early August.