June 10, 2015 / 1:18 AM / 2 years ago

Venezuela cites Colombia ambassador over former Spanish PM plane use

Former Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzalez (C, dark glasses) walks surrounded by journalists after a news conference in Caracas, June 8, 2015. REUTERS/Marco Bello

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela said on Tuesday it had cited Colombia’s ambassador for an explanation of why the neighboring country flew out a former Spanish prime minister who had traveled to Caracas to support the opposition.

President Nicolas Maduro’s government is furious over the visit of Felipe Gonzalez, Spain’s longest-serving prime minister, to meet with the opposition bloc in support of jailed politicians Leopoldo Lopez and Daniel Ceballos.

“Unfortunately I was taken aback with the news that a plane of the Colombian Air Force assigned to the presidency of the Colombian Republic came to take him out of the country,” Maduro said on state television.

“Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez has cited the Colombian ambassador here in Caracas to demand explanations. I hope these explanations are sufficient and very clear over this situation, because I have been denouncing a Madrid-Bogota-Miami axis (against the government),” he added, speaking next to a photo of late leader Hugo Chavez.

Venezuela’s socialist government has in the past clashed with Spain, U.S. ally Colombia, and its chief ideological foe the United States. It is also locked in an escalating dispute with Guyana over a border spat.

Colombia said on Tuesday President Juan Manuel Santos had authorized the use of an Air Force plane to fly Gonzalez from Caracas to Bogota. The two men met to discuss Colombia’s peace process and the upcoming EU-Latin American summit in Brussels, the statement added.

A source in Colombia’s Air Force told Reuters that Venezuela had authorized the plane’s entry to pick up Gonzalez.

“FAILED VISIT”

Gonzalez’s visit came as an economic crisis weighs on Maduro’s popularity ahead of key parliamentary elections that polls suggest his party will lose.

Senior officials have accused Gonzalez of chumminess with late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, a role in FIFA corruption scandals, and a throwback to colonialism.

“I’ve been observing what was a failed visit by this person that the Spanish people hate,” said Maduro. “His departure was almost an escape.”

Venezuela’s MUD opposition bloc said Gonzalez had not been authorized to visit Lopez and Ceballos, who are both on partial hunger strikes.

While some opposition activists cheered his visit, others fret such high-profile trips distract the political opposition and take the spotlight away from the hardships of Venezuelans, including acute shortages and steep inflation.

An extrovert from the Andalusia region of Spain, Gonzalez helped transform the country into a European democracy, though he was later wearied by corruption scandals and charges that his government ran death squads against violent Basque separatists.

Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas; Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb and Luis Jaime Acosta in Bogota; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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