World News

Maduro Cuts Off Venezuela’s Air and Sea Traffic With 3 Island Neighbors

Posted January 6, 2018 5:31 p.m. EST
Updated January 6, 2018 5:36 p.m. EST

MEDELLÍN, Colombia — President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela on Friday ordered a temporary shutdown of air and maritime traffic with three Caribbean neighbors, accusing smugglers there of seeking to plunder his country.

In a televised address, Maduro said he had halted traffic to Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao for 72 hours. He accused the three countries of running black markets by siphoning everything from copper to food before selling the items.

“They take away gold from this country illegally, and make it legal to sell there. They take away coltan; they take away diamonds; they take away all food products,” Maduro said. “I didn’t want to take a measure like this one, but I am ready to take even more radical measures.”

The Caribbean islands, which are short distances from Venezuela’s northern coast, have long hosted black markets for Venezuelan contraband, trading everything from illegally mined minerals to narcotics. The countries, however, have become better known under Maduro’s presidency as the landing site of boats of hungry Venezuelans fleeing their country’s food shortages.

Many refugees have fled illegally, so the closure is unlikely to stop those departures. But it will cut off Venezuelans wishing to travel by air at a time when many airlines refuse to fly to the country because of safety concerns.

Aruba is the site of a large refinery that Citgo, the U.S. subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil company, wants to refurbish. The state oil company is reeling from disastrous production declines and is falling behind on debt payments.

It was unclear what prompted the timing of Maduro’s crackdown.

“I hope that during these 72 hours the leaders of these countries will take the measures we’ve asked for” for more than two years against smugglers, Maduro said. “Mafias are waging war on our electricity; they steal our copper and they sell it legally.”

Maduro has closed borders in the past after alleging that smugglers were robbing the country, especially at times when his government was facing problems.

In late 2016, he shut down the border with Colombia, alleging that mobsters there were hoarding currency. The previous year he ordered a longer closure and declared a state of emergency along the same border, saying that food, fuel and other goods were being smuggled there.

The measures had little effect on smuggling, residents said, but did prevent many thousands of Venezuelans from crossing the border to buy food during shortages.

Venezuela is also struggling with hyperinflation, and the Maduro administration ordered more than 200 supermarkets to cut prices to last month’s levels, Reuters reported Saturday.

News of the discounts spread quickly, leading hundreds to mass in front of stores before daybreak. When one major supermarket in wealthier eastern Caracas did not open for hours, people began pounding on the storefront.

Armed National Guard soldiers later arrived at the store and ordered people into clear lines. They eventually let the crowd through in small groups just before midday, but people quickly emerged disappointed as only crackers and washing liquid were discounted, according to Reuters.

“I can’t feed my kids with this,” Jesus Gudino, 29, a moto-taxi driver and father of three told Reuters, indicating the small plastic bag in his hand. “I’ve been here since 4 a.m. This is a mockery. What can I do? I have to leave this country.”