Wikileaks cable: Insult to Chavez lands flight crew in hot water

Two years ago in Caracas, the U.S. Embassy got an urgent call one evening. Venezuela's manager for American Airlines was on the phone, and he had a serious problem: The crew of Flight 903 was being detained at the airport.

A crew member had allegedly insulted President Hugo Chávez, explained Omar Nottaro.

A confidential U.S. Embassy cable about the Sept. 30, 2008, incident -- just released by WikiLeaks -- reveals how tough it can be to do business in socialist and authoritarian Venezuela. Among other problems there, it's a crime to insult the president -- an offense that went into the penal code in March, 2006.

The alleged "insult" happened just after the American jet landed. When announcing the local time, a crew member allegedly referred to it as "local Chavez time." There was a legitimate reason to say this -- for as the cable pointed out: "In December 2007 Venezuela created its own time zone, moving the clock back half an hour on a permanent basis. The crew member was likely trying to remind passengers of this and to suggest they turn their watches back 30 minutes."

Unfortunately for the crew, one of the passengers aboard the jet was a friend of pro-Chavez national assemblyman Carlos Echezuria Rodriguez. Meeting Rodriguez in the airport lobby, Nestor Maldonado Lanza said the crew member had said "loco Chavez time."

Outraged, the assemblyman demanded to listen to the on-board recordings of in-flight announcements, and he wanted statements from each crew member. Then he started making phone calls -- the first being to Venezuelan Vice President Carrizales. As the Embassy cable explains:

The Vice President called civil aviation authority (INAC) President Martinez who went to the airport. The Directorate for Venezuelan Domestic Intelligence and Prevention, DISIP, opened an investigation. However, because ONIDEX (immigration) had not allowed the crew to go through customs, DISIP backed out of investigation and turned it over to ONIDEX which had jurisdiction as the crew had not officially entered Venezuela. The crew then waited inside the airport for the results of a meeting between airport, customs, INAC and American Airlines staff.

Ultimately, American's quick-thinking country manager came to the rescue. As the cable explains: "Nottaro was able to diffuse the situation by promising to put the crew back on the empty airplane as soon as it was refueled and get the captain and crew out of the country immediately.

"Nottaro also apologized in person to INAC President Martinez and committed to writing several letters of apology on October 1. Venezuelan authorities accepted Nottaro's offer and the crew left Venezuela at 11:30 pm. American made the decision to turn the plane around even though it meant canceling AA flight 902 out of Caracas the morning of October 1, at considerable cost to the airline."

Earlier that month, a Delta crew also was involved in an "incident" at the Caracas airport, the cable noted. It didn't elaborate except to say the American incident was "yet another example of how heightened sensitivities are in the bilateral relationship when a chance remark escalates within minutes to the level of the Venezuelan Vice Presidency."

The cable, incidentally, never nailed down exactly what the flight crew member said. However, according to a report from Venezuelan immigration -- obtained by an Embassy officer from an Interpol contact -- the crew member said "the hour of the crazy Chavez and his women."  

Thomas Lifson adds: Interesting to note how thin-skinned are both Venezuela's president and our own.