Caracas, Venezuela, September 23, 2006—Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro was taken into custody at New York City’s JFK international airport today, where he was seeking to board a flight back to Venezuela. He was released only after UN officials came to his aid. Venezuela promised to file a formal complaint with the UN about the incident.
Maduro explained to the media that he was held for an hour and a half by New York police when he refused to undergo a strip search at the JFK airport, as he was boarding his flight back to Caracas. According to Maduro, the officers confiscated his identity documents and his boarding pass.
The officers also threatened to use force and to handcuff him, said Maduro, all the while he was insisting that the officers were violating international conventions that protect diplomats traveling to and from New York City to attend UN events.
Maduro had been in New York to participate in the opening of the 61st UN General Assembly, where Venezuelan President Chavez had held a fiery speech against U.S. President George W. Bush.
“When I explained my situation as foreign minister, the abuse increased, the violation that lasted for an hour and a half. When some level of the U.S. government reacted, my documentation was returned to me, my ticket, and practically turned me over to a delegation from the UN and [Venezuelan] ambassador [to the UN] Francisco Arias Cardenas,” said Maduro.
Venezuela’s President Chavez said, during an interview with a local television station in eastern Venezuela, that Maduro’s detention was a “provocation” and an act of desperation on the part of the U.S. government.
According to some reports, the reason Maduro was being held was because of his being on a blacklist in the U.S., for having participated in Chavez’s 1992 coup attempt against the then government of Carlos Andrés Pérez. Chavez, though, denied that he had been part of that action. Before Chavez became president the U.S. denied him a visa to travel to the U.S. because of his 1992 coup attempt.
During a 9:00pm press conference at Venezuela’s mission to the UN, just a few hours after the incident, Maduro said that Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon spoke to him and apologized about the incident, “trying to give explanations.”
However, even after talking to Shannon, Maduro said that another State Department representative insisted that Maduro and his team submit themselves to further searches, which they refused to do, “with all forcefulness because we saw this as an effort to politically ratify the violation of international law.” “They would have to get us out of this airport dead, if they had tried to touch us,” added Maduro emphatically.
A spokesperson for Homeland Security, Russ Knocke, denied in an interview with the news agency AFP that Maduro was ever detained by U.S. security forces at the airport. “There is no evidence to affirm any of this,” he said, referring to Maduro’s accusations. “The department wanted to confirm with a second control his identity as Foreign Minister of Venezuela. In this process the minister [then] decided not to travel,” said Knocke.
Maduro, when asked about the spokesperson’s statement, responded, “The U.S. government will try a thousand lies. There are sufficient witnesses of this detention and of the abuses they committed.”
Maduro also announced that Venezuela would file a formal complaint with the UN, about his “illegal” detention at the JFK airport. According to Maduro, Kofi Annan’s office already told him that a special delegation of lawyers would be named by the UN, which will look into the case.