Venezuela suspends ties with Panama airline, risking deeper isolation

Caracas (AFP) –


Venezuela on Thursday risked worsening its travel isolation by declaring a suspension of commercial ties with Panama's main airline Copa after Panama put President Nicolas Maduro and his top officials on a list of possible money launderers.

The state-run Venezuela News Agency (AVN) said Caracas had "suspended for 90 days economic and financial relations with 22 individuals and 46 national entities from Panama to protect Venezuela's financial system." It said Copa was on the list.

It was not immediately clear if that meant Copa planes would have to stop flying into and out of Venezuela.

Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela told reporters in his country that his government had received no notification of Venezuelan sanctions.

He called the reported move "gibberish," but warned that "Panama will respond vigorously" if it was confirmed.

Only a handful of foreign airlines are left servicing Venezuela, which is on the brink of default.

Panama is the nearest airline hub to Venezuela, and Copa is the main airline used by passengers in and out of Caracas. Departures from the Venezuelan capital are often booked up weeks or months in advance.

A succession of international airlines have ended their flights to Venezuela, including Delta, United, Aerolineas Argentinas and Avianca.

The few left include Air France, Spain's Iberia, American Airlines and Swiftair from the US, Cubana and Turkish Airlines.

- Tit-for-tat sanctions -

According to AVN, the individuals singled out for the Venezuelan sanctions were Varela, his vice president, Isabel de Saint Malo, and the minister for the presidency and the minister for the government.

The state news agency said Venezuelan prosecutors said the sanctions were because of the alleged "recurrent use of the Panamanian financial system by Venezuelan nationals to move money and assets derived from crime against the nation's wealth."

It said such transactions were made possible by the "obscurity" of Panama's financial system.

The ability for wealthy people to stash assets through Panamanian companies and law firms has been highlighted in the past couple of years through the "Panama Papers" and "Paradise Papers" scandals.

Under intense international pressure, Panama has recently made moves to bring improved transparency to its financial sector.

The Central American country has at the same time faced pressure from the United States and other Latin American nations to take measures against Maduro and his government.

On Tuesday, De Saint Malo, who is also Panama's foreign minister, announced that the Venezuelan president had been added to a national list of individuals seen as being a "high risk" for money laundering.

She said the move brought the country into line with the European Union, Canada and the United States, which also have hit Maduro and his officials with sanctions.

Venezuela's Supreme Court has called those lists "grotesque" and an assault on the South American country's sovereignty.

Other Venezuelan officials put on Panama's "high risk" list last week include the head of Maduro's Socialist Party, the chief justice of Venezuela's Supreme Court, the head of the electoral council, the chief national prosecutor, and the ministers for education and for culture.