Maduro Cuts Off Venezuela’s Air and Sea Traffic With 3 Island Neighbors, 6 January 2018

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

In a televised address, Mr. Maduro said he had halted all flights and ship 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,” Mr. 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 Mr. 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 American subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil company, has been touting plans 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 Mr. Maduro’s crackdown.

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

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

In late 2016, he shut down the border with Colombia, alleging that mobsters there were hoarding currency. The previous year he had 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 in the area, residents said, but did prevent many thousands of Venezuelans from crossing the border to buy food during shortages.