WASHINGTON – A congressional delegation led by Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois abruptly ended a visit to Venezuela on Monday after a two-hour standoff with Caracas airport officials over entering the country, according to spokesmen for Hyde and the U.S. Embassy in Caracas.
The airport dispute came amid strained relations between the Bush administration and Venezuela’s leftist president, Hugo Chavez, who earlier this month took a break from a summit Bush was attending with Latin American leaders to rally protesters outside with spirited denunciations of the U.S. president.
Hyde, the Republican chairman of the House International Relations Committee, and five other members of Congress were held aboard their plane and harassed for two hours by Caracas customs officials, according to a statement released by Hyde’s office.
The statement expressed “profound disappointment in the Venezuelan government’s capricious and unexplained decision and actions.”
The delegation had scheduled a 24-hour visit to meet with Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, members of the National Assembly, and ethnic and civic leaders. A spokesman for Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., co-leader of the delegation, said the members also planned to meet with opposition leaders.
A U.S. Embassy official who was present at the airport described a late-afternoon confrontation between Venezuelan authorities and about 20 embassy officials, drivers and security guards who had come to the airport to pick up the delegation.
According to the embassy official, Venezuelan authorities refused to allow vehicles onto the tarmac to transport the delegation, would not allow the delegation to leave the plane and objected to unloading luggage. Airport authorities initially would not allow any embassy official to board the plane, but after a 20-minute negotiation, they permitted Deputy Chief of Mission Kevin Whitaker on board to apprise the delegation of the situation, the official said.
After waiting two hours, the delegation left and flew to the nearby island of Aruba, where they spent the night, the embassy official said. The delegation resumed its itinerary Tuesday with a visit to Brazil.