Venezuela halted flight crew in 2008 over remark
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The captain and crew of an American Airlines flight were briefly detained in 2008 after a crew member advised passengers to set their watches to "local Chavez time" upon arrival in Caracas, according to a confidential U.S. report released by WikiLeaks.
President Hugo Chavez in 2007 created a new time zone for Venezuela, moving the clock back a half hour on a permanent basis.
The U.S. Embassy report, dated Oct. 1, 2008, and released Friday, said there appeared to be a misunderstanding over one crucial word in the crew member's announcement: "local" vs. "loco" — which means crazy in Spanish.
The embassy said one passenger, who was a friend of pro-Chavez lawmaker Carlos Echezuria Rodriguez, thought the crew member said "loco Chavez time."
American Airlines local manager Omar Nottaro reported to the embassy that the crew member announced to passengers: "Welcome to Venezuela. Local Chavez time is ..."
The memo, which was written a day after the incident, said the airline manager's account was contradicted by that of Venezuelan immigration authorities, who wrote in their report that the crew member had announced "the hour of the crazy Chavez and his women."
Chavez has long traded verbal barbs with U.S. officials. And the incident quickly escalated after the passenger told the lawmaker friend, who was waiting for him outside, "that the pilot had called President Chavez crazy," the document said.
It said the congressman promptly reported the incident to then Vice President Ramon Carrizalez, who called the head of the civil aviation authority into action. The embassy said Venezuela's DISIP domestic intelligence agency opened an investigation but deferred to immigration authorities since the crew had not passed through immigration.
The crew then was held in the airport while officials discussed what would be done, the embassy said.
The American Airlines manager told a U.S. diplomat that the lawmaker demanded to hear recordings of the announcements when Flight 903 touched down. But the airline manager was able to defuse 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," the memo said.
It said the plane left at 11:30 p.m., and the airline manager offered apologies to Venezuelan officials.
The embassy said in the classified report that it was the second incident involving an American flight crew at Simon Bolivar International Airport in a month. It didn't say what had occurred in the other incident.
Addressing the memo to agencies in Washington and Miami, the embassy said the incident showed "how heightened sensitivities are ... when a chance remark escalates within minutes to the level of the Venezuelan Vice Presidency."