Trinidad’s government this week forcibly denied claims by officials in Washington that they had quietly allowed the US to use the island as a transit point to forcibly send back dozens of Venezuelan refugees fleeing economic and other hardships in the South American nation on secret flights in recent months.
The denials were forced out of Security Minister Stuart Young after the local Guardian Newspaper ran an in depth piece on such allegations that were made by Democratic New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez that Trinidad had allowed the US to secretly deport Venezuelans through the country in what the legislator called stealth and covert operations.
Minister Young said the administration of Prime Minister Keith Rowley is patently unaware of any deportations to Venezuela using Trinidad as a third country to get around biting air travel restrictions with Venezuela noting that cabinet approval would have to have been given for such an important exercise to take place on local soil.
The issue raised its head in the past week after Menendez wrote Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao demanding answers from Washington about security officials using Panama and Trinidad to get around travel restrictions to Venezuela.
“New documents provided to my office confirm that US deportations to Venezuela continued via third countries at least until March 2020, while the Trump administration has offered little assurance that it will not continue to forcibly return Venezuelans to a regime the United Nations recently stated has committed crimes against humanity,” the senator said in his letter.
Clearly fazed by the revelation, Minister Young said that “as far as I’m aware there is no truth to the allegations that the US deported Venezuelans through T&T. It’s a strange proposition. We never agreed to any such operations. I’ve confirmed with Immigration that we have no knowledge of any such incident. The T&T government knows of no such instance and certainly didn’t agree to any such exercises.” Menendez sits on the foreign relations committee.
He specifically named Trinidad as one of the countries. The most southerly island nation in the Caribbean is just seven miles north of Venezuela.
Menendez’s assertion has come just weeks after a visit to CARICOM member nations Guyana and Suriname by Pompeo. That visit had raised fears and suspicions that the US was courting the nations to assist it with any moves, military or otherwise, that Washington had had lined up against the Nicolas Maduro government in Caracas. Guyana and Venezuela share borders.
The US had in recent years been asking Guyana to allow it step up military collaboration with Guyana and to also permit the Voice of America to beam propaganda messages to Venezuela from transmitters controlled by the station but the previous administration had turned down such requests.
Despite all the denials, Menendez remains adamant that there were several secret deportations of Venezuelans using third countries to get around rules restricting travel.
“I am writing to request information about U.S. deportations of Venezuelan nationals that continued surreptitiously during FY 2020 despite the Trump Administration’s admission that returns to Venezuela are not safe, and despite the flight ban imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). New documents provided to my office confirm that U.S. deportations to Venezuela continued via third countries at least until March 2020, while the Trump Administration has offered little assurance that it will not continue to forcibly return Venezuelans to a regime the United Nations recently stated has committed crimes against humanity,” the letter stated.
He argued that based on documents in his possession and testimonies from high ranking officials like veteran diplomat Elliot Abrams, “it is now clear that indirect deportation flights from the United States to Venezuela did not cease for many months after the FAA suspended foreign air transportation of passengers to or from any airport in Venezuela on May 15, 2019. These newly-revealed incidents follow press reporting last year indicating that U.S. deportations to Venezuela continued on Copa Airlines flights via Panama in spite of the FAA’s suspension,” he said.