The rescue of a tiny airline with four planes worth several million euros has sparked controversy in Spain, where its leftist government has been criticized for giving special treatment to a Venezuelan-linked firm.
The dispute is over a 53 million euro ($62 million) government aid granted in early March to the unknown airline Ultra Plus, which links Spain with Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.
The money came from a €10 billion rescue fund set up by the government of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to help strategically important companies most affected by the pandemic.
But the move has provoked a sharp rebuke from Spain’s right-wing opposition, which regularly attacks the government for its stance on Venezuela, in particular accusing far-left coalition partner Podemos of being funded by Caracas.
“This is a scandal that grows day by day, and the government offers no explanation,” said Antonio Gonzalez Terol, a deputy of the right-wing Popular Party, which is demanding a parliamentary investigation into the matter.
Liberal Ciudadanos also asked the European Commission to open an investigation, while the far-right Vox filed a complaint with the Supreme Court.
A strategic asset?
In November, the government offered a €475 million lifeline to Air Europa, Spain’s second largest airline, hit by a sharp cut in air travel.
But Ultra Plus is at the opposite end of the scale, with 156,000 passengers on 800 flights in 2019, compared to Air Europa’s 19 million passengers on 165,000 flights, according to data from Spanish airport operator Aena.
“What is strategic about an airline with four destinations and a market share of less than 0.1 percent, which suffered losses long before Covid and is not even one of the 30 largest airlines in Spain?” – Ciudadano leader Inés Arrimadas asked.
For the press and the right-wing opposition, the explanation lies in the relationship between Caracas and Podemos, whose leader Pablo Iglesias was an advisor to the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
Plus Ultra is headquartered in Madrid, but its main shareholders are Venezuelan businessmen, whom the Spanish opposition denounces as having close ties to Caracas.
The problem did not please the small airline’s competitors either.
“We demand the same attitude … it is not acceptable to differentiate between airlines,” Javier Gundara, head of the airlines association, told El Mundo newspaper.
But in Caracas, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreas downplayed the importance of the case.
“This is all politics. When I read about Spanish affairs, I laugh a lot … When we kill a cockroach here, it appears on the front pages of Spain the next day,” he told AFP.
Madrid issued a statement saying that Plus Ultra offers a service that “complements” the services of “larger companies” and that the airline’s passengers are mostly Hispanic, “mostly traveling to visit their families.”
The measure was also aimed at protecting Madrid Barajas airport’s attractiveness as an aviation hub that guarantees multiple connections, he added.
“It is not only market share that makes a company strategic, but also belonging to a strategic sector for the Spanish economy,” such as tourism, government spokeswoman María Jesús Montero told RNE on Wednesday.
And he insisted that “the entire (rescue) procedure was carried out correctly”.