Right-wing political parties in Spain demanded an investigation this week into the ruling socialist party’s decision to grant federal aid to Plus Ultra, an obscure airline company with links to the socialist regime of Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro.
Pandemic-relief aid granted to Plus Ultra by Spain’s left-wing coalition government – led by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) – is “irregular” and must be formally investigated, Spain’s conservative Popular Party (PP) said this week.
“The aid does not meet several of the requirements required by the fund to support the solvency of strategic companies. And if it is concluded that there was non-compliance – as the PP considers – it is necessary to revoke the aid granted and clarify responsibilities,” the party said in a statement.
The PP’s parliamentary faction has registered a formal request with the Spanish Congress to investigate the details of the 53 million euros ($62.4 million) in aid granted to Plus Ultra airlines. The aid was granted to the company through a Spanish government subsidies program designed to support companies deemed essential to the Spanish economy during the coronavirus pandemic. PP argued this week that Plus Ultra is far from an essential Spanish company and accused Spanish Finance Minister María Jesús Montero of making false statements assuring the public that the airline was Spanish-majority-owned when asked about its status by the Spanish Congress.
“The group of PP parliamentarians specify that it [Plus Ultra] is a Spanish company, but with a significant weight of Venezuelan and Panamanian capital that diluted Spanish ownership; nor is it a strategic company in the terms required by the [Spanish] Royal Decree in which it intends to cover this aid,” Concepción Gamarra, a spokeswoman for PP parliamentary deputies, said in a statement.
PP further accused Montero of lying about the number of workers that Plus Ultra employed prior to the pandemic, which was information required by the government to determine the amount of pandemic aid a company would receive.
“Plus Ultra had, before the pandemic, 255 workers and not 350 as stated by the Minister of Finance. And it also had four aircraft, of which today only one is left,” PP’s investigation request states, referring to the fact that Plus Ultra recently returned three of its four rented Airbus 340 aircraft to their original owners.
The Popular Party further noted that although the tourism industry was deemed essential to the Spanish economy and thus qualifies for the government subsidy program, this does not mean that a “niche” airline such as Plus Ultra also meets the same qualifications.
“Its strategic nature cannot even be justified by the ‘market niche it occupies,’ because it operated on routes that were already covered by large [Spanish and Colombian airline] companies such as Iberia, Air Europa, or Avianca,” the PP investigation request further states.
“Market figures show that it [Plus Ultra] carried 156,139 passengers in 2019 on 823 flights, putting it at 166th in Spain’s operating airlines, equating to just 0.1 percent market share,” the Olive Press, a Spanish ex-pat newspaper, reported on March 19.
The Spanish right-wing party Vox filed a formal complaint with Spain’s Supreme Court on Wednesday against members of Spain’s ruling left-wing coalition government responsible for granting the 53-million-euro bailout to Plus Ultra.
“The complaint was already advanced this Tuesday by the deputy of Vox, Victor González Coello, of Portugal in Congress, where he denounced the existence of links of this Venezuelan airline with the government of Nicolás Maduro and some of its most significant members,” Spain’s ABC newspaper reported on Thursday.
The PP is concerned that Plus Ultra’s links to South America have led Spanish President and PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez to use the airline as a bargaining chip with the Maduro regime.
“This concern is also bolstered by the fact that one of the majority shareholders in the company, [Camilo] Ibrahim Issa, has strong links to Maduro and the Chavista regime,” the Olive Press noted. Spanish newspaper El Mundo described Issa as Plus Ultra’s “most powerful shareholder” on March 11, citing information from unnamed Spanish opposition sources. Issa is a Venezuelan businessman of Lebanese origin with strong ties to Spain. He single-handedly introduced the Spanish-owned Inditex – the world’s largest fashion group, known for its flagship store, Zara – to Venezuela through his own intermediary retail company, Phoenix, in the early 2000s.
Rarely photographed, Issa was pictured attending a Venezuelan-government funded expo in Madrid in March 2015. Maduro’s regime advertised the event as a chance to educate Spaniards on “the true reality of Venezuela” and dismantle “the lies of the Spanish press.” The expo was promoted via social media within Spain by members of Podemos, a far-left political party that joined forces with PSOE in 2019 to form Spain’s current coalition government. The Secretary-General of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, has voiced support for Maduro’s regime in Venezuela. Iglesias currently serves as the Second Deputy Prime Minister of Spain.
“Camilo Ibrahim Issa has participated in meetings held by the former head of the Spanish government, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, with businessmen linked to the [Bolivarian] revolution,” according to El Mundo. Zapatero is a PSOE member and served two terms as prime minister of Spain from 2004-2011.
“The president of Plus Ultra is a Spaniard named Fernando García Manso who in 2018 thanked the Maduro government in person for the launch of his route, even predicting that ‘one day we will be able to return the favor,'” the newspaper noted of Plus Ultra’s debut in Spain.
The Spanish National Assembly investigated both Issa and Plus Ultra president Rodolfo Reyes, a Venezuelan citizen, in 2018 “for their links to the existing corruption schemes around the business of the CLAP subsidized food boxes and the exchange control managed by the government of Nicolás Maduro,” El Mundo recalled. The newspaper referred to a money-laundering network set up by members of Maduro’s regime in 2018 to steal money from a Venezuelan government subsidy program known by its Spanish initials, CLAP.