Venezuela is currently in the grip of a major constitutional and humanitarian crisis after the incumbent President, Nicolás Maduro refused to cede defeat to opposition leader Juan Guaidó. Anti-government protests have been going on for months and in January Guaidó declared himself the interim leader after he won backing from scores of foreign governments including the United States and much of Europe.
The aftermath has been violent and in some cases deadly. Scores of protestors have been killed in the unrest and to make matters worse Maduro is refusing to accept aid from neighbouring States including Brazil because he claims there is no humanitarian crisis and instead it’s all an anti-government show orchestrated by the U.S.
Despite Venezuela being rich in natural resources including oil, critics claim the Maduro regime has wreaked poverty on much of the population through its extreme socialist policies. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) believes the country’s inflation rate will reach as much as 10,000,000% in 2019 – yes, that’s right, 10 million per cent!
Employment is said to be running at a huge 50% of the population and crime rates are said to have gone through the roof. The country’s capital, Caracas is said to have the highest murder rate in the entire world, while kidnapping has become a common practice in extorting money from desperate relatives.
Many airlines which previously flew to Caracas have stopped flying there in the last year – either because they can’t guarantee they’ll ever recover the money they make in the country or because the political situation is just too fragile to justify taking the risk.
Yet some airlines, notably Air France, Iberia and Air Europa are still operating services to the country. Iberia has taken the drastic step of using Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic as a staging post to operate its 3x weekly services. Once passengers have been dropped off in Caracas, the crew ferry the aircraft to Santo Domingo to keep them out of harm’s way.
EuroAtlantic, who operate flights on behalf of TAP Air Portugal, are said to have added a similar stopover to keep their pilots and cabin crew safe.
Yet, Spain’s third largest airline after Iberia and low-cost discounter Vueling, the Majorca-based Air Europa is not only still flying to Caracas but is also still forcing cabin crew and pilots to spend their layover in the city. And now, a leaked internal memo sent by Air Europa bosses to crew, has horrifying advice of what to do if crew are kidnapped.
Some of the advice is fairly innocuous. For example, the memo (translated from Spanish) advises crew:
- Do not leave after dark, avoiding night hours.
- Avoid disadvantaged areas of the capital
- Stay away from demonstrations or protests of any political sign
- We must try to keep a low profile, avoid routines and not divulge any information about our plans
- When travelling to the airport, do not disperse from the core of the crew, keeping as always the luggage that we carry
But the following advice on what to do in case of being kidnapped has caused controversy and consternation among the airline’s crew:
- It is important to have a person to whom the kidnappers can go
- Propose to warn staff of the interior council, in a camouflaged manner as a friend or work partner
- Do not give information about our true economic capacity
- Leave open channels in the negotiation. Show alternatives: “I do not have that amount but I can talk with friends …”
- Each communication can help us
- Do not acquire unfeasible commitments
- Try to empathize:
- Warn of risks
- Understand your position
- Show easy exits
Of course, airlines regularly fly to what could be described as dangerous destinations and very little is normally said. Mitigating steps are normally taken and in some cities airlines even employ armed guards to keep crew safe as they are transported between the airport and the hotel – once at the hotel, crew are then under strict instructions to stay put and not venture outside.
Even in relatively safe cities, it’s difficult to plan for every eventuality – Turkish Airlines crew in Cape Town were recently robbed at gunpoint as they travelled back to their hotel after dinner. The robbers blocked the road and even assaulted the Captain before stealing money and jewellery from the terrified crew members. The crew had used a hired minibus to get about safely after dark but that wasn’t enough in this case.
Here’s hoping that nothing awful happens to any Air Europa or other airline crew in Caracas as still crisis continues.