The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Blame it on the World Cup, says Venezuela's president over airlines' slashing of flights

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CARACAS, Venezuela - Blame it on the World Cup. That's what Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is doing to explain why airlines are slashing flights to the crisis-plagued South American nation.

Alitalia and Panama's Copa Airlines this month became the latest carriers to cut flights to Caracas over the socialist government's refusal to allow them to repatriate proceeds from ticket sales inside Venezuela. Foreign airlines say they have the equivalent of $4 billion trapped in the country when sales are converted at the official exchange rate of 6.3 bolivars per U.S. dollar.

Maduro, who previously has threatened to punish airlines that leave the country, said Thursday that "bourgeois" news media opposed to his government are spreading lies about airlines' reasons for suspending flights.

Echoing comments a day earlier by Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez, Maduro said carriers aren't abandoning Venezuela but rather are temporarily adjusting flight schedules to meet demand for flights to carry soccer fans to Brazil for the World Cup tournament beginning next month.

"Some European airlines have reprogrammed their flights during the World Cup," Maduro said on state television from an airport in the state of Apure, where he was inaugurating a new domestic air connection with the capital. "They're diverting flights to Brazil."

Air Canada, TAP of Portugal and Avianca of Colombia are among other airlines that have reduced flights to Venezuela in recent months, citing the repatriation problems spurred by a shortage of U.S. dollars. Several U.S. carriers have restricted ticket sales, making it difficult to find seats on remaining flights out of the country.

It's not just airlines facing problems in Venezuela. Food processors, pharmaceutical companies and carmakers are also having difficulty obtaining dollars from the government's tightly managed currency system, leading to shortages of everything from toilet paper to car parts. The supply restrictions are putting pressure on prices, which have skyrocketed more than 50 per cent over the past year.

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Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.

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