MIAMI — The Russian embassy in Venezuela announced the opening of an all-new nonstop route between the capital cities of both countries, operated twice weekly by Venezuelan-state-owned airline, Conviasa (V0).

“Russia has decided to open a new air service to Venezuela starting April 1,” tweeted the Russian embassy in Venezuela on March 25. “It is expected that flights from Moscow to Caracas will take place twice a week,” the embassy added.

In addition to Venezuela, Russia will also resume commercial flights to Germany, Syria, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Sri Lanka, according to the country’s official COVID-19 task force.

Challenging Sanctions


This new passenger service adds to the diverse and politically-driven portfolio of routes operated by V0, among which there is the famous Caracas-Damascus-Tehran route that took place back when Hugo Chavez, the former president of Venezuela, strengthened his ties with Syria and Iran.

The Caracas-Tehran link was the longest scheduled flight ever served by a Venezuelan airline. The two countries—members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)—had always had a diplomatic relationship since the early 1960s, later strengthened in 1999 when Chavez was elected for his first term.

As noted by The Iran Premier, “Iran and Venezuela have formed a strategic partnership to circumvent punitive U.S. sanctions imposed on both countries by the Trump administration.”

Conviasa has been blacklisted by the U.S. Department of The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) due to its ongoing ties with other sanctioned countries, such as Iran.

In fact, in October 2019, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani celebrated Venezuela’s “praiseworthy resistance” to U.S. pressure. “All their [U.S.] conspiracies against us have failed,” Rouhani said in a meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. “Iran and Venezuela have always supported each other in all international and political arenas and will continue to do so.”

Since then, numerous odd flights linking Iran and Venezuela have been recorded. Iranian carrier, Mahan Air (also blacklisted by the OFAC), has been spotted several times in both CCS and Punto Fijo (LSP), in northwestern Venezuela, with its Airbus A340-300s and A340-500s bringing equipment to refit the damaged refineries in the country.

In addition to direct links with Iran, numerous flights between Venezuelan and Russia have been a common sight in recent times. Although most of these have been either cargo or repatriation flights in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, nonstop services between Caracas and Moscow have been recorded since early December 2020.

Just recently, the Venezuelan government invested close to US$200m for 10 million doses of the Sputnik-V vaccine against Coronavirus. In mid-February, Nicolas Maduro announced the arrival of the second batch of 100,000 Russian vaccines, which also landed from Moscow on a V0 Airbus A340-300.

Conviasa A340 at Caracas Simón Bolívar International. Photo: Aeroprints.com via wikimedia under Creative Commons Genérica de Atribución/Compartir-Igual 3.0

Venezuela Links With Russia, China


Back in December 2020, however, Conviasa’s CEO and Venezuela’s aviation transport vice minister, Ramon Velasquez, revealed that there were plans to “open operations between Venezuela, Russia, and China by mid-2021,” as well as to re-instate flights between Caracas and Tehran.

This new service to Russia, albeit tremendously questionable in terms of basic airline management rationale, adds to a highly limited list of available international flights from Caracas (CCS). Currently, the Venezuelan government allows flights only to/from Turkey, Panama, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Bolivia, and Russia.

Renowned Venezuelan aviation attorney, Rodolfo Ruiz, notes that the new flights to Russia come twelve years after both countries signed an air service agreement (ASA). “The agreement provides for multiple designations,” explains Ruiz.

“More than one airline per country can be designated to operate the route without fifth freedom rights, though it seems that only Conviasa will exploit it as no Russian carrier has shown interest to begin flying to Venezuela,” Ruiz tells Airways.

It is unclear whether the Russian government will also participate in this route via Aeroflot (SU) or another Russian carrier. Recently, several Russian government aircraft, as well as planes belonging to Russian charter airlines, such as Azur Air (ZF), have been spotted in Caracas bringing cargo and maintenance material for the Venezuelan Air Force fighter planes.

With Conviasa’s entire fleet of 40 aircraft sanctioned under OFAC’s Specially Designated Nationals since February 2020, it is uncertain whether this long-haul operation will be commercially fruitful. At present, the Venezuelan carrier has zero partnerships with other carriers overseas, and the viability of connecting traffic in Moscow is highly unlikely.

In the meantime, Venezuela continues to forbid domestic and international travel apart from the seven countries mentioned above. The South American country has been forbidden to have nonstop flights to the USA since 2019 when the FAA issued an order against any US-registered aircraft to fly below 26,000 feet over Venezuelan airspace.

However, with U.S. President Joe Biden’s new foreign policy, there might be signs of potential openings to Venezuela in the future. Laser Airlines (QL) recently applied for authority on flights from Caracas (CCS), Valencia (VLN), and Maracaibo (MAR) in Venezuela to Miami, Florida (MIA).

On February 4, 2021, the airline submitted its application to the DOT, stating it “remains committed to serving the United States market.”

Conviasa Embraer 190 at Simon Bolivar International Airport, Caracas (CCS). Photo: Embraer

Conviasa


In 2004, during the presidency of Hugo Chavez, Conviasa (V0) was founded as the new flag carrier of Venezuela after the demise of VIASA seven years earlier. It began with an initial capitalization of US$16m and four aircraft, two Boeing 737s, one Airbus A340, and a de Havilland Dash 7.

Cesar Martinez Ruiz, president of Conviasa in 2012, stated at that time that “Profits are irrelevant to us as we are a Socialist Airline”, consistent with the guidelines of the leftist government. Three years later, V0’s fleet was grounded due to several maintenance issues, and its service became irregular with most of its destinations suspended or canceled.


Featured image: Conviasa A340-200. Photo: Daniel Veronesi/Airways