Venezuela extends trade ban with 3 Caribbean islands

Venezuela has extended its ban on air and maritime ties with three nearby Dutch Caribbean islands, blaming out of control smuggling, officials said Tuesday.

Venezuela is pressing for high-level talks with leaders of Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire before trading can resume, officials said of the move, which drew criticism from Venezuela's struggling business community.

Vice President Tareck El Aissami said leaders of the three islands must step up to control criminal groups that he says are smuggling Venezuelan goods, harming citizens of his country.

"We are not going to allow anymore aggression from these criminal organizations," El Aissami said on Twitter, urging leaders of the islands to take action.

President Nicolas Maduro on Friday first ordered the 72-hour ban, accusing island leaders of being complicit in illegal trafficking. That followed threats he made in mid-December to close the routes.

Venezuelan authorities allege the smuggling of products out of Venezuela to neighboring countries is one of the causes of the severe shortage of food and other basic products that the South American country has been facing for several years.

The islands popular with tourists lie a short distance from Venezuela's coast and host oil refineries run by Venezuela's state oil giant and its U.S. subsidiary, Citgo.

The Netherlands' ministry of foreign affairs issued a statement saying it recognizes that smuggling is a problem, but adding that constructive discussions between the two countries are underway to reach a solution with a meeting set for Friday.

"We assume that, if a joint approach to smuggling has been agreed, Venezuela will reverse the measures," the statement said.

Curacao Prime Minister Eugene Rhuggenaath said in a statement that Venezuela's action was disappointing and "does not fit in with the desire for a good neighbor relationship" or "contribute to finding a solution."

Maria Carolina Uzcategui, president of Venezuela's largest chamber of commerce, said the ban will increase shortages at home because merchants buy goods from the Caribbean islands that are scarce in Venezuela.

Uzcategui said government security forces control ports and airports so they should be held responsible for illegal activities. Cutting off flights prevents Venezuelans and other tourists making international connections, especially in Aruba, she said.

"Venezuela is increasingly isolated from the world," Uzcategui told The Associated Press.

Venezuelans fleeing the nation's economic collapse have sometimes gone to the islands by boat.

In 2015 and 2016, Maduro took a similar measure to combat smuggling by temporarily closing the border crossings with Colombia.