In Argentina, an $800,000 Puzzle

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 10, 2007

BUENOS AIRES, Aug. 9 -- Days after authorities discovered a suitcase full of nearly $800,000 that had been taken on a private airplane carrying Argentine and Venezuelan officials, one of those officials has resigned and suspicions of a government scandal have grown.

A Venezuelan businessman was detained at a Buenos Aires airport Saturday when customs officials found $790,550 in undeclared cash in his luggage. The incident preceded Monday's arrival here of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, leading to questions about the possibility of a link between the businessman and the Venezuelan or Argentine governments.

Chávez denied any connection, while Argentine officials initially declined to comment on the case.

But as an investigation by the local news media simmered throughout the week and a witness accused Argentine officials of accompanying the businessman, Argentina's state oil company, Energia Argentina SA, or Enarsa, released a statement Wednesday night revealing that it had chartered the small plane.

The statement named the businessman, Alejandro Antonini Wilson, and listed his seven traveling companions: the president of Enarsa, two Argentine Planning Ministry officials and executives from Venezuela's state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA.

The Argentine officials had been in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, to work on an energy deal between the two countries, according to the statement. Enarsa officials stated that they did not know Wilson and that he had boarded the plane as a guest of the son of a PDVSA vice president.

Thursday morning, Claudio Uberti -- chief of Argentina's toll road authority and a passenger on the plane -- submitted his resignation. Uberti was a key negotiator in deals with the government of Venezuela, which has strengthened ties with President Néstor Kirchner's government in recent years.

Attempting to enter Argentina with more than $10,000 in undeclared cash is a misdemeanor, and the penalty is a fine of half of the undeclared amount. Members of the airport police said this week that Wilson had tried to bribe customs officials before they seized the money, which remains unclaimed in a bank account. The Enarsa statement indicated that Wilson did not try to hide the money when he passed through customs.

Wilson, 46, left Argentina on Wednesday without being questioned, traveling via commercial jet to Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital. Chávez and his delegation also traveled to Montevideo on Wednesday following his stay in Buenos Aires, where he signed energy accords and bought $500 million in Argentine bonds.

During a news conference Monday, Chávez said the emerging suspicions that Wilson had ties to the Venezuelan government were "absolutely false," and he blamed the incident on the United States.

"It is part of the plan of the empire to disrupt our travels," Chavez told reporters.

Speaking with a local radio station, Argentine Planning Minister Julio De Vido praised customs officials for finding the undeclared money but reiterated that the government had no connection to Wilson.

It remains unknown why Wilson was carrying the money; he has not been charged with a crime. But the incident has provided more fodder for critics of Kirchner, whose administration has confronted a series of scandals in recent months.

Last month, Economy Minister Felisa Miceli was forced to resign after more than $60,000 was found in her office bathroom. She defended herself against accusations of wrongdoing and said she had borrowed most of the cash from her brother for a real estate purchase, but critics have called for an investigation.

Previously, officials with Argentina's natural gas regulator and the public works agency resigned as part of a bribery scandal involving a Swedish construction company. Many of Kirchner's opponents also have accused his government of tampering with economic data to lower inflation statistics this year, and some state statisticians have resigned in protest.

Kirchner's supporters have argued that such incidents would never have been uncovered during previous administrations.

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