Argentine Leader Slams U.S. Allegations
Friday, December 14, 2007
LIMA, Peru, Dec. 13 -- Argentina's new president berated the United States on Thursday for alleging that the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez had tried to illegally funnel cash to her recent presidential campaign, labeling the accusations "garbage."
U.S. officials, though, said four men who were charged in Miami in connection with the case -- and who allegedly conspired to cover up the truth -- had close ties to the Venezuelan administration.
U.S. prosecutors on Wednesday said they had evidence that a suitcase containing nearly $800,000 seized by Argentine customs officials in August came from the Chávez administration and was destined for the campaign of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was sworn in Monday as Argentina's president.
Fernández de Kirchner, elected by a wide margin in October, responded Thursday with some accusations of her own: The United States manufactured the scandal, she said, to punish her for maintaining friendly relations with the vocally anti-American Chávez.
Venezuela's influence in Latin America has long troubled U.S. officials, who have accused Chávez of using oil profits to finance allies throughout the region. This week's allegations marked the first time the United States has tried to prove it.
A senior U.S. official knowledgeable about the investigation said in an interview that the case has shed light on how the Venezuelan government has relied on businessmen close to Chávez's administration to channel money without being detected. Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, an affluent businessman in the oil industry and in arms sales, sectors in which the Venezuelan government spends handsomely, was detained Aug. 4 after landing at a Buenos Aires airport with the money-packed suitcase.
"The modus operandi is the Venezuelan government reaches out to individuals like Antonini Wilson, allowing him to make a lot of money with contracts," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the subject. "And the cost is, when they want him to move money, he moves it, and he moves it to whoever they ask him to deliver it to."
Less than two weeks after the money was seized -- sparking rumors of a government scandal -- a group of Venezuelans traveled to Miami to pressure Antonini to conceal the truth about the cash, according to the criminal complaint filed in Miami. The men told Antonini that Argentine and Venezuelan authorities would pursue him if he denied the funds were his, and that his children could be harmed. Antonini, who cooperated in the investigation leading to the arrests, holds U.S. and Venezuelan passports and lives in the Miami area.
Among those who prosecutors say pressured Antonini were Carlos Kauffmann and Franklin Duran. Duran is the owner of the arms importer Rubial y Duran, which has provided weapons for police agencies in Venezuela. Duran and Kauffmann are also executives in Industrias Venoco, a petrochemical and oil services company with close ties to the Venezuelan state oil behemoth, Petróleos de Venezuela.
An attorney for the men told the Associated Press that his clients were innocent. Kauffmann, in an interview in August with La Naci¿n, an Argentine newspaper, tried to distance himself from Antonini, though he acknowledged that Antonini had worked as an adviser for Venoco.
According to U.S. officials, the Venezuelans told Antonini that Fern¿ndez de Kirchner could lose the election if the truth came out. And they tried to soothe him by explaining that Petróleos de Venezuela would pay for any expenses he might incur for the seizure of the cash.
U.S. officials said it has been a priority for Venezuela's government to ensure that the source of cash sent to other countries never be discovered. "The Venezuelans decided that they would need to create offline capabilities to move money to people they support, and it had to be done in ways that could not be traced to the government," the senior official said.