Stakes High For U.S. and Argentina in Cash Scandal
Sunday, December 23, 2007
BUENOS AIRES -- The twisted mystery of an $800,000 suitcase confiscated in Argentina has kicked up so much dirt that almost everyone who gets near it -- even if clean -- is accused of being filthy.
Businessman Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, who holds U.S. and Venezuelan passports, was stopped at an airport here in August with a suitcase full of undeclared cash. His visit raised immediate suspicions.
Is Antonini a bagman used by the government of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez to deliver illegal political money to the candidate who would become Argentina's president, as a federal grand jury in Florida charged last week? Or is the United States using the Florida resident to meddle in the affairs of the region, as many here have argued?
If the U.S. case does not definitively prove the link between the Venezuelan government and Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's campaign, the United States' reputation in Latin America could suffer a serious blow. But if the case presented leaves little room for doubt, then the new president could be starting her four-year term under a very dark cloud.
U.S. prosecutors say they will prove in court that Antonini was carrying an illegal contribution to Fernández de Kirchner's campaign from the Venezuelan government, and that the two countries tried to pay him $2 million to hush up the deal after the money was found.
Argentine officials have responded in a how-dare-you tone, countering that the dirt in this case comes from a U.S. smear campaign designed to discredit them and Chávez. Politicians and others here suggest that Antonini -- who is cooperating with the FBI -- was operating under U.S. orders.
The United States "encouraged a nefarious intelligence operation which had the direct consequence of denigrating the presidency of our nation," stated a resolution passed by Argentina's Congress last week.
The idea of a U.S.-backed plot to influence regional politics plays well in a region where some conspiracy theories -- such as U.S. support of military dictatorships in the 1970s -- have proved true over time. But as Antonini's trail continues to be revealed, such allegations are anything but clear.
Antonini, 46, is listed as residing in Key Biscayne, Fla. Argentine newspapers have published photographs of a luxury residence and a red Ferrari said to belong to him. Attempts to reach him by telephone were unsuccessful.
He arrived at a Buenos Aires airport about 2:30 a.m. on Aug. 4 with Venezuelan state energy officials. Their Cessna plane was chartered by Argentina's state oil company. Chávez was scheduled to arrive two days later to sign a series of energy accords with Argentina.
"If Venezuela wanted to give money to Cristina's campaign, why would they do it with this guy?" said Daniel Mojica, 54, manager of an electronics store in Buenos Aires. "Chávez arrived two days later with 24 bags, and with diplomatic immunity. He could have brought $24 million here by himself."
But if he had no connection with Chávez or the Kirchners, new revelations this week have others asking another question about Antonini: Why did he supposedly show up in Argentina's presidential palace two days after he arrived?