By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
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?
After Antonini was stopped at the airport, Argentine authorities let him go. An Argentine judge on Thursday said a witness -- the former secretary for the Argentine official who chartered the Cessna flight -- testified that she saw Antonini on Aug. 6 at a ceremony in Argentina's Casa Rosada.
Antonini left Argentina on Aug. 7 using a U.S. passport and stopped in Uruguay -- where Chávez also traveled that day -- before returning to his home in Florida.
Argentine authorities a month later asked the United States to extradite Antonini to face possible currency smuggling violations in Argentina, but the FBI already was secretly using Antonini as an informant, monitoring his telephone calls and his meetings with alleged Venezuelan agents in Florida, according to an indictment filed in Miami on Wednesday.
The indictment stated that Antonini on Aug. 23 met three Venezuelans at a Fort Lauderdale steakhouse. The Venezuelans informed Antonini that the money he was given came from the Venezuelan government and was meant for Fernández de Kirchner's campaign, and they warned him that foreign government officials would pursue him unless he claimed the money was his own, according to court documents.
Those three Venezuelans, plus one Uruguayan, are under arrest in Miami and have been charged with being illegal agents of Venezuela operating in the United States. A fifth man, also from Venezuela, was indicted but remains at large. If convicted, each faces up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines. They are scheduled to enter their pleas Dec. 28.
On Dec. 7, two of the Venezuelans -- Carlos Kauffmann and Franklin Dur¿n -- sued American Express Bank International in Miami for withholding millions of dollars in their bank accounts because the two men were listed by the government as "Politically Exposed Persons." The term generally applies to individuals who are foreign government officials, though their family members and associates also can be included under that designation. The USA Patriot Act requires financial institutions to review thoroughly the accounts of such people.
In addition to being alleged agents of Venezuela, Kauffmann and Durán own Industrias Venoco, a petrochemical and oil services company that does business with Venezuela's state oil company. Dur¿n is also co-owner of an arms importing company that has provided weapons for police agencies in Venezuela.
On Dec. 11, Durán gave Antonini documents to cover up the true source and destination of the $800,000, according to the indictment. The FBI arrested the four accused agents the following day.
"I think people should sort of step back, calm down and take a deep breath," said Michael Shifter, a Washington-based analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue. "Clearly this is a scandal with very serious implications, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions."