A Bagman's Tale

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

IT'S LONG been well known that the close relations between Venezuela and Argentina are not the result of mere ideological affinity: Under President Hugo Chávez, Venezuela has purchased some $4 billion in Argentine bonds, bailing out a government whose paper is widely shunned in international financial markets.

Now it's emerging that Mr. Chávez's personal ties to Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner also may have been fueled with petrodollars. According to a U.S. prosecutor in Florida, Venezuela's self-styled socialist revolutionary dispatched a bagman to Buenos Aires last August with $800,000 for Ms. Kirchner's election campaign. When police seized the cash-filled suitcase, assistant U.S. attorney Thomas Mulvihill said last week, Venezuelan and Argentine authorities conspired to cover up the matter by offering the intermediary $2 million in hush money.

This seamy story is coming to light because the alleged bagman, Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, happens to be a dual U.S.-Venezuelan citizen with a home in Florida. After his bag was discovered at a Buenos Aires military airport on Aug. 4, Mr. Antonini began cooperating with U.S. law enforcement. Mr. Mulvihill said at a court hearing that numerous recorded conversations document the attempt by Venezuela and Argentina to silence Mr. Antonini, working through businessmen close to the Venezuelan government and a Venezuelan intelligence agent. Three Venezuelans and a Uruguayan were arrested in Florida on Dec. 12 and charged with being unregistered agents of the Venezuelan government; a fifth suspect is at large.

Ms. Fernández de Kirchner, who took office days before the arrests were made, replaced her husband, Néstor Kirchner, a populist who allowed Mr. Chávez to use Argentina as a staging point for anti-American demonstrations. Argentines and Americans who hoped the change of presidents would lead to an improvement in U.S.-Argentine relations are disappointed; some, demonstrating their ignorance of the U.S. legal system, blame the Bush administration for the results of a criminal investigation. The Kirchners' reaction shows that hopes for a change in Argentina's foreign policy were probably misplaced. Rather than distancing themselves from the scandal, both have joined Mr. Chávez in making wild charges about White House "dirty tricks" and a supposed Bush administration plot to subjugate Argentina.

"Relations with the United States are not good, and Argentina isn't a colony" of the United States, Mr. Kirchner declared last Tuesday, shortly after his wife conferred privately with Mr. Chávez. That, of course, doesn't answer the question many Argentines are asking -- which is whether Argentina is becoming a colony of Venezuela.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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