Court Case in Miami Casts Light on Corruption in Venezuela

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 24, 2008

The Miami trial of a Venezuelan entrepreneur who grew rich doing business with President Hugo Chávez's populist administration has exposed how some top government officials have profited from a corrosive web of corruption in the oil-rich country.

Kickbacks, bribes and secret payoffs have become a feature in the socialist administration, which had claimed a break from the past but instead has seen several officials implicated in multimillion-dollar corruption schemes, according to testimony and conversations taped by the FBI. The trial has also revealed the Chávez government's determination to funnel state funds to its allies in Latin America and the lengths it will go to to keep the aid secret.

"This shows that the charges made over the last few years about the profound nature of corruption were not some invention," said Teodoro Petkoff, an editor in Caracas whose newspaper, Tal Cual, opposes Chávez and has uncovered corruption scandals. "It shows that it is very hard to hide the big-time theft that has been going on."

The eight-week trial centers on whether the Venezuelan government dispatched five men to Miami to coerce and cajole a Venezuelan American man into keeping quiet about $800,000 in Venezuelan state funds that Chávez's associates allegedly tried to channel to political allies in Argentina.

In August 2007, customs agents in Argentina detained the man, Guido Alejandro Antonini, after he arrived at the Buenos Aires airport with the cash. Antonini, who had been close to the Chávez government, was soon released and went home to Miami. But as rumors swirled that the money had been designated for the presidential campaign of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the Venezuelan government sent operatives to Miami to urge Antonini never to reveal the truth, U.S. prosecutors said.

The Venezuelan operatives met with Antonini in cafes and restaurants to urge him to stay quiet, expressing concern that Fernández de Kirchner would lose the presidency if it became known that the money had been destined for her campaign.

"The truth can cost her the election," one of the operatives, Moisés Maiónica, told Antonini. Fernández de Kirchner, a close ally of Chávez's, won the presidency in October 2007.

Maiónica and other Venezuelans did not know, however, that Antonini was cooperating with the FBI and had secretly taped their meetings and phone conversations.

Maiónica, along with another Venezuelan, Carlos Kauffmann, and an Uruguayan national, has pleaded guilty to the unusual charge of operating in the United States as unregistered agents of the Venezuelan state. U.S. prosecutors are searching for Antonio José Canchica, a high-level operative in Venezuela's intelligence service who was indicted in the case.

The defendant in the trial, Franklin Durán, 41, a business associate of Antonini's, was among those allegedly sent to launch the coverup. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison.

"The Venezuelan government had a problem, directed Franklin Durán to assist, and he did so," Assistant U.S. Attorney John Shipley told jurors during closing arguments Thursday.

Durán's attorney, Ed Shohat, said his client was no Venezuelan agent and went to Miami to help a friend in trouble, Antonini.

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