Argentina dodges strike amid Swiss union probe

The Associated Press
Friday, March 18, 2011; 7:42 PM

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- A Swiss money-laundering probe is stirring up Argentina's politics in an election year, even leading union leaders allied with the president to call for a nationwide strike against any effort to follow the money to them.

Prosecutors in Geneva want information about a Buenos Aires garbage company that allegedly made suspicious transactions through a Swiss bank account. Specifically they asked for any proven links between the company, Covelia SA, and Argentina's most powerful labor leader, Hugo Moyano, and his son Pablo, who runs the truckers union.

The Moyanos responded by threatening a general strike for Monday that could have all but shut down Argentina, grounding jetliners and stopping taxis, buses, subways, trains and ships. Plans called for union rank and file to march by the tens of thousands on the Casa Rosada, the seat of presidential power.

But Hugo Moyano suspended the strike call Friday evening, saying "we are better people" than sectors of the media and opposition that he accused of seeking to hurt the cause of workers with the Covelia investigation. "The workers want to come to power and that upsets many people," he said.

Moyano denied any wrongdoing. "I have absolutely nothing to do with" Covelia, he said.

Facundo Moyano, another son of Hugo Moyano who runs the toll collectors union, said earlier that his father and brother are victims of a media campaign against the government of President Cristina Fernandez, their close ally.

Analysts said the Moyanos were raising the specter of a paralyzing strike to pressure Fernandez - in a presidential election year - to support them fully if the investigation gains traction.

"Moyano wants to make a show of force, show his teeth and say, 'Nobody messes with me,' as well as remind everyone of the socioeconomic pact that he's made with the government," said Roberto Bacman at the Center for Public Opinion Studies in Buenos Aires.

Moyano runs the General Work Confederation, an umbrella group that includes most Argentine unions. He has basically guaranteed labor peace for Fernandez, who is expected to run for re-election in October, in exchange for much more power than Argentine unions held previously.

Unions have secured raises of 20 percent recently, and Moyano's close allies have gained direct control over millions of dollars in union worker health care deductions. Unions now largely control the national airline, Aereolineas Argentinas.

The Swiss Attorney General's Office says it launched its probe in January after its money-laundering watchdog noticed suspicious movements in the bank account.

Moyano has not been charged with any crime and is officially not a target of the probe, but an Argentine judge already investigating the union boss in other cases said Friday he will cooperate with the Swiss request for information.

"Covelia is a garbage collection company founded in 1999, and its spectacular growth is linked to the rise in power of Mr. Hugo Moyano ... that's basically what the response will say," Judge Norberto Oyarbide said.

Among other cases, Oyarbide is overseeing a sprawling "medicinal mafia" probe into irregularities in the management of union health care funds and allegations that stolen, diluted or outdated drugs were sold to union families suffering from cancer, AIDS and other serious diseases.

A leading senator formally proposed an investigative commission Friday into Moyano's financial dealings, and a half-dozen potential electoral rivals to Fernandez seized on the Swiss probe to criticize the government.

Former President Eduardo Duhalde called it "the beginning of the end" for the union leader, while lawmaker Ricardo Alfonsin, the son of another ex-president, was one of several who said Fernandez should declare the strike illegal.

Fernandez did not comment directly on Moyano during an event announcing a highway construction project, saying simply, "I need leaders who will stand by me."

"When things start to go bad, leaders start to throw out blame," she added, according to the news agency Diarios y Noticias. "But it doesn't harm them, it harms the people."

The Swiss Embassy said in a statement that such investigations are automatically opened whenever Switzerland's money-laundering office makes a criminal referral. While Moyano and his family are not under direct investigation in Switzerland, prosecutors did ask the Argentine justice system for details of any open or pending investigations into the family after he was linked to the garbage company in Argentine media reports.

© 2011 The Associated Press