After years of speculation that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has used petrodollars to finance presidential candidates or support loyalists in Latin America, the latest political scandal surrounding a suitcase with nearly $800,000 in cash seized at the Argentine capital's airport speaks for itself.
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You may remember that in the most recent elections in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, among other countries, there were widespread opposition claims that pro-Chavez candidates had received suitcases filled with cash from Venezuela's state-owned PDVSA oil company, courtesy of that country's narcissist-Leninist leader. The pro-Chavez winners of these elections have repeatedly dismissed such claims as U.S. imperialist lies.
But the case of Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, the Venezuelan businessman traveling with a PDVSA delegation to Argentina on Aug. 4, is the clearest illustration I have seen of some of the obscure ways in which Venezuela is trying to influence other countries' political life, and about how it spreads its massive corruption to countries in the region.
Consider: Antonini, a Miami-based Venezuelan with close ties to the Chavez government, was detained at the Buenos Aires airport as he arrived on a plane chartered by ENARSA, Argentina's state-owned oil and gas company created by President Nestor Kirchner three years ago.
Aboard the plane, which landed two days before an official visit by Chavez, were several Argentine government officials and Venezuela's PDVSA officials. Also aboard were Daniel Uzcategui, the son of a high-level PDVSA official, and Antonini.
Argentina's daily Clarin and well-placed former U.S. officials say there was another passenger on the plane who didn't appear in flight documents: Venezuelan national guard Lt. Col. Julio Cesar Avilan Diaz, a member of Chavez's entourage whose wife is a high-ranking Venezuelan customs official.
It's unclear whether Antonini was the real bagman or was asked by someone else on the plane to act as the fall guy. He left the $800,000 at the airport, without filing a report to reclaim the cash, and flew to Uruguay on Aug. 7. A foreign diplomat in Uruguay told me that Uruguayan intelligence officials believe Antonini left the country later that day aboard Chavez's presidential plane. Chavez visited Uruguay after leaving Argentina.
What's even more interesting is that Antonini made at least five trips to Argentina from Venezuela and Uruguay over the past year and a half, according to Argentina's daily La Nacion. On Sept. 28, 2006, Antonini arrived in Argentina as part of a Venezuelan delegation led by Gov. Johnny Yanez Rangel, the Chavez-backed governor of Cojedes state.
Antonini also visited Uruguay on at least four occasions last year, according to Uruguay's Radio El Espectador. On a recent visit, Antonini was accompanied by Uzcategui, and their hotel reservations in Uruguay were made by PDVSA, La Nacion reported.
As Norman Bailey, former head of Venezuelan and Cuban affairs with the Bush administration's Office of National Intelligence, told me when I asked him about the case, either Antonini "was taking tango lessons or he's a bagman."
Predictably, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro blamed the whole incident on a "conspiracy" schemed by "North American imperialism." And Luis D'Elia, a former Kirchner official whose leftist group is rumored to be financed by Chavez, said that "the bagman was planted by the CIA" to hurt the Kirchner-Chavez relationship.
My opinion: The money could have been intended for the campaign of first lady Cristina Kirchner or for pro-Chavez groups such as D'Elia's, or may be a kickback to Argentine government officials for a business deal. Either way, if it had been clean, it would have been done by wire transfer.
Most likely, "suitcase-gate" will not escalate into a Kirchner-Chavez diplomatic conflict: Argentina is too financially dependent on Venezuela to risk a fight. And Argentina's customs officials have - intentionally or not - made enough technical mistakes to make any Argentine or U.S. prosecution against Antonini very difficult. I'm told that Antonini didn't sign a customs declaration, which could presumably allow him to deny any wrongdoing.
But if there was any question that Chavez has used PDVSA to finance foreign political campaigns, bankroll pro-Chavez groups abroad or bribe foreign officials with bags full of cash, the suitcase case should lay it to rest.
P.S.: I'm not surprised that Chavez chose to announce Wednesday his plan to rewrite the constitution to allow him to become president for life. While the announcement was long expected, he probably anticipated it to divert attention from the suitcase scandal.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondentfor the Miami Herald; e-mail: aoppenheimermiamiherald.com.