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Big bag of cash deepens cloud over Kirchner

A Venezuelan landing in Buenos Aires with $800,000 as Chavez is visiting stirs suspicion of oil-money dealings.

August 10, 2007|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BUENOS AIRES — A shadowy Venezuelan businessman toting almost $800,000 in his suitcase arrived in a private jet chartered by the Argentine government.

He allegedly failed to declare the cash, as required by law, but customs inspectors opened the bag and discovered the stash, in neat bundles of $100 bills.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who was visiting to ink new aid deals, promptly labeled the matter a U.S. plot to undermine his latest petro-diplomacy initiatives.

"It is an absolute falsehood that the $800,000 had anything to do with functionaries of our government," Chavez told reporters here.

The murky affair, which surfaced this week, has become the latest scandal to shake the government of Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, one of Chavez's staunchest Latin American allies.

The timing -- just as Chavez was in Buenos Aires and pledging an additional $1-billion-plus support package for Argentina -- heightened suspicions of unsavory petro-dollar dealings in the midst of an increasingly heated Argentine election campaign.

"This is the proof of the corruption of this government," said Elisa Carrio, an opposition candidate in the Oct. 28 presidential campaign.

It turned out that an Argentine state-controlled energy concern had chartered the jet in connection with a $400-million gas deal signed this week by Kirchner and Chavez.

The government placed blame on the faulty judgment of a well-connected Argentine federal planning official, Claudio Uberti, who has close ties to Venezuela and was on the jet. Uberti was forced to resign Thursday.

Uberti and another senior Argentine government representative composed an official delegation returning to Buenos Aires from Venezuela. Also on board were several executives of the Venezuelan state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, and the son of a company vice president, authorities said.

And then there was the cash-toting Venezuelan businessman, according to the official Argentine account.

Observers immediately labeled the fishy incident the latest setback in the campaign of Kirchner's designated successor, first lady Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, a federal senator with a big lead in preelection surveys.

"The question is: How many blows will the poll advantage of Cristina Kirchner endure?" columnist Fernando Gonzalez wrote in the daily newspaper Clarin.

Just last month, Economy Minister Felisa Miceli was forced to resign when a bag containing about $31,000 in U.S. currency and 100,000 Argentine pesos, worth about $30,000, was discovered in her office bathroom. No satisfactory explanation has emerged.

That awkward find came after a public works bribery scandal unveiled a pattern of false billing in government contracts that tarnished the Kirchners' clean-hands image.

"For the first time, Argentina is in serious combat against corruption," President Kirchner declared Thursday, as reports of the latest scandal dominated headlines.

Authorities identified the Venezuelan businessman as Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, 46, an oil executive with a passion for car racing and a residence in Miami. Whether his alleged failure to report the cash was an oversight or something more sinister remained unclear.

Also unknown is the intended purpose of the $800,000.

Investigators are trying to find out, but apparently without the moneyman: Antonini Wilson was allowed Wednesday to leave Argentina aboard a commercial flight to the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, Clarin reported -- after he had forfeited $400,000 as a penalty.

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patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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