Verdict in on suitcase scandal, as fresh details of shady campaign financing emerge

Yesterday, as a Miami court declared one Venezuelan, Franklin Durán, of conspiracy and acting illegally as a foreign secret agent in the US, his one-time hapless associate, Guido Antonini Wilson, went on CNN to assure that the suitcase with some $800,000 in US bills, captured by Argentine customs agents last year, was destined for the electoral campaign of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Unsurprisingly, neither the judgment nor the CNN interview elicited any sort of comment from the Casa Rosada, or pink house – the seat of Argentina’s executive here in Buenos Aires.Today's cover of La Critica

When the scandal first broke last December, the Kirchners’ initial response was to denounce a CIA plot to destabilise their government, the president and her associates later shifted gear, accusing Antonini Wilson of being a fugitive from Argentine justice, and daring him to declare before in an Argentine court. In fact, Antonini Wilson was allowed to leave Argentina unmolested just days after the suitcase was discovered, and having visited the Casa Rosada in person. He told reporters he is more than happy to declare before an Argentine judge, and has in fact already contracted a lawyer for his defence.

Now some hope that the Argentine justice system – which struggles to assert its independence from the executive and is rife with corruption and inefficiency – will indeed open a home-grown investigation into the matter of whether Chavez illegally funded Fernández de Kirchner’s campaign.

Meanwhile, the cash-stuffed suitcase isn’t the only thing casting doubts of her campaign finance. Campaign funding has never been particularly transparent in Argentina, but after newspapers published reports that a supposed narco-trafficker, Sebastián Forza, who was assassinated in August in a mafia-style shooting, had financed her campaign to the tune of 200,000 pesos.

Now the public prosecutor is investigating “ghost donations:” several people who swear they never gave a penny to Kirchner’s presidential campaign figure on the legally required donor lists as having donated large sums well beyond their means. La Nacion has named several such ghost donors, three of wholm were registered on the same day, November 22, 2007, as having made cash donations.

Advertisements

Bad times for ex-presidents

The scandal that has haunted Carlos Menem since his presidency ended in 1999 will finally be aired in court when the ex-president (and current senator for La Rioja province) will be tried for his part in a secret arms deal that saw weapons sold illegally to both Croatia and Ecuador between 1991 and 1995.

Does this man look like a crook to you?

Does this man look like a crook to you?

The oral trial will be a drawn-out process, with 41 accused under investigation in the matter. Among them is ex-economy minister Domingo Cavallo.

Menem is accused of having signed three secret presidential decrees permitting the illegal arms sales. According to the accusations, Menem knowingly broke a United Nations arms embargo to aid Croatia in its fight against Serbian forces in the early 1990s. He then used the same trafficking network to send arms to Ecuador during a 1995 border dispute with Peru. Many Argentines find it particularly mortifying that Argentine weapons were sent to support Ecuador – not only because Argentina was acting as a mediator between Ecuador and Peru, but also because Peru was the only South American country to stick up for Argentina during the 1982 Falklands War.

Menem has eluded justice over the accusations for some time, and the question some are asking, though, is why now? Menem was detained and placed under house arrest on the same charges on 2001 but was acquitted (in a less-than-transparent process) due to lack of evidence. A case of double jeaopardy? And if not, why has the case taken seven years to be revisited? The timing has some saying it’s the Kirchners taking revenge on Menem – a fellow Peronist – for voting against their grains tax bill that saw farmers strike earlier this year. They do seem to have the power to turn – and halt – the wheels of justice, and the courts’ vigor in the case against Menem is a stark contrast to its lethargy when it comes to examining accusations of corruption against several serving Kirchnerite functionaries. In any case, when he stands trial this week, he will become the first democratically elected president in Argentine history to suffer such an indignity.

Ex-members of the military junta, on the other hand, have been seeing the pointy end of justice ever since the return of democracy in 1983 and it has only gotten pointier since the Kirchners have been in charge.

On Friday, ex-dictator, former president General Jorge Videla was moved from house arrest in the leafy and civilised Buenos Aires neighborhood of Belgrano to a military prison in the Campo de Mayo, just outside the capital.

Videla was convicted of crimes against humanity when Raúl Alfonsín, the first democratically elected president to follow the dictatorship, set up tribunals to judge the ex-military rulers. Videla enjoyed a few years of freedom after Menem handed out pardons for ex-repressors in 1990, but those pardons have been overturned by the Kirchners and since last year Videla has been stuck at home, much like any other 83-year-old man who finds himself heartily unloved by the majority of his neighbours and fellow citizens. But now instead of growing old and dying among family, he will be in prison – on the very site where many Argentines found themselves illegally held and tortured under his authority during the 1970s.

While serving out a life sentence, Videla faces further charges and will be called to give evidence in a number of pending cases, including an investigation into the widespread practice of “baby theft” – the policy of misappropriating the newborn babies of illegally imprisoned women, who were later “disappeared” and their babies illegally adopted by military families. He also faces kidnapping charges and is being processed for having participated in “Plan Condor” – a clandestine scheme by which the military governments of several Southern Cone countries (backed with training and tacit approval from the USA) helped each other by swapping illegally detained prisoners and exchanging information obtained under torture.

As for slippery old Menem – his get-out-of-jail-free card is still valid for a while. Serving senators are protected from imprisonment (possibly the main reason Menem has sought to prolong his political career), so even if found guilty, he buys some time until his term ends in 2014.

More details on suitcase scandal as Argentina scores poorly on corruption index

For the third year running, Argentina has has been placed among the world’s – and the region’s – most corrupt nations, just as fresh details are emerging about dodgy campaign financing between Hugo Chavez and president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

On Monday this week, Transparency International released its Corruption Perceptions Index, where Argentina scored 2.9 on a score of 1-10, where 10 is the cleanest and 1 the most crooked. In the by-country ranking, Argentina came 109th among 180 countries, with squeaky-clean Denmark, New Zealand and Sweden at the top and basket case Somalia at the bottom.

Following hot on the tails of this bad news came further details in “Valijagate” or the suitcase scandal that’s besetting the Argentine and Venezuelan governments. The suitcase bearer, Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, testified yesterday in a Miami court that the US$800,000 he was carrying – which is said to have been illegal and undeclared campaign finance from Hugo Chavez to Cristina Kirchner – was only part of the story and that a separate suitcase on the same plane contained a further US$4 million.

The steady flow of details from the Miami hearing is casting a shadow over Kirchner’s triumphant trip to New York, where she’s been promising to pay off debtors and giving the US a lesson in economic management (see previous post).

Corruption is a serious human rights issue, according to Transparency International chair Huguette Labelle – as serious as life and death when money for basics like medicine  and clean water is in play.  “The continuing high levels of corruption and poverty plaguing many of the world’s societies amount to an ongoing humanitarian disaster and cannot be tolerated,” she said. “But even in more privileged countries, with enforcement disturbingly uneven, a tougher approach to tackling corruption is needed.”

Of Argentina’s Latin neighbours, Chile and Uruguay scored best with 6.9 and a rank of 23 (the same ranking and score as France, and just three spots behind the USA, which scored 7.3 and was placed at no. 18 on the list). Colombia scored a 3.8, Peru and Mexico 3.6, Brazil 3.5, Bolivia 3.0, Ecuador 2.0 and Venezuela 1.9.

Delia Ferreiro Rubio, president of Poder Ciudadano (or “Citizen Power”), an Argentine anti-corruption NGO, said she wasn’t surprised at her country’s poor score. “We still don’t have a law guaranteeing public access to information, our public contracts lack transparency, there’s a large degree of discretion in the distribution of public resources and there’s shady financing of political campaigns,” she said.

Transparency International’s CPI (Corruption Perceptions Index) is a composite index that draws on different expert and business surveys to measure the perceived levels of public-sector corruption in a given country.

Storm in a suitcase

The political scandal that started with a suitcase stuffed with dollars, detected at a Buenos Aires airport late last year, is now irrupting spectacularly, with a conspiracy trial in Miami pointing to crooked dealings between the Argentine and Venezuelan governments.

Cristina Kirchner and Hugo Chavez, photo by TIME

Cristina Kirchner and Hugo Chavez, photo by TIME

The facts are as follows. At around 3:30am on Saturday, August 4, 2007, Venezuelan businessman Guido Antonini Wilson landed in Buenos Aires on a chartered plane from Caracas. He was stopped going through customs, and a young customs official opened it to find some $800,000 in undeclared US bills. The suitcase was seized, but Antonini Wilson was let go (apparently because the appropriate justice official could not be found so early in the morning). Some months later, the young customs official appeared on the cover of Playboy.

The plane, which was chartered by Argentina’s state-owned energy company, carried several other passengers, including four executives from Venezuela’s state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, and three Argentine government officials.

A few days later, Argentina’s then-president, Néstor Kirchner, sacked Claudio Uberti, the Argentine official who had offered Mr. Antonini Wilson a lift on the plane. Kirchner swore he was not up to anything crooked, and demanded answers from Hugo Chavez. “I am not covering up anything,” he insisted. “My hands are clean.”

Meanwhile, Nestor Kirchner’s wife, Senator Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, was in the middle of her presidential campaign, which would be decided at the polls in November. The campaign involved lots and lots of expensive advertising at home and plenty of appearances in chic foreign locations. No domestic media interviews were granted and she avoided Argentine reporters while on her world tour.

Cristina won the election with a huge margin, but the early days of her presidency were marred when further facts in the suitcase scandal came to light in December 2007.  During the days following the suitcase’s sequestration, there were a number of phone calls registered from Uberti to Néstor Kirchner, and on 6 August, according to witness testimony here in Argentina, a secretary working in the Casa Rosada (or Pink House, offices of the Argentine president in Buenos Aires) saw Antonini Wilson in the building. The next day, he left the country.

By this time, US investigators in Miami had become involved. Three Venezuelans and an Uruguayan were arrested in Miami on charges of acting as agents of the Venezuelan government, operating in the US illegally and allegedly pressuring Antonini to cover up the source of the cash. Antonini Wilson was cooperating with US law enforcement which revealed it had evidence that the cash was destined for the presidential campaign of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

The Kirchners stopped demanding answers from Chavez, and started blaming the Evil Empire of the North.

A docile congress rushed to Cristina’s rescue, passing a resolution condemning the US over the investigation. Cristina Kirchner called the case a “garbage operation” and Chavez said it was a CIA plot. The young customs official turned Playboy pin-up, valiantly capitalising on her new-found fame despite death threats, had her dreams shattered when political pressure forced her off a popular reality show. The young woman had been rehearsing for months to appear on “Showmatch” (a program whose vulgarity must be seen to be believed), in its edition called “Skating for a Dream,” where she was set to ice-skate in a sparkly g-string.

But now the case is  on in Miami and the Argentine papers over the weekend were filled with details revealed by the US attorney, who is prosecuting one of the men involved in the imbroglio for failure to register as a foreign agent. The others who were arrested have all pleaded guilty and are now helping investigators.

Saturday's edition of La Critica

Saturday's edition of La Critica

Argentine officials’ constant accusations about the political motivations of the case have forced the US ambassador here to release a statement explaining the basics of the US justice system and the independence of the prosecutor. Perhaps the Kirchners are so stuck in their own mindset, which likes to see the judiciary as a tool of the executive, that they can’t believe things work differently elsewhere. Or maybe they’re just desperate. But even if politics is playing a role in the case – and there’s every reason to believe the US is keen to expose Chavez as a crook – that won’t take much heat off Caracas and Buenos Aires.

President Kirchner is answering no questions about the case, but her officials are busy throwing out one-liners in an effort to deflect inquiries. Exasperation that the US is taking the word of a “delinquent” – Antonini Wilson – over the government’s is one such. Calls for Antonini Wilson’s extradition is another popular non-sequitur. After all, Antonini Wilson was here in Buenos Aires and they let him go. The fact is that the Venezuelan businessman holds US citizenship and is cooperating in an investigation into crimes committed in the US. They’d hardly let him go anywhere right now, much less hand him over to a government suspected to be intimately involved in the scandal.

FBI tapes played in the Miami court (Antonini Wilson was pursuaded to wear a wire on his return to Miami, and the  transcripts are providing plenty of column-fodder for Argentina’s political reporters), along with witness testimony, leave Cristina Kirchner and Hugo Chavez with little option but to use the well-worn (though, it must be said, historically justified) refrain of a yankee plot to destabilise Latin America and undermine its champion-of-the-people leaders. While one can assume that anything that might embarrass Chavez (who has just expelled the US ambassador) would be welcome in US foreign policy circles, the charge of a CIA plot is far-fetched to say the least. Given that the suitcase flew in on a plane hired by the Argentine government, and that its carrier was accompanied by an Argentine government official, the accusations of CIA plot point clearly to extreme incompetence or extreme credulity on the part of the Argentine and Venezuelan governments. All anyone has to do to plant incriminating undeclared cash on these people is to ask politely for a lift in their plane?

The apparently unembarrassable Cristina is now hunkering down trying to work out how she’ll avoid tough suitcase-related questions from reporters (who will be harder to avoid in New York than they are here) when she travels to the US at the end of the week for a United Nations General Assembly.