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.

Abuelas identify missing grandchild No 93

Last Friday, the Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo (or Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, named for their silent marches around Argentina’s most famous square, protesting the disappearance of their grandchildren during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship) announced that another child of the disappeared had been identified.

This is the 93rd “grandchild” to have been identified through a combination of forensics and DNA identification since the Grandmothers began their campaign to “recuperate” all of the children who disappeared during the dictatorship.

When pregnant women were captured and imprisoned in the many clandestine detention centres operated by the military and police, or when female prisoners fell pregnant during their detainment, they were allowed to give birth before being executed – often by being drugged then thrown from planes into the sea in what have become knows as the “death flights.”

In the case of grandchild No 93, the woman in question was not seeking to discover her identity. Instead, the Abuelas provided the court with sufficient evidence to suggest she was a child of the disappeared, and the judge, in what is a relatively new and highly controversial measure, ordered that her DNA be gathered by collecting personal objects like drinking glasses, hair combs and toothbrushes. The National Gene Databank then analysed the material and found a match. The woman, whose name is Alejandra, has declined to meet her biological family.

Alejandra’s biological mother was 19 years old and a member of the Montonero guerrilla movement when she was kidnapped by the military in 1977. Her father, also a Montonero, was kidnapped at the same time. Neither of them was ever seen again. The remaining members of Alejandra’s family are hoping she will come to seek a connection with them.

The dictatorship, also known as Argentina’s Dirty War, saw the military fight leftist guerrillas, or revolutionary terrorists – but also various kinds of non-violent opposition – by way of extra-judicial imprisonment, torture and execution. While these facts are broadly known, the policy of illegal adoption is something that fewer outside Argentina are aware of.

In a sinister twist on what many now judge to have been a brutal campaign of ideological cleansing, the newborn babies of the disappeared were illegally or informally adopted by families loyal to or connected with the military, who raised them as their own, free of the “subversive” tendencies displayed by their true parents. Some were even raised by those involved in the torture and killing of their parents. The Abuelas believe there are up to 400 people who still don’t know their true identity as children of the disappeared.

The Abuelas’ campaign to recover their grandchildren, or at least to restore to them their true identity, became an important part of the campaign by human rights activists after the return of democracy. Unlike its neighbours, Argentina has sought to try its military leaders for crimes against humanity. The first post-Dirty War government, headed by President Raúl Alfonsín, set up an inquiry into the disappeared (which concluded that there had been at least 30,000 people murdered by the dictatorship, a far greater toll than any other Southern American country suffered) and the courts began to try the military officials responsible. Under immense political and military pressure, Alfonsín later limited the trials to the upper ranks of the military, and placed a deadline by which all cases were to be presented to court. When Carlos Menem won the presidency in 1989, a full amnesty was offered to both the military and those former guerrillas accused of terrorism.

It was under this amnesty that the Abuelas’ campaign became particularly important for human rights activists, as the illegal adoption or misappropriation of babies was not a crime that came under the amnesty. By proceeding with their investigations, the Abuelas could bring members of the military involved in the misappropriation of babies to trial.

When Néstor Kirchner became president in 2003, he revoked Menem’s amnesty, and since then the government (Néstor’s wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, is the current president) has strongly supported both the Abuelas and their sister organization, Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) and has encouraged the courts to bring former military officials to justice.

In a landmark case earlier this year, 30-year-old Maria Eugenia Sampallo Barragán pressed charges against her adoptive parents for falsifying adoption documents and concealing her true identity. Her adoptive parents were sentenced to several years in prison.

Another case that came to light this year saw a brother and sister discover their younger sister. The two eldest siblings had been imprisoned in the infamous Naval Mechanics School, or ESMA (recently declared a National Monument and soon to become a public museum), with their parents – the brother, Marcelo Ruiz Dameri, was 5 years old and his sister Maria 3 years old. Their mother gave birth in the ESMA, after which the two elder children were abandoned at separate orphanages in distant parts of the country, while their baby sister was adopted by a military family. The younger sister, like Alejandra, was unwilling to give her DNA (which was gathered by way of a judicial warrant), and has not yet sought a relationship with her biological siblings.

The Navy Mechanics School, or ESMA (Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada)

The Navy Mechanics School, or ESMA (Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada)