The New York Times
August 14, 2007
BUENOS AIRES, Aug. 13 — A scandal involving a Venezuelan businessman who tried to sneak nearly $800,000 into this country has opened a sudden rift between Venezuela and Argentina just a week after the governments signed debt and energy deals.
The scandal has cast a sudden chill over the warmer ties between the countries and left President Néstor Kirchner
and his wife scrambling to contain any potential damage to her bid to succeed him as president.
Mr. Kirchner remains highly popular, and early opinion polls before the Oct. 28 election place Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a senator and the most powerful first lady since Eva Duarte Perón, well ahead of a fragmented field of about a half-dozen opposing candidates.
But even if the Kirchners’ personal appeal is uneroded, the government’s credibility has been nibbled away by a series of scandals in recent months.
The latest was the money scandal that began to unfold last week, when the Venezuelan businessman, Guido Antonini Wilson, 46, was stopped with a suitcase stuffed with cash by an airport customs official after arriving in Buenos Aires from Caracas on a plane chartered by the Argentine government’s national energy company.
The plane also carried four executives from Venezuela’s state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, and three Argentine government officials, Argentine newspapers have reported.
The money’s source, and for whom or what it was intended, is still under investigation. But within days, Mr. Kirchner dismissed Claudio Uberti, the Argentine official who had offered Mr. Antonini Wilson a seat on the plane. He also demanded answers from the government of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. “I am not covering up anything,” Mr. Kirchner said at a public event last week, according to news reports. “My hands are clean.”
In a news conference late last week, María Luz Rivas Diez, the Argentine attorney general, said Mr. Antonini Wilson had made 12 trips to Argentina in the past year, some for less than a day.
She told a Buenos Aires radio station over the weekend that she could not rule out money-laundering as a possible motivation, nor filing charges against Mr. Antonini Wilson, who had been allowed to leave Argentina and whose whereabouts were unknown.
On Monday morning Mr. Kirchner’s chief of staff, Alberto Fernández, joined calls for the Venezuelans to apologize for the incident, saying Argentina had “done everything that it needed to do.”
Under intense pressure to provide an explanation, Venezuela’s state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, said Friday in a statement that it would investigate the mysterious trip.
But on Sunday, Roberto Hernández, vice president of Venezuela’s lower house, said President Chávez “doesn’t have to say sorry” to anyone.
Though Mr. Antonini Wilson had been traveling with employees of Venezuela’s national oil company, the Venezuelan government insisted that the cash found on him was a personal matter. “The responsibilities are personal,” said Pedro Carreño, Venezuela’s justice minister, in comments broadcast Monday on Venezuelan radio. “If there exists a personal object, it is a suitcase.”
The acrimony has doused the glow of the energy and debt accords struck between the two countries during a visit here last week by Mr. Chávez.
Mr. Chávez agreed to refinance billions of dollars of Argentina’s debt through a series of bond purchases. He and Mr. Kirchner also announced a natural gas deal that is expected to help soften a worsening energy crisis.
“Chávez is a pebble in the shoe for Argentina’s politics abroad,” said Graciela Coatz-Romer, an Argentine political analyst. “But he is a necessity because he is a provider of funds, and for strategic reasons, because of Venezuela’s role as a potential energy supplier.”
The suitcase episode was only the latest scandal of recent months. Since March, Mr. Kirchner has had to contend with clear indications of corruption in a large gas pipeline project.
One of the companies involved, the Swedish construction company Skanska, found evidence of what it described as “improper payments” by some of its executives, who have since been fired. News reports and an investigating judge have said the money appears to have gone to Argentine government officials.
In June, fire inspectors making what was said to be a routine check of the offices of the new economy minister, Felisa Miceli, found $64,000 in local currency and dollars in her bathroom.
Opposition figures have suggested that the money was either part of a government slush fund or evidence of illegal enrichment on her part, but Ms. Miceli said in a previous interview with The New York Times that she borrowed most of it from a brother for a real estate transaction she hoped to make.
At the same time, a judicial investigation is studying whether the Kirchner government has manipulated inflation data to cover up rising consumer prices, something it denies.
Yet so far, the fragmented opposition has been unable to seize on the crises for much political gain. The hapless response has become the butt of jokes in local papers, with the Buenos Aires newspaper La Nación last week calling the suitcase incident “an impeccable opposition marketing operation that only lacked a candidate capable of taking advantage of it.”
Ricardo López Murphy, a presidential candidate, acknowledged in an interview that “there are not enough people railing against the government.” But, he said, “It’s not easy to associate one issue with another.”
Vinod Sreeharsha contributed reporting from Buenos Aires, and Simon Romero from Caracas, Venezuela.