The New York Times
September 14, 2008
MIAMI — During the first week of a trial about a suitcase filled with $800,000 that was sent from Venezuela to Argentina last year, American prosecutors have succeeded in pulling open the curtain on how power functions at the very highest levels of Hugo Chávez’s government.
President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela greeted Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, in Caracas in March.
Lawyers for the accused men, who have been charged with conspiracy and operating as unauthorized agents of a foreign government, have tried to argue that politics have played a role in the American pursuit of the case. But whether the trial is politically motivated or not, witnesses have testified that Mr. Chávez himself became involved in a conspiracy to cover up the origins of the suitcase.
At a time when the relationship between the United States and Venezuela has reached one of its lowest points of the Chávez years, the “suitcase trial” is only adding fuel to the fire.
On Thursday, as revelations were spilling out of the courtroom here about how Venezuelan and Argentine officials supposedly worked to cover up that the money was meant as a contribution to the Argentine presidential candidate Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Mr. Chávez expelled the American ambassador to Venezuela, Patrick Duddy, saying an American-supported coup plot had been discovered. The State Department responded the next day by saying it would expel Venezuela’s ambassador.
“There is no degree of trust or credibility on either side,” said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, a research group in Washington. “It is hard to look at this trial as anything other than something that is politicized.”
Through testimony that included secretly recorded conversations, jurors have heard that Mr. Chávez directed his intelligence chief, Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, to take over a floundering cover-up from Rafael Ramírez, president of the national oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela. General Rangel’s mission: to persuade, coerce and, ultimately, buy off Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, the Venezuelan-American businessman who was caught dragging the suitcase into Argentina, testimony has suggested.
The trial has breathed new life into an episode that erupted in August 2007, when the cash-stuffed suitcase was discovered at a Buenos Aires airport. The cash, it was rumored then, was intended for Mrs. Kirchner, who was running to succeed her husband, President Néstor Kirchner, who had forged warmer ties with the Venezuelan president.
But there was little proof, and the story began to fade. Argentine investigators, without access to Mr. Wilson or other key witnesses, struggled to find answers. Petróleos de Venezuela said it would investigate, but nothing came of it. Instead, the Venezuelan spy agency, known as Disip, quietly took over, eliciting the help of Moisés Maionica, a lawyer, and two Venezuelan businessmen with ties to Mr. Wilson, according to testimony.
But unknown to them, Mr. Wilson began cooperating with the F.B.I. just days after the cash was seized in Buenos Aries, agreeing to wear a wire.
The South American leaders lashed out at the United States after prosecutors announced the investigation in December, just days after Mrs. Kirchner was inaugurated. She has called the investigation “garbage operations”; Mr. Chávez called it “a show trial” last week.
The prosecutors charged four Venezuelans and one Uruguayan. Three of the four who were arrested pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the American government. The one who decided to fight the charges is Franklin Durán, a Venezuelan businessman, who is accused of conspiracy and acting as an unauthorized agent of a foreign government, Venezuela. He faces up to 15 years in prison.
The conversations secretly recorded by Mr. Wilson from August to early December suggest that after Mr. Chávez directed General Rangel to take over the handling of the situation, the spy chief recruited Mr. Maionica to be the point man in the Venezuelan effort to negotiate with and win over Mr. Wilson.
Mr. Maionica shuttled between Florida and Caracas, reporting regularly to General Rangel in person. He was directed in turn to work with Mr. Durán and Carlos Kauffmann, who both had longstanding ties to Mr. Wilson. The mission’s goal: to get Mr. Wilson to sign over power of attorney so a lawyer could be hired in Argentina to get money-laundering charges against him there dropped.
The Venezuelans were betting that the power of attorney, along with $2 million and falsified sales receipts legitimizing the $800,000, would be enough to guarantee Mr. Wilson’s silence, the recordings and Mr. Maionica’s testimony suggested.
Intelligence officials in Caracas paid close attention to the cover-up effort in Florida. Justice Minister Tarek El-Aissami, then the deputy minister for citizen security and General Rangel’s boss, called Mr. Durán on his cellphone during the first restaurant meeting in August and spoke with Mr. Wilson.
The defendants talk in the recordings about Mr. Chávez’s role in the cover-up, including his approving a payment to Mr. Wilson to buy his cooperation. Mr. Maionica, often at the urging of Assistant United States Attorney Thomas J. Mulvihill, has mentioned Mr. Chávez in his testimony with regularity.
On Thursday, the jury heard a recording of a meeting at which Mr. Maionica told Mr. Wilson that officials from Argentina’s Justice Ministry, including the “deputy minister,” had met at Disip headquarters in Caracas with General Rangel and an executive at Petróleos de Venezuela to discuss Mr. Wilson’s legal situation in Argentina. Mr. Maionica testified that he had been assured that “the charges would be dropped” in Argentina if Mr. Wilson cooperated.
The Venezuelans tried to stress to Mr. Wilson the importance to Mrs. Kirchner of keeping the secret contribution under wraps. “If Cristina doesn’t win, they are going to hit you hard, with a bat,” Mr. Durán warned Mr. Wilson. “The truth can cost her the election,” Mr. Maionica added moments later. “The truth, it can become a scandal.”
The charge against Mr. Durán and his co-defendants has raised eyebrows in legal circles because they are not charged with espionage, but with conspiracy and with operating as agents of a foreign government, Venezuela, without first notifying the United States attorney general. The registration charge has almost never been used in the way prosecutors have employed it here. Still, United States District Judge Joan Lenard has mostly sided with the government, deciding that Edward R. Shohat, Mr. Durán’s lead defense lawyer, could not argue that the government’s case against Mr. Durán was politically motivated.
The trial could become more embarrassing for the Chávez government if Judge Lenard allows prosecutors to present evidence that Mr. Durán and Mr. Kauffmann engaged in corrupt deals with Venezuelan government officials that netted them more than $100 million. Mr. Mulvihill argued last week that the schemes are critical to showing why the two businessmen agreed to participate in the cover-up.
“They were perfectly placed to be used by Disip in this manner,” Mr. Mulvihill said.