October 23, 2008
Closing arguments were underway Thursday as the political drama playing out in Miami federal court in the Venezuelan suitcase trial enters its final stage.
Jurors are being asked to decide whether Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez sent agents to South Florida to hush up a scandal over a cash-filled suitcase destined for the campaign of Argentine presidential candidate Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
One of those accused foreign agents, wealthy Venezuelan businessman Franklin Durán, has stood trial for seven weeks in a courtroom packed with Spanish-language journalists.
Earlier in the week the jury heard explosive testimony from Durán's convicted business partner, Carlos Kauffmann, who already pleaded guilty to his role in the alleged conspiracy.
Kauffmann testified about how he and Durán became multimillionaires by paying bribes to senior Venezuelan officials to obtain lucrative government business over the past decade.
''Me and Franklin split it up,'' Kauffmann said on the witness stand.
Prosecutors, in closing arguments, said that Durán's history of paying kickbacks showed he was predisposed to come to South Florida as a favor to the Chávez government. Durán's alleged mission: to silence another business associate who had been stopped with the suitcase filled with $800,000 in campaign cash in Argentina last year.
Defense lawyers are expected to counter that Durán traveled to South Florida to help the associate, Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, because he faced customs charges in Argentina. They will say that Antonini, who cooperated with the FBI, entrapped Durán in the alleged crime of leading the Venezuelan plot to silence the associate.
Then, the 12-member jury is expected to begin deliberations either late Thursday or on Friday. Durán, 40, could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of conspiring and acting as an illegal foreign agent.
Some Latin American experts say the trial may be politically motivated to taint the reputations of leaders in Venezuela and Argentina, but it won't shake up their governments.
''Neither government is going to fall because of this [trial],'' said Bruce Bagley, professor of international studies at the University of Miami. ``The United States has gone after this case because they want to embarrass the Chávez government.''
''It's not going to hurt him in any significant way, but it's one more chink in the armor,'' Bagley said.
The cash-filled suitcase was intended as a secret campaign gift from the Chávez government to Kirchner, a Chávez political ally who won last year's presidential election. The discovery of the suitcase by a customs agent sparked the hemispheric scandal
Both Chávez and Fernández have denied allegations that the money was meant for her and have called the U.S. criminal case ``garbage.''
Durán is the only figure in the alleged cover-up conspiracy to stand trial. His business partner, Kauffmann, Venezuelan lawyer Moises Maionica and Uruguayan Rodolfo Wanseele Paciello have each pleaded guilty to charges of being unregistered Venezuelan agents.
One man indicted in the case, Antonio Jose Canchica Gomez, suspected of being a member of the Venezuelan intelligence service, DISIP, is a fugitive.
The central player in this drama, Antonini, a Venezuelan who also lives in Key Biscayne, was a witness at trial.
He testified that when he traveled with others -- including Petróleos de Venezuela oil executives -- on a chartered jet to Argentina in August 2007, he carried the suitcase through Customs at the airport in Buenos Aires. He was stopped and the suitcase was seized.
But Antonini said neither the money nor the suitcase belonged to him. It belonged to Venezuela's national oil company. He said he picked up the suitcase and carried it as a courtesy for his traveling companions.
Soon after, Antonini, facing charges in Argentina for failing to declare the cash, returned to his home in Key Biscayne.
He then went to the FBI and told agents that he was being pressured by Durán and the others not to say a word about the source of the money or its destination.
The FBI put a wire on Antonini and a tap on his phone so it could build a cover-up case.
The prosecution's case has come to be known as Valijagate, or Suitcasegate, in Latin America.