ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO / CARMEN GENTILE
The New York Times
November 03, 2008
BUENOS AIRES — The diplomatic tangle between Venezuela, Argentina and the United States reached a new pitch on Monday when a jury in Miami convicted a wealthy Venezuelan businessman of acting as an “unregistered agent” of Venezuela on American soil.
The case, known in Latin America as “Suitecasegate,” started last year with the discovery of a mysterious suitcase filled with $800,000 in cash at an airport here. But it has erupted into a long-running scandal that has aggravated tensions between the United States and its neighbors to the south.
Franklin Durán, the businessman convicted Monday, went on trial in Miami for conspiring to cover up the origin and destination of the suitcase — a secret contribution, prosecutors said, sent by Venezuela to bolster the campaign of Argentina’s president. Mr. Duran now faces up to 15 years in prison.
The case has become a symbol of the antagonism between the Bush administration and President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who has used his nation’s oil wealth to spread his influence throughout the region.
The scandal has also soured America’s relations with Argentina and its president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, whose legitimacy has been challenged by the revelations of secret campaign donations from outside her country.
Both Mr. Chávez and Mrs. Kirchner accused the United States of political motivations in bringing the case last December, a charge officials in Washington and Miami have repeatedly denied.
Whether intentional or not, the eight-week trial in Miami revealed an extensive cover-up effort by Venezuelan officials that reached the highest levels of government, and laid bare a business culture in Venezuela that involves regular bribes and kickbacks to high government officials and members of the military.
The trial provided little in the way of evidence that American national security was somehow threatened by the presence of the Venezuelans, who spent much of their time on the phone and in South Florida restaurants trying to convince the man caught with the suitcase, Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, to keep the truth about the money under wraps.
Still, on Monday American officials sought to portray the investigation and trial as important to safeguarding national security.
“When unregistered foreign agents believe that they can operate on our soil with impunity and disregard for U.S. laws, it undermines the national security of our country,” said Jonathan I. Solomon, special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Miami field office.
Mr. Durán reacted without emotion as the verdict was read. Edward Shohat, his lawyer, said he would appeal the jury’s decision.
Mr. Shohat referred to the trial as a “political circus in which Franklin Durán is a pawn of the U.S. government.” But the lawyer declined to comment on allegations he made in the trial’s early days: that the case was a politically motivated effort to embarrass Mr. Chávez’s government. “There’s a lot of concern about that, but I’m not going into further details,” he said.
The scandal first surfaced in August 2007, when an Argentine policewoman here became suspicious about a suitcase being rolled through customs by Mr. Antonini Wilson. The policewoman ordered him to open the case. Nearly $800,000, mostly in $50 bills, spilled out. Argentine officials initially detained him but let him go after charging him with a simple customs infraction.
An international scandal ensued when word soon began leaking out that the cash may have been intended for Mrs. Kirchner, then the leading candidate to succeed her husband, Néstor Kirchner, as president of Argentina. By that time Mr. Antonini Wilson was long gone, having hopped a plane back to Miami.
A secret cover-up effort followed, prosecutors said, directed from Venezuela and reaching up to Mr. Chávez himself, who assigned his intelligence chief to try to keep Mr. Antonini Wilson silent, according to testimony from witnesses.
Unbeknownst to the governments of Venezuela and Argentina, Mr. Antonini Wilson had sought the help of the F.B.I. just days after arriving back to Florida. He agreed to wear a wire and record hundreds of hours of conversations between himself and the Venezuelans.
Three Venezuelans and an Uruguayan were arrested, including Mr. Durán, a longtime friend and business acquaintance of Mr. Antonini Wilson. At secretly recorded meetings in Florida, Mr. Durán offered to deliver up to $2 million in hush money and make sure Mr. Antonini Wilson’s legal troubles in Argentina would go away. Another suspect remains at-large.
Three of the four men who were arrested pleaded guilty to the same charges Mr. Durán was convicted of, and two of them were among the government’s star witnesses.
Alexei Barrionuevo reported from Buenos Aires and Carmen Gentile from Miami.