The Miami Herald
November 05, 2008
officials reacted to the guilty verdict in the 'suitcase-gate' trial in
Miami by saying the U.S. government had fabricated the evidence.
The FBI and the Bush administration ''fabricated'' evidence in the so-called ''Suitcase-gate'' trial in Miami of Venezuelan businessman Franklin Durán in order to damage the reputation of President Hugo Chávez, the country's foreign minister, Nicolás Maduro, claimed Tuesday.
It was the first official reaction from Caracas, where the authorities had remained silent for 24 hours after the verdict was made known.
Durán was found guilty on Monday of acting as an unauthorized agent of the Venezuelan government, in a case that arose out of a 2007 attempt to smuggle almost $800,000 in cash into Argentina, allegedly for the presidential campaign of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
Witnesses in the case, Maduro said, ''had a pistol put to their heads and were made to invent occurrences and dates'' in order to substantiate the case, which implicated high-ranking government officials in both Argentina and Venezuela in acts of corruption.
There was a similar reaction Tuesday from the Argentine government.
Justice and Security Minister Aníbal Fernández called the main witness in the case, Guido Alejandro Antonini, ``a hired good-for-nothing they paid to say whatever.''
He did not clarify who ''they'' were.
Maduro said Venezuela was seeking the extradition of those accused, ``so that this gang of criminals can be tried in Venezuelan courts.''
But former judge Mónica Fernández, of the independent Venezuelan Penal Forum, said the likelihood was that the case would be allowed to fade away. ''Unfortunately, Venezuelan justice is absolutely politicized,'' Fernández said. Courts and prosecutors, ``obey orders from the president.''
According to evidence presented in the Miami court, the cash seized by Argentine customs authorities came from the Venezuelan state oil corporation, Petróleos de Venezuela.
Durán and co-conspirator Carlos Kauffmann, who pleaded guilty, admitted a history of corrupt business dealings with the Venezuelan government, at national and state level, and with the armed forces.
Among those implic
ated by testimony in the trial were Cojedes state Gov. Johnny Yánez Rangel, former Finance Minister Tobías Nóbrega and PdVSA President (and oil minister) Rafael Ramírez.
Durán and Kauffmann, along with their fellow defendants Moisés Maionica and Rodolfo Wanseele, were accused of acting on behalf of the Venezuelan government in an attempt to cover up the origin and destination of the money.
They had sought to put pressure on Antonini, a business partner of Durán and Kauffmann, who had originally stated that the cash was his, not to tell the truth.
The cover-up was orchestrated by the head of state security (Disip) on orders from the presidential palace, according to conversations secretly taped by the FBI.
The fact that a Miami juryfound the evidence compelling enough to convict Durán meant it had ''absolute validity from a legal point of view'' in Venezuela, said Fernández, the former judge.
In theory, the public prosecutor's office in Venezuela
should open an investigation into all those implicated in acts of corruption, up to and including the president of the republic, Fernández said.
But chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Díaz, who is supposed to be an independent figure, recently echoed the government line, when she said in a TV interview that the case was ``part of a campaign aimed at denigrating the Venezuelan state.''
Chávez has dismissed the trial as a politically inspired show. However, he has called for action to be taken against those involved, whom he described as ``traitors.''
Last Saturday, at a political rally in the city of Maracaibo, the president said a company belonging to Durán and Kauffmann should be seized by the government.
''Venoco -- whose owners are over there in the United States, lending themselves to an action against the motherland -- that company has to be expropriated, occupied,'' Chávez declared.
On Tuesday, the Venezuelan press reported that Venoco headquarters in the state of Carabobo had been raided by prosecutors, accompanied by Disip and military intelligence personnel.
The lack of independent institutions in this country means the fallout from the case is likely to be limited to the political repercussions, analysts said. On Nov. 23, Venezuelans go the polls to elect mayors and state governors.
Opinion polls show that although official corruption is a source of concern, it ranks well below issues such as crime and the economy as an influence on voting intentions.