Maletinazo

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Argentinian President Néstor Kirchner, here in 2005.

The maletinazo, valijagate, or "suitcase scandal" was a 2007 scandal involving Venezuela and Argentina, souring friendship between the countries.[1][2] The word comes from maletín (the Spanish word for suitcase or briefcase) and the suffix -azo which implies intensity or magnitude. The scandal is also known as valijagate, maletagate and maletíngate (following the -gate construction and the Spanish word maleta or valija for suitcase or briefcase).

The scandal began when Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, a Venezuelan-US entrepreneur, arrived in Argentina on a private flight hired by Argentine and Venezuelan state officials carrying US$800,000 in cash which he failed to declare.

Chronicle[edit]

President Hugo Chávez was planning to visit Argentina in August 2007 to refinance billions of United States dollars in Argentine debt through bond purchases and announce a natural gas deal.[2]

On 4 August 2007, Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, a Venezuelan-US entrepreneur claiming to be part of Chávez's entourage, arrived in Argentina on a private flight from Royal Class[3] hired by Argentine and Venezuelan state officials carrying US$790,550 in cash.[4] He did not declare the money upon arrival and the police seized the money.[5][6] Other Venezuelan passengers included Ruth Berhrrenes, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA) representative in Uruguay; Nelly Cardozo, legal assessor of that company; Wilfredo Ávila, a protocol official; and Daniel Uzcategui Specht, son of PDVSA's vice-president Diego Uzcategui and Maria Isabel Specht, Technology and Engineering Manager of Citgo Petroleum Corporation in Houston, Texas.[7] Others on that flight were the president of Enarsa, Exequiel Espinosa, Claudio Uberti (OCCOVI) and Victoria Bereziuk, his secretary.[8] Although officials originally called it a simple infraction and released Antonini Wilson, both Argentine and Venezuelan officials called for an investigation.[9]

Chávez arrived in Argentina on 6 August 2007, as part of a tour to sign oil deals with several South American countries. Antonini Wilson was in the signing ceremony between the presidents of Argentina and Venezuela that took place in the presidential palace, also known as the Casa Rosada.[10] On 8 August, the Argentine senate demanded a report on the incident. An Argentine judge later ordered the arrest of Antonini Wilson and he is facing charges for money laundering and contraband.[9]

Investigation[edit]

Initially, Argentine judge Marta Novatti took the case but she quickly resigned from the investigation. The Argentine government fired one of the state officials who was on the plane, the head of Road Deal Controls, Claudio Uberti. Argentine Minister of Planning, Julio de Vido, declared that Uberti was the "political responsible for that flight";[11] Uberti was fired.[12]

The Argentine minister of interior, Fernández, declared the Senate's attempts to ask for a report on an individual, even if it is a crime case. He said the demand was politically motivated (referring to upcoming elections in Argentina).

PDVSA announced an internal investigation to determine why four of their officials were traveling with Antonini Wilson.

On 13 August 2007, Federal judge Diego Zysman stepped aside from the case, becoming the second judge to renounce investigating the case.[13][14] Judge Novatti was notified by the Judicial Chamber of Economic Cases on 14 August 2007, that she had to take back the case.[15]

The Bolivian government declared the plane carrying Antonini Wilson to Buenos Aires only flew over Bolivia and did not land there, after some suggestions by Venezuelan officials that the money might have come from Bolivia (it would have been illegal to take that amount of money from Venezuela under current currency control laws.[16][17]

According to documents from the Supreme Court of Justice of Venezuela from 8 December 2004, an associate of Antonini, sold police equipment through a Venezuelan company Ruibal & Duran to the governor of Cojedes state, Johny Yánez, who days before declared that he did not have anything to do with Antonini. Clarín newspaper said Antonini had accompanied Yánez on a visit to Uruguay in September 2006.[18]

Argentina sent an arrest warrant to Interpol for the arrest of Antonini; Interpol released a capture order for the offense of fraud.[19]

The investigation in Argentina generated doubt regarding the behavior of members of the Kirchner administration. The investigation is also trying to determine why Enarsa spent $90,000 for a charter flight, and why Antonini Wilson was allowed to leave Argentina outbound to Uruguay.[20][21]

Economic background[edit]

Venezuela has had strict foreign currency controls since 2003. CADIVI is the commission established by the government to regulate currency; it prohibits taking more than US$10,000 in cash out of the country without declaring the money.[4] Venezuelans can only take US$500 or €400 cash out of the country in a single trip and there is a yearly quota of US$2,500 on credit card expenditures; a special government permit is needed to take additional US dollars out of the country.

Antonini Wilson background[edit]

According to El Nuevo Herald and El Universal, Antonini Wilson owns a condo in Ocean Club, Key Biscayne, Florida; together with Wladimir Abad, he is registered as owner of a building located in Mashta Avenue, in Key Biscayne, valued at $US3.96 million.[22] Wladimir Abad is the secretary of American Food Grain (AFG),[23] a part of a Venezuelan holding called Proarepa, owned by Sarkis Arslanian Beyloune and Ricardo Fernández Barrueco.[22][24] Proarepa was in charge of the food distribution during Venezuela's oil strike of 2002, when Chávez signed contracts for food distribution. According to the Venezuelan Government Press Office, Proarepa is a private company that has "joined this mission (Mission Mercal) to offer food and better price to the Venezuelan consumer".[22] According to El Nuevo Herald, Antonini Wilson's name is linked to other companies in southern Florida, such as Venuz Supply Inc., Intertel Telecom and Techmilk Inc.;[22][25][26] La Nación says that Antonini is among a group of businessmen who benefited economically during the administration of Hugo Chávez.[26] In May 2007, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) confiscated a jet belonging to American Food Grain. The report, according to The Miami Herald, says Ricardo Fernández Barruecos had not respected federal norms to register the plane in the United States.[22][23][27]

Beginning in late August 2007, Antonini Wilson cooperated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, resulting in the "indictment of four Venezuelans and a Uruguayan".[6] In December 2007, the St. Petersburg Times reported that, according to prosecutors, "Antonini was delivering the money to the election campaign of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez", with "Venezuelan and Argentine officials accusing Washington of fabricating a scandal to destabilize left-wing governments in the region."[24] The Wall Street Journal also reported that: "U.S. prosecutors in Miami announced the arrest of three Venezuelans and a Uruguayan who allegedly schemed to silence Mr. Antonini about the Venezuelan contribution to the Kirchner campaign. An indictment charges the men—and a fifth who is a fugitive—with operating as Venezuelan agents unlawfully, without having notified the U.S. attorney general. In a court hearing, a U.S. attorney said Mr. Antonini is now cooperating with the investigation and wore a wire to record subsequent encounters with the alleged Venezuelan agents, who offered him $2 million in hush money, while also threatening his family if he didn't keep quiet."[5]

Involvement of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner[edit]

On 13 December 2007 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested three Venezuelans and one Uruguayan, accusing them of being agents of the Venezuelan government who intended for Antonini to help cover up the scandal over the money that was intended for "a candidate" in the Argentine presidential elections of 2007.[28]

The Assistant U.S. Attorney in charge of the case, Thomas Mulvihill, said that one of the arrested individuals, Franklin Durán, had declared that the money was for the then-presidential candidate Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.[28][29]

The Ambassador of the United States to Argentina assured that the event had nothing to do with the Argentina-United States relations.[30]

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner responded to the investigation led by the United States by dubbing it "operación basura" (a "trashing operation").[31]

Reaction[edit]

The Venezuelan ambassador in Buenos Aires declared that Antonini Wilson had nothing to do with the Venezuelan embassy.

Argentine President Néstor Kirchner declared his government had nothing to do with the affair,[32] and that there was no coverup.[4] Venezuela's Minister of Foreign Affairs declared during the third meeting of Petrocaribe, "why is there such a scandal? Every day things like this happen in all the countries of the world". He said the reason for the publicity was that "some powerful people in Washington are very nervous because we are progressing in giant steps towards the union of South American countries, of the Caribbean union. They are afraid and they tremble".

The head of PDVSA, Ramírez, declared "the media is trying to put PDVSA in a bad light for events that are 'completely false'", referring to the recent denouncements of corruption at the state oil company. He said "we see how there is premeditated attempt to publicly lynch our institution and our workers for facts that have not been supported or proved".[33][34] The second vice-president of Venezuela's parliament, Roberto Hernández, declared on 10 August that those PDVSA managers who accompanied Antonini Wilson should be fired.

The crisis prompted the Argentine government to ask Chávez to fire the person responsible for PDVSA in Argentina. The PDVSA official's son had accompanied Antonini Wilson to the flight. Other high officials from the Venezuelan and Argentine governments were present.

The Venezuelan Minister of Interior declared that if there were a crime in cooperation with public functionaries, "the State does not have to assume any responsibility because responsibility is individual". He said it is false the Argentine government was asking for the vice-president of PDVSA—Diego Uzcátegui, whose son was traveling with Guido Antonini—to be fired.

On 18 August, President Chávez declared he had nothing to hide.[35]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Schweimler, Daniel (14 August 2007). "Argentina probes cash-filled case". BBC News. Retrieved 14 August 2007. 
  2. ^ a b Barrionuevo, Alexei (14 August 2007). "Cash-Stuffed Suitcase Splits Venezuela and Argentina". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 August 2007. The scandal has cast a sudden chill over the warmer ties between the countries ... 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. 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." 
  3. ^ "Public prosecutor applies for international arrest of Antonini Wilson". El Universal (Caracas). 15 August 2007. Retrieved 17 August 2007. 
  4. ^ a b c "Another stashed money scandal rocks Kirchner's administration". MercoPress Independent News Agency. 10 August 2007. Retrieved 14 August 2007. 
  5. ^ a b Moffett, Matt (9 January 2008). "'Suitcase Girl' Finds 800 Grand; Stardom Beckons". Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on 11 May 2008. Retrieved 30 July 2008. 
  6. ^ a b Voreacos, David, Eliana Raszewski and Bill Faries (7 January 2008). "Venezuelan Valise With $790,550 Roils U.S.-Argentina Relations". Bloomberg.com. Retrieved 30 July 2008. 
  7. ^ "Pdvsa officials traveled with the owner of the USD 800,000". El Universal (Caracas). 9 August 2007. Retrieved 14 August 2007. 
  8. ^ Nelson, Rainbow (14 August 2007). "Chavez red faced after cash found on plane". Lloyd's List. Retrieved 14 August 2007. 
  9. ^ a b Ortiz, Fiona. "Suitcase of cash sparks new scandal in Argentina". Reuters, 9 August 2007. Retrieved on 22 August 2007.
  10. ^ "Antonini Estuvo en la Casa de Gobierno" La Nación, 12 January 2008
  11. ^ Valente, Marcela (9 August 2007). "Argentine: Suitcase Stuffed with Cash Triggers Scandal". InterPress Service News Agency (IPS). Retrieved 14 August 2007. 
  12. ^ "Argentinean official involved in portfolio case fired". El Universal (Caracas). 9 August 2007. Retrieved 14 August 2007. 
  13. ^ "Argentinean public prosecutor asks for detention of Antonini Wilson". El Universal (Caracas). 14 August 2007. Retrieved 14 August 2007. 
  14. ^ "El caso de la valija quedó sin juez nuevamente y el expediente pasa a la fiscal". clarin.com (in Spanish). 13 August 2007. Retrieved 14 August 2007. 
  15. ^ "Le devuelven a la jueza Novatti la causa de la valija con 800 mil dólares". Clarín (Argentine newspaper) (in Spanish). 15 August 2007. Retrieved 15 August 2007. 
  16. ^ "Chartered plane just flew over Bolivia". El Universal (Caracas). 15 August 2007. Retrieved 15 August 2007. 
  17. ^ "Gobierno Boliviano dice que avión que llevó maletín a Argentina solo sobrevoló su territorio". El Universal (Caracas) (in Spanish). 15 August 2007. Retrieved 15 August 2007. 
  18. ^ "Las ametralladoras del socio de Antonini". Clarín (Argentine newspaper) (in Spanish). 18 August 2007. Retrieved 18 August 2007. 
  19. ^ "Wanted: Antonini Wilson, Guido Alejandro". Interpol. 22 August 2007. Retrieved 22 August 2007. 
  20. ^ "Valija misteriosa". Revista Semana (in Spanish). 18 August 2007. Retrieved 22 August 2007. 
  21. ^ "Por unos dólares de más...". Revista Cambio (in Spanish). 22 August 2007. Retrieved 22 August 2007. 
  22. ^ a b c d e "Relaciones del empresario llegan a Mercal". El Universal (in Spanish). 11 August 2007. Retrieved 31 July 2008. 
  23. ^ a b Reyes, Gerardo; San Martin, Nancy (14 August 2007). "Venezuelan is under fire in cash-carrying scandal: An Argentine scandal involving a Key Biscayne Venezuelan has led to a call for dismissal of a Venezuelan government oil official". Miami Herald. p. A6. The Key Biscayne man -- Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, 46 -- also is an associate of a businessman linked to a large Caracas food conglomerate known to have obtained multimillion-dollar contracts with the government of President Hugo Chávez, El Nuevo Herald has learned. Public records show that Antonini's associate -- both are officers of a Doral company, Techmilk Inc. -- is also an officer of a company that owns an airplane seized by U.S. officials for improper registry -- a circumstance that officials say can sometimes be used to launder money. The Venezuelan-American entrepreneur is the business associate of a Miami pilot whom the Drug Enforcement Administration has cited, in an affidavit, for the alleged illegal use of a U.S. license for an executive plane confiscated in May, El Nuevo Herald has learned. The pilot, Wladimir Abad, is listed as the secretary of American Food Grain, a Venezuelan firm that owns a Raytheon Hawker 800 executive plane seized by the DEA at Fort Lauderdale Airport on 17 May. On Monday, media reports out of Caracas and Buenos Aires said authorities were also seeking the resignation of Diego Uzcátegui Matheus, president of the Argentine subsidiary of the Venezuelan state-owned oil company, PDVSA. His son allegedly invited Antonini on the chartered flight. In Caracas, PDVSA said it had begun an investigation into the circumstances and eventual responsibilities of the company officials who accompanied Antonini on the flight.  Originally reported at Reyes, Gerardo (10 August 2007). "Venezolano de Miami desata crisis política en Argentina". El Nuevo Herald (in Spanish). Retrieved 14 August 2007. [dead link] and Reyes, Gerardo (14 August 2007). "Empresario del 'valijagate' ligado a piloto bajo lupa de la DEA". El Nuevo Herald (in Spanish). p. 1A. Retrieved 14 August 2007. [dead link]
  24. ^ a b Adams, David (17 December 2007). "Politically connected Venezuelans live high life: Some involved in an international scandal live large in Florida". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 30 July 2008. 
  25. ^ Santoro, Daniel (11 August 2007). "Los intereses económicos de Antonini Wilson en Miami". Clarín (in Spanish). Retrieved 30 July 2008. 
  26. ^ a b Alconada Mon, Hugo (15 August 2007). "Antonini opera con 'empresas de maletín". La Nación (in Spanish). Retrieved 31 July 2008. 
  27. ^ Coronel, Gustavo (March 2008). "The corruption of democracy in Venezuela: under Pres. Hugo Chavez's regime the last nine years, corruption has reached heights undreamed of by even the greediest of despots, as the people of Venezuela have been fleeced out of billions of dollars". USA Today (Society for the Advancement of Education) (Findarticles.com). Retrieved 31 July 2008. 
  28. ^ a b Schweimler, Daniel (14 December 2007). "El embajador de Estados Unidos insiste: "Las relaciones con la Argentina son sólidas"". Clarin (in Spanish). Retrieved 15 December 2007. 
  29. ^ Illiano, Cesar (13 December 2007). "Argentina's Fernandez calls U.S. cash probe "garbage"". Reuters. Retrieved 15 December 2007. 
  30. ^ "Argentina rebuts criminal complaint related to the suitcase scandal". El Universal. 13 December 2007. Retrieved 15 December 2007. 
  31. ^ "Cristina Kirchner dijo que acusaciones de EEUU son "operaciones basura"". Globovision (in Spanish). 13 December 2007. Retrieved 15 December 2007. 
  32. ^ "Niega Kirchner vínculo con caso dólares". El Universal (Mexico City) (in Spanish). 11 August 2007. Retrieved 14 August 2007. 
  33. ^ "Minister Ramírez complains about media campaign in suitcase scandal". El Universal (Caracas). 14 August 2007. Retrieved 14 August 2007. 
  34. ^ "Ramírez: Será investigada presencia de funcionarios de Pdvsa en avión con valija". El Universal (Caracas) (in Spanish). 10 August 2007. Retrieved 14 August 2007. 
  35. ^ "Chavez says "nothing to hide" in Argentina scandal". The Washington Post. 19 August 2007. Retrieved 20 August 2007. [dead link] Also available from Reuters. Retrieved 30 July 2008.