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'Suitcase-gate' provides Latin American drama

  • Story Highlights
  • U.S. officials: Antonini, a businessman, was delivering money on behalf of Chavez
  • Antonini was caught at a Buenos Aires airport last year with $800,000
  • Bag was alleged to be meant for then-Argentinean presidential candidate Fernandez
  • U.S. alleges Venezuela sent five agents to pressure Antonini to keep mouth shut
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By Arthur Brice
CNN
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(CNN) -- A trial in Miami involving a Venezuelan accused of being a secret agent is causing quite the stir in Argentina, with daily front-page stories and demands for a government investigation of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

But the case has gotten scant attention in the United States.

The Argentine media are calling it "suitcasegate," because the principal player was caught at a Buenos Aires airport in August last year with a bag containing $800,000 apparently meant for then-candidate Fernandez

Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, a businessman with dual U.S.-Venezuelan citizenship, was delivering the money on behalf of leftist Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, U.S. officials say.

This week Antonini testified that a larger suitcase containing $4.2 million and carried by somebody else in his eight-person entourage safely made it through Argentine customs that day.

"It's one of those terribly nasty parts of what's going on in Latin America, what's going on in Argentina, what's going on in Venezuela," said Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington policy institute.

Antonini returned to his Key Biscayne, Florida, condo shortly after his detention in Argentina last year.

Within days, the United States alleges, the government of Venezuela sent five agents to pressure Antonini to keep his mouth shut about where he got the money and whom it was intended for.

Each of the five -- four Venezuelans and one Uruguayan -- has been charged with one count of conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government and one count of being an agent of a foreign country. Federal law requires foreign agents to register with the U.S. government.

The U.S. government indictment against them details a caper filled with clandestine meetings, code names and evasive driving meant to throw off anyone trying to tail them.

In late October, the indictment says, one of the suspects called Antonini to tell him that a high-level emissary was coming to see him. Antonini was told to use the code name Christian for the emissary.

A short while later, the indictment says, Antonini received another call in which he was instructed that "the emissary would approach Antonini; that the emissary and Antonini were then to move several meters away from their initial contact point, and only then talk to each other."

The next day, after meeting at a Starbucks coffee shop in Plantation, Florida, the suspects "drove approximately 43 miles, in a circuitous route, making numerous last-minute lane changes and turns before arriving at the Hard Rock Casino and Hotel, a distance of approximately 7 miles from Starbucks," the indictment says.

"During the drive from the meeting, [the suspects] drove at a speed of 35-40 miles per hour on the Florida Turnpike."

The government says that was just one of six meetings and at least 10 telephone calls in which the men pressured Antonini from August 27 to December 11, 2007. The U.S. attorney's office handed down the indictment on December 20.

Three of the suspects -- Venezuelans Moises Maionica and Carlos Kauffmann as well as Uruguayan Rodolfo Wanseele Paciello -- have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing. A fourth -- Venezuelan Antonio Jose Canchica Gomez, who the indictment says was the emissary "Christian" -- is a fugitive. And the fifth, Venezuelan Franklin Duran, is on trial in U.S. District Court in Miami.

Antonini, who immediately cooperated with the FBI and is not facing charges, has been on the stand this week. He is wanted in Argentina and Venezuela.

U.S. media have hardly noticed the proceedings, but the courtroom has been packed every day with more than 20 Spanish-speaking journalists from Miami and Latin America.

Argentinean media are splashing the story across newspaper front pages and Internet home pages, while the airwaves are filled with daily dispatches.

The Argentine newspaper Clarin has a correspondent in Miami.

"There is much interest," CNN's Carolina Cayazzo said in a dispatch from Buenos Aires.

Opposition members of the government are demanding a probe of Fernandez, who was elected in October to take over the post her husband, Nestor, held for four years. She denies any wrongdoing.

She and Venezuela's Chavez have blamed the United States, saying the charges are an attempt to destabilize relations.

Antonini has said a Fernandez ally asked him to bring the money, which came from the government-owned Venezuelan oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA.

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Two days after Antonini's detention last year, Chavez arrived in Argentina to sign an oil deal with the government. The timing was not a coincidence, some say.

"It's in Chavez's interest not only to keep the Kirchners in power but to keep them strongly tied to him," said Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue. "Argentina is a very important country, and Chavez wants to keep Argentina as close as possible."

All About Latin AmericaHugo ChavezVenezuelaCristina Fernandez de Kirchner

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