Economy & Trade, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARGENTINA: Suitcase Stuffed with Cash Triggers Scandal

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Aug 9 2007 (IPS) - A high-level official of the Argentine government resigned Thursday in the midst of a scandal over his responsibility for the arrival to the country of a Venezuelan businessman carrying 800,000 dollars in undeclared cash on a government-hired jet.

The official who quit is Claudio Uberti, the head of the highway concessions regulatory body (which answers to the Planning Ministry) and the person in charge of the government’s negotiations with Venezuela on agreements in energy, farm machinery and other areas.

President Néstor Kirchner said his government "does not hide anything," and that "for the first time, corruption is being seriously fought."

"I am not concealing anything; when something happens, the people have a right to know," said the centre-left president.

Planning Minister Julio De Vido said it was "a mistake" to allow passengers who did not form part of the official committee to hitch a ride on the private jet, which was rented by the state energy company Enarsa for urgent last-minute negotiations of an agreement for the construction of a regasification plant in Argentina that had to be signed by Kirchner and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez on Monday.

According to Enarsa, the request to provide transportation to the businessman carrying the suitcase full of cash, who was identified by Argentine authorities as Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, and four other Venezuelans came from officials in Venezuela’s PDVSA state-run oil company.

Argentina’s cabinet chief, Alberto Fernández, agreed that "it was a serious error (by Uberti) to give a stranger a ride on the official committee’s plane." But he said he was confident that the Venezuelan company would explain the incident. "I believe that the request for Argentina to give a ride to these people amounted to an abuse of confidence," said Fernández.

Opposition parties are calling for an in-depth investigation.

The spokesman for former legislator Elisa Carrió, the head of ARI (Alternative for a Republic of Equals), told IPS that Uberti and De Vido had been put in charge by their party to drum up donations from companies to finance the governing party’s election campaign in 2003.

Carrió’s spokesman Matías Méndez pointed out that in 2003, ARI filed complaints with the electoral authorities for irregularities during the campaign. As a result, Carrió faces three lawsuits for libel.

Less than a month after the resignation of former economy minister Felisa Miceli, who was unable to explain the origins and intended use of more than 60,000 dollars found in a bag in the bathroom of her office, the latest scandal triggered prompt action by the administration of Kirchner, who ordered Uberti to hand in his resignation.

The suitcase incident occurred early Saturday, when a private jet reached a Buenos Aires airport from Caracas carrying seven passengers. As the government acknowledged four days later, the official committee was made up of the president of Enarsa, Ezequiel Espinosa, Uberti and a public relations secretary.

Enarsa stated in a communiqué that at PDVSA’s request, the plane was also carrying Ruth Behrens, an official with the Venezuelan oil company’s branch in Uruguay; legal adviser Nelly Cardozo; the son of the company’s vice president, Daniel Uzcátegui; and Antonini Wilson.

The latter was held up at the airport when customs agents found around 800,000 dollars of undeclared cash in his suitcase.

Customs agents told the investigating prosecutor that Antonini Wilson tried to bribe them to keep them from reporting the incident. The agents confiscated the suitcase and fined the businessman 400,000 dollars.

However, Antonini Wilson, described by the press as a wealthy businessman, left the country on Tuesday, heading to Uruguay and later to Venezuela, without ever being questioned by legal authorities and without laying claim to the rest of the money.

The news of the suitcase came out on Monday, just when President Chávez was visiting Buenos Aires. When talking to the press, the Venezuelan leader denied that he had anything to do with the incident, and the Argentine government waited until the end of his brief visit, part of a wider South American tour, to mention the case.

The office of the public prosecutor has launched an inquiry to determine whether the case involved contraband or an attempt at money laundering.

The Kirchner administration, having removed Uberti, is attempting to lay the blame on PDVSA.

Fernández said PDVSA "should not wait for Argentina’s request for an explanation" to clarify what happened, "even though they may also have been surprised in their good faith."

Uberti is considered to be very close to De Vido. One of the two public employees sacked in an earlier scandal involving Skanska, a Swedish company investigated by the Argentine justice system for alleged bribes in the construction of gas pipelines, also worked under De Vido.

According to Carrió, Uberti and Kirchner’s former chauffeur, Rudy Ulloa, worked with De Vido raising funds for the 2003 election campaign.

Fishing industry businessman Raúl Espinosa complained to ARI that he had been pressured to cough up campaign donations from his company.

Espinosa was shot and killed by unknown gunmen outside of his house in the city of Puerto Madryn in the southern province of Chubut just 10 days after he spoke with Carrió and four months before Kirchner was sworn in as president.

These reports, of which ARI informed the legal authorities, did not help clarify Espinosa’s murder, which has gone unsolved. "It is impunity that has allowed these men to remain in the government and to do things like what has just occurred," said Carrió’s spokesman.

 
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