Argentina, Venezuela Slam US Over Cash-in-Suitcase Case

By Leandro Prada | July 7, 2008 | 8:18pm EDT

Buenos Aires ( - Angered by legal proceedings in Miami, officials in Venezuela and Argentina have accused the United States of trying to engineer a split between the two Latin American countries' governments.

Three Venezuelan nationals and a Uruguayan citizen were arrested last week and face charges of acting as agents of a foreign power on U.S. soil, according to a press statement by the U.S. Justice Department.

The case is linked to an incident in which a Venezuelan-American businessman, Guido Antonini Wilson, was stopped last August by Argentinean customs officials trying to enter the country with a briefcase containing $800,000 in cash.

U.S. prosecutors allege that the money was a contribution from President Hugo Chavez' government to the campaign of then presidential candidate Cristina Fernandez, who went on to win the election in late October and was recently sworn into office.

Customs officer Maria Lujan Telpuk told Argentine news channel C5N that Wilson claimed the briefcase contained "only some papers."

"When I asked him to open up his suitcase, the banknotes started pouring out," she said.

Wilson then claimed there was $60,000 in the bag, but when counted it turned out to be nearly $800,000, Telpuk said. Wilson, who lives in Florida, is not one of the men facing the charges in Miami. Two of the four men were due to appear again in court Monday.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said the arrests in Florida were "part of a U.S. government plan to damage the image of the progressive South American leadership."

"The hand behind the campaign regarding the famous briefcase has been exposed," Maduro said, adding that Venezuela had known from the start it was a "political and media ambush."

Maduro noted that the incident occurred as Chavez was visiting Buenos Aires to sign a key energy security agreement and suggested Washington wanted to divert attention from that important development by fabricating a scandal.

In a statement, the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry said that "the elite that rules the United States" cannot tolerate the progress of southern nations and uses "economic sabotage, coups d'etat, psychological and media warfare" against them.

The Argentine government's chief of staff, Alberto Fernandez, told the official Telam news agency that under the guise of investigating foreign agents, the U.S. Justice Department was trying "to make the international community believe that the Venezuelan government was sending illegal funds to the official presidential campaign."

Fernandez said the Bush administration had shown disdain and disregard for Latin America and anger towards some countries in the region, especially Venezuela.

Political analysts quoted in Sunday newspapers here argued that if Venezuela had wanted to send funds, it would have used diplomatic suitcases that are not subject to customs searches.

But Elisa Carrio, leader of the opposition Civic Coalition party and herself a former presidential candidate, questioned the government assertion of an American plot to smear Fernandez for her warm relationship with Chavez, a harsh critic of the U.S.

"We must not think that the United States wakes up every day thinking about Argentina," Carrio told the El Cronista daily. A face-off with the U.S. would be a "historical stupidity," she added.

"It's not a matter of U.S.-Argentinean relations," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said of the case late last week. "It's a matter of enforcing one's own laws."

He pointed out that the accused are not Argentinean citizens.

Professor Norberto Emmerich, political and foreign affairs specialist at the Universidad de Belgrano in Buenos Aires, told Cybercast News Service that "bad mouthing the United States" tends to draw a good public response in Argentina.

But, he added, the dispute with the U.S. was merely a verbal one, "in line with this government's populist characteristics."

Emmerich said media coverage of the row will divert domestic attention away from the new government's "neoliberal alignment."

Fernandez will have to lure investors, he said, and in order to do so her government would need to seek good relations with international financial institutions.

Argentina has a defaulted debt of $6.3 billion to the Paris Club of wealthy nations.

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