WASHINGTONBetween August and December 2007, Latin America was enthralled by a political melodrama involving a suitcase with $790,550 confiscated after a private flight carrying Argentine and Venezuelan officials arrived in Buenos Aires in the middle of the night. The affair led to a high-profile court case in Miami arising from charges against Venezuelan agents who tried to force a businessman to assume responsibility for the clandestine money and cover up the real story behind the suitcasea contribution from Hugo Chavez to the campaign of Cristina Kirchner, then a candidate seeking to succeed her husband as president of Argentina.
There was only one man who could tell the story in full because he is the only person who understands its labyrinthine plot, and the only one who has spoken to many of the protagonists, seen most of the documents and traced the distant roots of the events of Aug. 3, 2007: Hugo Alconada, the journalist who covered the saga for Argentinas La Nacion newspaper. His book Los secretos de la valija (The Secrets of the Suitcase) has momentous implications.
Alejandro Antonini, the Venezuelan businessman (also a U.S. citizen) who was carrying the suitcase, was an unwitting agent for Venezuelas government. He was not supposed to be on that flightwhich was on the eve of a presidential visit by Hugo Chavez to Buenos Airesbut was persuaded to jump on by people involved with PDVSA, Venezuelas oil giant, who had been doing business with the Argentine officials and were set to fly with them to Argentina. Antonini accepted because he had been pursuing for some time a business contract with one of the other seven passengers, a Kirchner operative. Upon arrival in Buenos Aires and apparently ignorant of the contents of the suitcase, the businessman was helping a female flight companion carry it through customs when he was stopped. Another suitcase containing more than $4 million made it through.
Although he was promised protection by the Venezuelan and Argentine officials, Antonini fled to Miami. Soon after, Chavezs agents revealed to him the real origin and destiny of the money, confirming what a PDVSA official had told him in Buenos Aires. The agents threats and attempts to bribe Antonini into helping with the coverup were taped by the FBI, with whom the businessman was collaborating.
The implications of the affair for Caracas are obvious. This case is strong proof that Chavez is employing his countrys oil money to bribe other nations into sustaining his international revolutionary goals. The implications for Argentina are even more revealing. It is hardly news that Buenos Aires is a Chavez ally and that political corruption is widespread in the Argentine government. But the revelation of its extent and its links to the highest echelons of power indicate that the Kirchner couple will face serious investigations if the opposition wins the next electionsa fact that throws new light on their latest autocratic moves, including the passing of a law that will grant extraordinary powers to the government over the media. The law was approved after the Kirchners defeat in the recent legislative elections and before the new Congress, in which the opposition will have the upper hand, takes office in December.
A few weeks ago, I had dinner in Buenos Aires with Francisco de Narvaez, the man who defeated former president Nestor Kirchners slate of candidates in the legislative elections. Narvaez mentioned that the media law was much more than a move against critical outlets. It was part of an effort to subvert the rule of law from within, in order to impede a democratic succession in 2011. Observing the desperation with which the Kirchner couple, who attributed the affair of the suitcase to a U.S. plot against a sovereign anti-imperialist nation, has sought to emasculate the media before the next Congress takes over, one can see that Narvaezs suspicion is no fairy tale.
One final thought: During the first part of the Kirchner reign, because of the delicate political and economic context of their rise to power and the autocratic style with which they operated, few organizations dared to confront the authorities. The Argentine media in particular were for the most part less vigilant than one would have hoped. Alconadas courageous book, the culmination of an exhaustive two-year investigation, serves as a vindication of the profession in his godforsaken country.