SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — An $800,000 scandal is embarrassing the governments of Argentina and Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez is trying to pass it off as a U.S. plot to undermine increasingly close ties between the two countries.
“They are starting to say that they were dollars of Chavez, trying to stain the government of Argentina and Venezuela and, what’s even more, trying to make us fight as if we were children,” Mr. Chavez said Sunday on his weekly TV show, “Hello President.”
“We have nothing to hide, as [Argentine President Nestor] Kirchner said. Absolutely nothing.”
The remarks did nothing to ease the discomfort of Mr. Kirchner and his wife, Sen. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, a leading candidate to succeed her husband in presidential elections next year.
A high-level source in that country said the cash, found in the briefcase of a Venezuelan state oil company contractor at a Buenos Aires airport two weeks ago, was destined to help finance an Argentine state company, Energia Argentina S.A. (Enarsa).
The source also charged that some of the money was intended for the campaign of Mrs. Kirchner, whom Mr. Chavez endorsed during a recent visit to Buenos Aires.
An Argentine judge has ordered the arrest of Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, the Venezuelan businessman who was caught with $800,000 in cash in his suitcase when he landed in Buenos Aires on Aug. 4. Mr. Antonini has been reported to be in Venezuela or Miami.
Yesterday, the international police coordinating agency Interpol said an international arrest warrant has been issued for Mr. Antonini, wanted in Argentina on fraud charges.
In a posting on its Web site, Interpol urged anyone with information regarding Mr. Antonini’s whereabouts to contact local police or Interpol’s General Secretariat in France.
The businessman arrived on a chartered plane carrying officials of the Venezuelan oil company Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA). Argentina’s main newspaper, La Nacion, reported that the Falcon jet was chartered by Enarsa, which is involved in a new joint venture to extract natural gas from Bolivia.
Days before the smuggling attempt was uncovered, Mr. Chavez arrived in Buenos Aires to purchase $500 million in government bonds from Mr. Kirchner, in effect providing a loan to the cash-strapped government. A Venezuelan bond purchase in December 2005 helped Argentina pay off a $9.8 billion debt to the International Monetary Fund.
Mr. Chavez and Mr. Kirchner then traveled to Bolivia’s southeast province of Tarija to sign energy agreements with Bolivian President Evo Morales, a close ally of Mr. Chavez.
Argentine authorities impounded the $800,000 and treated the action as a customs violation, keeping half the money as a fine. Mr. Antonini was released and allowed to leave the country, prompting charges of an official cover-up.
“What was that briefcase doing on that plane and to whom was it destined?” asked Argentine columnist Joaquin Morales Sola. “The justice system can hardly ask Antonini Wilson those questions because he benefited from the official policy of not discomforting Chavez.”
La Nacion has reported that PDVSA flights received special treatment at the Buenos Aires airport, where they were allowed to offload in the military section where immigration and customs checks could be formalized quickly.
The newspaper has said the money was discovered only because the VIP ramp was so busy ahead of Mr. Chavez’s arrival that Mr. Antonini had to enter through another part of the airport where he was subjected to regular checks.
The scandal has also had repercussions in Bolivia.
According to a report attributed to Bolivia’s Union of Airport Service Workers, the Falcon jet landed in Santa Cruz on the way to Buenos Aires. Officials at a major Bolivian bank say close to $1 million was withdrawn from a Venezuelan account in Santa Cruz a day before Mr. Antonini’s trip.
The Bolivian government denies Mr. Antonini’s plane landed in Bolivia. They say the airport workers got confused with another PDVSA flight which did arrive on that day and flew back to Caracas.