Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, President and First Lady-Senator of Argentina, should love Venezuela's Hugo Chavez unequivocally. After all, Chavez is using Venezuela's petroleum riches to shore up Argentina's struggling economy, buying $1 billion of the country's bonds and investing $400 million in a natural gas plant to bolster Buenos Aires' energy needs.
Indeed, there used to be a lot of mutual affection among the Latin American leaders, fellow leftists all. Last March, the couple played host to Chavez, and allowed him to use his visit to stage a rally against the U.S. and President Bush — who in Chavez-speak is both "a political cadaver" and "an imperialist knight."
But the Kirchners are not too happy about one recent inflow of Venezuelan money into Argentina — especially if it jeopardizes Mrs. Kirchner's still-formidable advantage in the race to succeed her husband in October. The trouble started on Aug. 4 when Venezuelan-American businessman Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson's luggage inadvertently went through standard scanning procedures, instead of being exempt from such an examination because he was a VIP returning from Caracas on a flight chartered by Argentina's state oil company.
As a result of the scan, customs officials at Buenos Aires' Newberry airport found a bag stuffed with $790,550 in unmarked $50 bills. The other passengers on the plane were seven Argentine and Venezuelan oil officials who had been in Caracas negotiating the bond and gas plant deals. Opponents and critics of the Argentine first couple immediately pounced on the incident as proof that Chavez was buying the support of the Kirchner government.
"This is the proof of the corruption of this government," said Elisa Carrio, the main opposition candidate in the presidential campaign. The unseemliness of the airport discovery was not mitigated by Antonini Wilson's immediate flight from Argentina, apparently for Key Biscayne, Florida, where he maintains an apartment. A warrant has now been issued for his arrest by an Argentine court.
Chavez denies any link to the suitcase and dismisses the whole affair as a U.S. plot. "It is an absolute falsehood that the $800,000 had anything to do with functionaries of our government," Chavez told reporters in Buenos Aires when he visited two weeks ago, just after the affair came to light. For its part the Venezuelan state oil company — which has a branch in Argentina — denied any connection between itself and Antonini Wilson.
However, news reports in Argentina and neighboring Uruguay claimed that Antonini Wilson's hotel bills and other expenses in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo — just across the river from Buenos Aires — had been paid for by the Venezuelan company.
Even before he arrived on his state visit, the Kirchners demanded that Chavez dismiss his state oil company's representatives in Argentina, which the Venezuelan president complied with only belatedly last Friday, Aug. 17. In more damage control, they got the resignation of Argentine road toll authority chief Claudio Uberti, a fellow passenger who allowed Antonini Wilson to board the plane.
Kirchner opponents wary of the Venezuelan President's cozy relations with Cuba and Iran have seized on an issue that may slow down what seemed to be Senator Kirchner's inevitable rise to the Presidency. The daily Clarin, Argentina's most widely read newspaper, carried an op-ed piece by one of its top editors, Ricardo Kirschbaum, calling the suitcase affair "one of the greatest misfortunes" in Mrs. Kirchner's campaign, stating that "Hugo Chavez is one of the core themes in the electoral campaign."
The affair has also brought into focus the issue of alleged corruption in the Kirchner administration. Only last month, economy minister Felisa Miceli was forced to resign after a bag containing cash totaling some $60,000 was discovered in her office bathroom. Her resignation followed other revelations regarding bribery and false billing in government contracts, as well as accustions that Kirchner's administration has been tampering with official inflation and unemployment figures to make both appear lower than they are in reality.
While Senator Kirchner is still the favorite to become the next President of Argentina, her government will have to live with this new legacy. "Mrs. Kirchner's administration will probably be facing more difficulties than could have been foreseen only a short time ago," says political analyst Rosendo Fraga. The suitcase affair may be more harmful to Argentina's relations with Chavez.
"The case of the $800,000 has turned the relationship with Venezuela into a political problem," says Fraga. "Kirchner tried to convince Chavez to accept some of the political cost of the suitcase affair, but Chavez refused to take it." Chavez, Fraga explains, can refuse "because of Argentina's economic dependence on Venezuela." And the political sting of that dependence is the Kirchner's problem.