Hugo Chávez Spreads the Loot

Venezuelan businessman Franklin Durán sat perfectly still last week, staring straight ahead, as a Miami jury pronounced him guilty of acting illegally as an agent for Venezuela on U.S. soil. He could be sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Yet while Durán showed no emotion in the courtroom, back in Venezuela the intellectual author of his crime, President Hugo Chávez, went bonkers.

The problem for Mr. Chávez is that, for almost a decade, Latin American democrats have been accusing Venezuela of violating the sovereignty of its neighbors by supporting the radical left with money and weapons. Mr. Chávez has denied it.

[Hugo Ch[aacute]vez Spreads the Loot] Associated Press

Hugo Chavez meets Cristina Kirchner in Buenos Aires, Dec. 11, 2007.

Now comes the Durán conviction, which has revealed that sizable financial contributions went from the Chávez government to Peronist candidate Cristina Kirchner in the 2007 Argentine presidential race. For Mr. Chávez, who appears to be still toiling at a number of other similar projects around the region, the bad publicity is devastating.

Mr. Chávez’s trouble in Argentina began on Aug. 4, 2007, when a small jet from Caracas landed in Buenos Aires. On board were two Argentine government officials and three executives of the Venezuelan state-owned oil company, PdVSA. Another passenger was Venezuelan businessman Guido Alejandro Antonini.

Customs agents discovered $800,000 in Mr. Antonini’s suitcase that he had not declared. They let him go and he returned home to Miami, where he went to see the Federal Bureau of Investigations and agreed to cooperate in an investigation of the matter.

Americas columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady reports on the Venezuelan dictator and a briefcase full of cash.

Mr. Chávez was unaware of this arrangement when he told his intelligence chief to find a way to shut up the bagman. Durán and another Venezuelan named Carlos Kauffman — both of whom had made a fortune in deals with the Chávez government — were sent to Florida to warn Mr. Antonini to remain silent. Little did they know that he had agreed to wear a wire to their meetings. The recordings of Durán and Kauffman — offering Mr. Antonini money if he kept his mouth closed, and suggesting that his children would be at risk if he did not — helped convict Durán. Kauffman pleaded guilty and testified against Durán.

The exposure of this thuggish behavior of the Venezuelan government is embarrassing enough. What is worse for Mr. Chávez is Mr. Antonini’s testimony that he was told by a PdVSA executive that there was another $4.2 million on the same plane and that there had been other operations to smuggle cash into Argentina for political purposes. Kauffman further testified that the Venezuelan ambassador to Bolivia had told him he had “$100 million to spend on Bolivia.” Kauffman said he had been negotiating the sale of $12 million of antiriot equipment to Bolivia, to be paid for by Venezuela.

That testimony jibes with reports from Bolivia that the Venezuela ambassador travels the country handing out checks to mayors who support President Evo Morales. Meanwhile, in Colombia, pro-Chávez Senator Piedad Córdoba recently admitted that a PdVSA subsidiary gave her $135,000.

One of the most egregious examples of Venezuelan influence in the domestic politics of neighbors is in Nicaragua, where the old Sandinista Daniel Ortega is now president. Venezuela is supplying 60%-70% of Nicaragua’s annual crude-oil needs through a program that allows Mr. Ortega to pay only half the bill. The other half is a 25-year loan. After that the web gets tangled indeed.

Nicaragua’s state oil company Petro-Nic sells the oil to private companies and collects the full value. Twenty-five percent of that income then goes to a social investment fund called Albanisa and the other 25% goes to something called Albacaruna. The director of Petronic and Albanisa is also the treasurer of the Sandinista Party. With its “oil income,” Albanisa spent the last month giving away goodies like kitchens and houses ahead of yesterday’s municipal elections. What Albacaruna does with the other half of the Venezuelan credit is not clear. Government critics say it is a slush fund for Mr. Ortega, and has been used to pay for Sandinista campaigning. Nicaraguans are worried about the loans, which imply more national debt.

In El Salvador, where the former guerrilla group FMLN is hoping to win the presidency in March, FMLN mayors have a company called Alba Petróleos. It receives gasoline and diesel on favorable terms from Venezuela, sells it at a slight discount to the market at its filling stations and captures a fat profit. This allows it to dominate the retail market, and may explain why the party is awash in campaign cash — some speculate upwards of $60 million

The Durán case has blown the lid off of Mr. Chávez’s covert Argentine activities. But his imperialist ambitions go far beyond that country. He may get away with it, but no one should assume from the successes of his protégés that his popularity is spreading. It’s Venezuela’s money that is doing the trick. With oil prices sinking, one wonders how long the money will last.

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