"Suitcase Scandal" is Another U.S. Foreign Policy Blunder

The "suitcase scandal" has alienated the new Argentine government and
will only further sully Washington's reputation in Latin America.

By Mark Weisbrot - AlterNet
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The now infamous "suitcase scandal" has deeply alienated the new
Argentine government and is likely to further sully Washington's
reputation in Latin America.

On December 20 the U.S. government
indicted four Venezuelans and one Uruguayan for allegedly acting as
foreign agents without notifying the U.S. government. The charges stem
from an incident that occurred on August 4 when Guido Antonini Wilson,
a Venezuelan/American with dual citizenship, was stopped at Argentine
customs with about $800,000 cash in a suitcase.

The U.S. Justice
Department alleges that the money was intended for the election
campaign of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who was elected president
of Argentina on October 28. Of course this would not violate U.S. law,
even if it were true; nor would the Feds' charge that the money came
from the Venezuelan government. What makes it a Federal case is the
charge that the defendants, allegedly acting on behalf of the
Venezuelan government, tried to convince Antonini to keep quiet about
the alleged origin and destination of the money.

Thus the men are
indicted for failing to notify the U.S. Attorney General that they were
acting as agents of a foreign government (Venezuela).

The charges
have deeply alienated the new Argentine government, which by all
accounts was poised to increase its engagement with the United States.
President Cristina Fernandez immediately dismissed them as "garbage,"
and her government accused Washington of using "dirty tricks" to
intimidate her and attempt to drive a wedge between Argentina and
Venezuela. Her husband, former president Nestor Kirchner, demanded that
the U.S. surrender the fugitive Antonini, for whom the Argentine
government has repeatedly sought extradition from the United States.

The
case is clearly a major foreign policy blunder for the Bush
Administration. There is no love lost in relations with Venezuela,
which have been in the toilet since the Administration backed a failed
military coup against President Hugo Chavez in 2002. But U.S.-Argentine
relations have been cordial, despite the country's deep resentment of
the Washington-run International Monetary Fund (IMF) for its role in
Argentina's severe economic crisis (1998-2002), and were set to improve.

Not
only Argentina, but most of the region, will likely see this
prosecution as a gross political interference on the part of United
States government in the internal affairs of its neighbors. No one will
believe, nor should they, that it is merely a matter of "enforcing U.S.
laws," as State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told the media.

Edmund
McWilliams, a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer here in
Washington, cited other cases where "the Justice Department
subordinated the pursuit of justice to Administration foreign policy
objectives." He noted that this prosecution "may have been at the
instigation of the Administration itself."

It sure looks that
way. There has never been an indictment under this law (18 USC § 951),
or its accompanying conspiracy statute (18 USC § 371) - without there
at least being another accusation involving some kind of alleged
espionage, and some kind of potential U.S. national security issue. In
this case, it is really only the failure to notify the Attorney General
that is the basis of the alleged crime. And the case may be even weaker
than that: almost all of the indictment is devoted to the conspiracy
charge, which indicates that the government may not even have any real
evidence that the defendants were acting under orders from the
Venezuelan government.

This particular case also does not smell
good on its merits. The star witness is the man with the suitcase
(Antonini), who has not been charged. Since he is wanted for money
laundering in Argentina, he might well see his current liberty as
dependent on saying and doing whatever the U.S. government wants.

So
far the prosecution hasn't released any evidence that either the
Argentine government or the Venezuelan government were involved in
whatever the bag man was doing with the cash. Other things do not add
up: Cristina Kirchner had no serious electoral challenge (the second
place finisher got 23 percent to her 45 percent). Why would she risk
taking $800,000 from Venezuela? And why send a shady businessman from
the U.S. through Argentine customs, when the cash could have been
placed securely in a piece of Venezuelan diplomatic luggage, which by
law cannot be searched?

The political decision to prosecute this
case is just one more example of Washington's failed policies in Latin
America, as it has repeatedly isolated itself by trying to isolate
Venezuela from its neighbors. George W. Bush ran for President as "a
uniter, not a divider." He continues to unite ever more of the world -
against him.

Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director and co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan. He
is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: The Phony Crisis
(University of Chicago Press, 2000), and has written numerous research
papers on economic policy. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy.