There’s a story in Argentina that has become widely known under a simple title: La Valija (the suitcase). It should be destined to become that country’s version of Watergate. “Valijagate” refers to the discovery in August 2007 that Guido Antonini, a Venezuelan-born American, was carrying a suitcase containing $800,000 in U.S. currency when he arrived on a private plane at the Buenos Aires city airport, Aeroparque Jorge Newberry.
A new book, Los Secretos de la Valija (The Secrets of the Suitcase), is just out in Argentina, written by an Argentine colleague, Hugo Alconada, a journalist with La Nacion and the newspaper’s former Washington correspondent. (Full disclosure: Hugo is a friend, and he mentions me in the acknowledgments of the book, but I didn’t work on the investigation itself).
Alconada’s story percolates with intrigue and new revelations about the suitcase and Antonini, who ultimately said in a Miami trial that he was carrying the loot on behalf of a top Argentine official and that the money was from the Venezuelan oil monopoly, PDVSA.
But that came only after he wore a wire and became a cooperating witness with the U.S. Government. In resulting tapes, Venezuelan handlers promised him protection for claiming the suitcase was his, and not revealing that the suitcase was sent to the presidential campaign of the now-president of Argentina, Christina Kirchner.
Argentinian officials have denied involvement and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has charged Antonini was employed by the Bush administration in a campaign to malign his government.
Alconada’s book, so far only in Spanish, deserves publication in English in the United States. His extensive investigation reveals:
- The plane carrying Antonini and the suitcase that was transporting much more than the $800,000 — a total of $5 million.
- Despite government denials, Antonini went to the Argentina presidential palace, the Casa Rosada, after the money was seized at the airport. Moreover, the book details a plan in which Argentine and Venezuelan officials coordinated a cover-up of the case.
- It also notes that Antonini had a history of working for Chavez. He helped organize trips to 24 countries in Africa, Southeast Asia and Pacific islands in a 2006 vanity campaign by the Chavez government to promote Venezuela’s appointment to a temporary slot on the UN Security Council.
There’s an interesting sidelight to the cloak and dagger story. A funny thing happened earlier this month as Alconada answered questions at a bookstore to promote his story. At some point, possibly when a questioner approached him as a distraction, his briefcase, which contained notes about three of his current investigations, disappeared.
A similar black briefcase was left in its place.
Alconada doesn’t get it and jumps to no conclusions. “My newspaper wrote a small piece about it, and it became a big deal. I don’t know how to explain what happened.”
– Peter Eisner