Page last updated at 10:39 GMT, Thursday, 25 September 2008 11:39 UK

Q&A: Miami smuggled cash case

A trial is taking place in the US city of Miami of a Venezuelan businessman in connection with an alleged plot to smuggle a cash-filled suitcase from Venezuela to Argentina, and subsequent attempts in the US to cover it up.

Guido Antonini arrives at the Miami courthouse on 23 September 2008
The suitcase in question was carried by Florida-based Guido Antonini

US prosecutors say the cash was sent by the Venezuelan government to fund the presidential election campaign of Argentina's then First Lady, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who was elected last October.

The case, dubbed "suitcase-gate" by the Argentine media, has had reverberations outside the courtroom, leading the Venezuelan and Argentine government to accuse Washington of trying to smear them.

On trial is Venezuelan businessman Franklin Duran, who is accused of operating illegally on American soil as an agent of Venezuela's government.

How did the alleged cash-smuggling plot come to light?

In August 2007, a Florida-based businessman, Guido Antonini Wilson, arrived in Buenos Aires on a private plane carrying Venezuelan oil officials to the Argentine capital.

An airport policewoman spotted several rectangular packages inside his suitcase as she monitored a scanner.

Mr Antonini was asked to open the case, which was found to contain $800,000 in cash.

Although the undeclared money was confiscated, Mr Antonini, who holds dual Venezuelan-US nationality, was not charged with any crime and was able to return home to Florida.

Why did the US authorities get involved?

Soon after he returned, Mr Antonini agreed to co-operate with US investigators.

He agreed to be secretly recorded and photographed as he met a group of Venezuelans in south Florida.

Concealed recordings show that Mr Antonini was pressured and even threatened to try to cover up an operation that had gone wrong, prosecutors say.

They say investigations show that the money was intended to be a campaign contribution from President Chavez's government to Cristina Fernandez de Kichner who was bidding to be elected president in elections in October that year.

Who has been charged?

In December, a US grand jury indicted five men, four Venezuelans and a Uruguayan, with illegally acting as agents in the US of a foreign government, in this case the Venezuelan government.

They were accused of conspiring to "obtain the assistance of Antonini" to cover up the source and destination of the money.

However, the sole defendant in the trial is Mr Duran, who has pleaded not guilty. His lawyer has argued that US officials have pursued the case solely to embarrass the government of Hugo Chavez.

The US authorities have said the investigation does not have any political purpose

Venezuelans Moises Maionica and Carlos Kauffmann and Uruguayan Rodolfo Wanseele Panciello pleaded guilty to acting as illegal foreign agents in the US. They have said that the Venezuelan intelligence agency played a central role in the attempted cover-up.

The fifth man was a Venezuelan intelligence agent, Antonio Jose Canchica Gomez, who remains at large.

What about Guido Antonini?

He does not face any charges in the US. However, shortly after he left Argentina, a judge issued an order for him to appear in court on charges relating to the undeclared cash.

The Argentine authorities are seeking his extradition, which is currently being reviewed.

US officials said they do not expect to take any action while the Miami trial is under way.

How have the Venezuelan and Argentine leaders reacted?

Both President Fernandez and President Chavez dismissed the accusations as a crude attempt to smear them.

Ms Fernandez said the case was a "trashing operation" while Mr Chavez has called the trial "staged" and Mr Antonini a "bandit" and "traitor".

Is the case likely to have further ramifications?

It will certainly not smooth Washington's already strained ties with Caracas, and prickly relations with President Ferandez's government.

US-Venezuelan relations, long difficult, fell to a new low point in September after President Chavez expelled the US ambassador. He said the move was in solidarity with Bolivia's leader Evo Morales, who accused Washington of trying to undermine Bolivia's government.

The case is airing allegations of corruption and high-level misconduct that have been seized on by critics of the Venezuelan and Argentine presidents.

How much coverage is the case getting?

Plenty in Argentina. In Venezuela, opposition media are devoting space and airtime to the trial, while government press and broadcasters have ignored it.

Since "suitcase-gate" erupted last year, it has generated many headlines, not all connected to corruption or diplomacy.

Maria de Lujan Telpuk, the policewoman who spotted the money, achieved national fame in Argentina, culminating in her posing naked on the cover of February's Argentine edition of Playboy, complete with suitcase.

She also posed for Venezuela's March edition.

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