By Leonardo Coutinho, 14 March 2015
For two months, the Argentines have been asking themselves what happened on January 18, the day that federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead in the bathroom of his apartment in Buenos Aires. Only four days earlier, he’d presented to the judiciary a denunciation against President Cristina Kirchner and four other people accused by him of covering up the participation of Iran in the terrorist attack that killed 85 and wounded 300 at the headquarters of the Mutual Argentine-Israeli Association (AMIA) in 1994. In the document, Nisman explains that, aside from signing the Memorandum of Understandingwhich would allow Iran to interfere in the investigation of the case, the Islamic Republic wanted Argentina to take five Iranians and one Lebanese off the wanted list of Interpol. The Argentina government tried in every way to disqualify his work. Three weeks ago a judge formally dismissed the complaint filed by Nisman, re-filed by a new prosecutor. Without worrying about hiding his political alignments with the government, the judge took advantage of the recourse that dismissed Nisman’s complaint in order to praise the President and her administration.
Everything indicates that the crime that Cristina and other members of her government were accused of by Nisman would turn into another of so many mysterious episodes in Argentina’s recent history. An agreement between countries,however, even made in the shadows, leavestraces. Since 2012, twelve high officials of the Chavista government have sought asylum in the United States, where they are collaborating with the authorities in investigations about the participation of the Caracas government in international trafficking of drugs and support for terrorism. VEJA spoke, separately, with three of the twelve Chavistas exiled in the United States. To avoid retaliation against their families in Venezuela, they asked that their identities not be revealed in this report. They all were part of Chavez’s cabinet. After the death of the colonel in 2013, they shared power with Maduro, who they broke with after some months. The ex-members of the leadership of the Bolivarian government say that they were present when the leaders of Iran and Venezuela discussed, in Caracas, the agreement that prosecutor Nisman denounced in Buenos Aires. According to them, the representatives of the Argentine government received huge amounts of dollars in cash. In exchange for the money, say the dissident Chavistas, Iran asked that the planning of the bombing be covered up. The Argentines also had to share with the Iranians their long experience in heavy water nuclear reactors, an antiquated, expensive and complex system, but which allows for obtaining plutonium from natural uranium. That shortcut is the great advantage for a country interested in building atomic bombs without the need to enrich uranium and, therefore, calling the attention of international oversight authorities.
On the morning of January 13, 2007, a Saturday, the Chavistas say, the then-president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, arrived in the capital of Venezuela on his second visit to the country. Following the rituals of protocol, Chavez received Ahmadinejad for a meeting at the Palácio de Miraflores, accompanied only by both of their bodyguards, interpreters and members of the top line of the Venezuelan government. The meeting happened around midday, a little before lunch. The conversation took around 15 minutes. They talked about bilateral agreements, investments in the oil sector and student exchanges. It was then that Ahmadinejad told Chávez that he needed a favor. A military man that witnessed the meeting told VEJA the dialogue that followed:
Ahmadinejad: It’s an issue of life and death. I need you to intermediate together with Argentina on help for the nuclear program of my country. We need Argentina to share nuclear technology with us. Without the collaboration of the country, it will be impossible to move ahead in our program.
Chávez: Very quickly. I will do this, comrade.
Ahmadinejad: Don’t worry about the costs involved in this operation. Iran will back it will all the necessary money for convincing the Argentines. There is another issue. I need you to discourage Argentina from continuing to insist that Interpol arrest authorities of my country.
Chávez: I will personally take charge of that.
The presidents got up and went to have lunch. After that, they went back into a new meeting. This time, only with the presence of the Iranian interpreter. The Chavistas exiled in Washington told VEJA they’d had direct participation in the actions taken by Chavez to attend to Ahmadinejad’s request. The two leaders saw in the purchase of Argentine debt bond by Venezuela, which had been happening since 2005, an opportunity to attract Argentina for an agreement. In 2007, the Venezuelan Treasury bought US$1.8 billion in Argentine debt bonds. At the end of 2008, Venezuela held 6 billion dollars in Argentine sovereign debt bonds. For Argentina, the deal was wonderful, since the permanent threat of default had spooked investors. The Kirchners, Néstor and Cristina, offered diverse expressions of public gratitude to Chavez for the financial operation.
Less refined and more problematic was the direct transfer of money from Caracas to Buenos Aires. In August 2007, Guido Antonini Wilson, a Venezuelan businessman residing in the United States, was caught by Argentine customs trying to enter the country with a suitcase with 800,000 dollars. He said, after, that the money was destined for the campaign of Cristina Kirchner, in which two months later she would be elected President of Argentina, succeeding her husband, Néstor. Coincidentally, Chávez had an official visit to the Argentine capital scheduled two days after Antonini’s arrest. One of the two ex-members of the Chavista government that spoke to VEJA was with Chavez when he was advised of the arrest of Rafael Ramírez, then president of PDVSA,the state oil firm, and today the Venezuelan ambassador to the UN. Chávez reacted with profanity and asked who had been the “idiot” that coordinated the operation. “The money had origins in Iran for the campaign of Cristina Kirchner,” says the witness from the scene. He goes on: “I can’t say that she knew that the money was Iranian, but it’s clear that she knew it came from a clandestine source.”
Antonini was released afterwards and, when he returned to the United States, he sought out the FBI, the American federal police, to explained himself on the episode of the suitcase. The Chavista intelligence service tried to dissuade Antonini from his intentions. The operation is described in the book “Chavistas in the Empire” the Cuban-American journalist Casto Ocando, based on the FBI files on Antonini. According to Ocando, the agents of Henry Rangel Silva,chief of the intelligence service, offered attorneys to Antonini and, after he refused threatened the businessman and his son with death. The conversations with the attorneys paid for by the Venezuelans were recorded by the FBI. In one of them, on September 7, 2007, they say that Caracas was willing to pay 2 million dollars for Antonini’s silence. The spies were arrested and accused of conspiracy. In his book, Ocando concludes that Chavez was ready to do anything to cover up the origin of the money, even taking the blame for the transfer, attributing it to PDVSA. What Ocando didn’t know, and now it is known, is that the money came from Iran.
The money made a stop in Venezuela in the same way it was sent to Argentina: in suitcases. In the meeting where Ahmadinejad asked Chávez to attract Argentina to an agreement, the two presidents also decided to set up a flight between Caracas, Damascus and Teheran, which later was nicknamed by the Chavista leadership “aeroterror”. Between March 2007 and September 2010, an Airbus A340 went over this route twice a month. According to the Chavistas who spoke to VEJA, when it left Caracas, the plane was loaded with cocaine. They also transported documents and equipment, about which the ex-officials don’t know the details. The drugs were taken out in the Syrian capital, from where they were re-distributed by Hezbollah, a Lebanese terrorist group. Since 2012, when the first Chavistas started to exile in the United States, the American authorities know that drug trafficking had supplanted Iran as the main source of financing for Hezbollah. On its return, the Airbus carried money and terrorists being internationally pursued.
One of the main operators of the Caracas-Teheran flights was Venezuelan Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami, now governor of the State of Aragua. The U.S. Drugs Enforcement Agency (DEA) collected various depositions that points to the politician as the nexus between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Hezbollah. El Aissami had as an agent the Lebanese manGhazi Nasr al-Din, then the commercial attache at the Venezuelan embassy in Damascus. Al-Din, who at the end of January was added to the list of the FBI’s most wanted, had as a mission to produce and distribute Venezuelan passports to hide the true identity of terrorists that traveled around the world. Among those under cover by him was the cleric Mohsen Rabbani, cited by Nisman as the mastermind of the AMIA bombing. He was using a passport given to him by Al-Din that Rabbani secretly visted Brazil at least three times. Even with the end of “aeroterror”, in 2010, Venezuela continued providing documents to give cover to terrorists. According to two exiled Chavistas, in May 2013, the Caracas government had given cover to at least 35 members of the group Hezbollah.
The Chavistas interviewed by this reporter didn’t know if the Iranians were successful in obtaining the information about the Argentine nuclear program that Ahmadinejad wanted so much. Despite their having belonged to the closest circle to the President, the discussions about that issue were reserved to the defense ministers of Venezuela and Iran. From the Argentine side, the interlocutor was Defense Minister Nilda Garre, currently the ambassador of her country to the Organization of American States (OAS). Garre is an ex-guerrila from the Montoneros who met several times with Hugo Chávez, maintaining a close relationship with him that became official in 2005 when she was named the ambassador to Caracas. According to the Chavista deserters, it was Chavez who asked Nestor Kirchner to name Garre to the post. Chavez and Garre also had an intimate personal relationship, which is only of public interest for the two components of the political alliance between the two countries. “It was something along the lines of 50 Shades of Gray,” says the ex-Chavista official. According to him, when Chavez and Garre met in the cabinet of the Venezuelan leader in the Palácio de Miraflores, the sounds of the party could be heard from far away. After six months, Garre returned to Buenos Aires to take over the Defense post. She stayed in the job until the end of 2010. “I can’t say that the Argentine government handed over nuclear secrets but I know that they got a lot through legal means (the debt bonds) and illegal means (suitcases of money) in exchange for something very valuable for the Iranians.” Said another exiled Chavista: “In Argentina, the holder of these secrets is former ambassador Garre.” There are similarities between the Arak nuclear reactor in Iran and Atucha in Argentina. Both were planned for using plutonium, an essential material for building atomic bombs, using only natural uranium. The difference is that Arak should have entered into operation last year, but there are no indications that this has effectively happened. Atucha has been operating since 1974 and generates 2.5% of Argentina’s electrical power. Argentina’s nuclear technology was also useful for putting the Bushir plant on line, which had been unfinished since 1979. Bushir was inaugurated in 2011. Who knows whether Minister Garre could give a clearer picture of the Teheran-Buenos Aires agreement that was sewn together in Caracas.