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Julián Ercolini, an Argentine judge, investigates bribery accusations against officials

By Ezequiel Vinacour for Infosurhoy.com—03/06/2010

Argentines had to pay kickbacks to do business in Venezuela, former ambassador alleges

Argentina’s Ministry of Federal Planning, Public Investment and Services, headed by Minister Julio De Vido, said allegations his office engaged in any improper conduct in Venezuela are “argumentatively awful and without any proof.” (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Argentina’s Ministry of Federal Planning, Public Investment and Services, headed by Minister Julio De Vido, said allegations his office engaged in any improper conduct in Venezuela are “argumentatively awful and without any proof.” (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Argentine entrepreneurs conducting business in Venezuela paid kickbacks between 15 and 20% of each transaction, said Eduardo Sadous, a former Argentine ambassador to Venezuela.

Sadous’ testimony was part of a judicial investigation that was launched toward the end of 2008 as a response to allegations of corruption against the administrations of Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her husband, Néstor Kirchner.

“In order to do business with [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chávez's administration, Argentine businessmen had to pay bribes to the Ministry of Federal Planning [Public Investment and Services],” Sadous testified before Federal Judge Julián Ercolini, according to the Argentine daily Perfil.

Sadous, who served as ambassador in the Andean nation from October 2002 to May 2005, said a “parallel embassy” in Venezuela oversaw the commercial relations between the two countries, according to the Argentine daily La Nación.

Alberto Álvarez Tufillo, commercial attaché during Sadous’ term in Caracas, Venezuela, testified before Ercolini “the embassy did not participate in 85% of the business meetings,” according to La Nación.

Argentina’s Ministry of Federal Planning, Public Investment and Services and Minister Julio De Vido’s delegate in Caracas, Claudio Uberti, were responsible for Argentina’s commercial relations with Venezuela, Sadous and Álvarez’s testified.

“Sadous also mentioned that members of government might have benefitted from front men in those export businesses and that the commercial relations with [Venezuela] were handled by Claudio Uberti, parallel to the chancellery,” said Hugo Alconada Mon, journalist at La Nación.

De Vido denied the accusations, saying they are “argumentatively awful and without any proof,” according to the Argentine daily Clarín.

Chávez said the allegations are part of a “political operation” that aims at “tarnishing the relations between nations,” according to the Venezuelan daily El Tiempo.

Agricultural equipment and beef were among the products subject to bribes, according to Perfil and La Nación.

“In 2005 a US$500 million agreement was signed so that Argentine businesses could sell agricultural machinery to Venezuela. The plan was that these transactions would be carried out in stages through 2007, [and this] generated great enthusiasm in the sector,” said Argentine radio and television journalist Nelson Castro. “However, [the enthusiasm] didn’t last long because they soon began to demand the payment of bribes to carry out the business.”

In April, eight former officials from Argentina’s Energy Secretariat accused the Argentine government of buying fuel oil when internal demand was “fully satisfied” and there was an “exportable surplus,” according to BBC World.

Argentine cattle producer Eduardo Cavanagh, after testifying, told reporters that there was a “lack of transparency” in the negotiations to sell beef to Venezuela, according to La Nación.

“You had to be connected to someone who was in charge of handling the negotiations,” Cavanagh testified, according to Clarín. “It was public knowledge that you had to negotiate with the parties, the Argentine and Venezuelan delegations.”

Ercolini is looking into whether Argentine government officials demanded payment from entrepreneurs to conduct business in Venezuela. Ercolini has centered his investigation on two companies suspected of acting as intermediaries in business deals between Buenos Aires and Caracas: the Miami-based Palmat International, and Madero Trading S.A., headquartered in Buenos Aires, according to BBC World.

Palmat International and Madero Trading S.A both refused to comment or issue a statement when contacted by Infosurhoy.com.

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