December 13, 2007 / 4:42 PM / 11 years ago

Argentina's Fernandez calls U.S. cash probe "garbage"

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina’s new President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner attacked U.S. foreign policy on Thursday and said American claims that Venezuela smuggled $800,000 into Argentina to fund her election campaign were “garbage”.

Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her husband former president Nestor Kirchner wave to the crowd as they leave the Congress building after Cristina was sworn in as Argentina's next president for a four-year-term, in Buenos Aires December 10, 2007. REUTERS/Bruno Domingos

Three Venezuelans and a Uruguayan were arrested in Miami earlier this week on charges of covering up a scandal that began in August when a Venezuelan-American businessman tried to enter Argentina with a suitcase full of undeclared cash.

U.S. prosecutors say the suspects represented the anti-U.S. government of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez and the money was to help finance Fernandez’s campaign for the October 28 presidential election.

Fernandez, who easily won the vote, quickly hit back.

“This president may be a woman, but we’re not going to allow them to pressure us,” Fernandez said on Thursday in a thinly veiled reference to the United States.

“This shows how others view international politics and the type of relationship they want to have with other countries. More than friends, they want countries that work for them.”

Fernandez, a leftist former senator and first lady, took office as president on Monday, replacing her husband Nestor Kirchner in a rare transfer of power between spouses.

Argentine customs agents seized the suitcase of undeclared cash in August by but they let the businessman carrying it, Guido Antonini, leave the country without charging him.

An FBI affidavit said Venezuelan agents met Antonini, a U.S. and Venezuelan citizen, when he returned home to Florida and pressured him to conceal Caracas’s role in the scandal.

‘DIRTY TRICK’

Argentina’s justice ministry earlier on Thursday called the allegations a “dirty trick” aimed at “smearing” Fernandez.

Chavez’s government also denounced the arrests as a U.S. conspiracy to damage Venezuela’s relations with Argentina.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the arrests in Miami were not politically motivated.

“This is not an issue of U.S.-Argentine relations. This is a matter of U.S. law enforcement enforcing U.S. laws on U.S. soil,” he said.

Venezuela and Argentina have cultivated close ties in recent years with Chavez’s oil-rich government investing heavily in Argentine government bonds, and Fernandez is widely expected to keep Argentina in the bloc of left-wing governments suspicious of U.S. policies in Latin America.

The men arrested in Miami were charged with acting as agents of Venezuela’s government and failing to register themselves as such. They denied the charges in federal court on Wednesday but could face 10 years in prison if found guilty.

A fifth person was also charged but remained at large.

Antonini was not charged in the case. He carried the money on a jet chartered by Argentina’s government to take Argentine and Venezuelan officials from Caracas to Buenos Aires.

Argentina has sought an international arrest warrant for Antonini. U.S. officials are still processing the request.

When the scandal broke, Argentine officials called on Chavez to apologize for the incident, but he never did.

Writing by Hilary Burke; Editing by Kevin Gray and Kieran Murray

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