CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on Monday the United States was trying to divide Latin America with accusations his government smuggled $800,000 to influence Argentina’s recent election campaign.
Chavez, a vocal opponent of the United States, denied that three Venezuelan businessmen arrested in Miami last week in connection with the case were agents for the Venezuelan government, as charged by Washington.
“In fact these businessmen, accused of being agents, are not our agents,” he said in a speech to mark the anniversary of the death of Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar. “They are not (our agents), but we do have friends who inform us.”
The scandal began in August when customs agents seized a suitcase of undeclared cash from U.S.-Venezuelan businessman Guido Antonini Wilson at an airport in Buenos Aires but allowed him to leave the country. Argentina later issued an international arrest warrant for him.
U.S. prosecutors say the money was destined to bolster the campaign of Cristina Fernandez, who was sworn in as Argentina’s first woman president a week ago after winning the October 28 election.
Chavez denied that his government, which is flush with oil dollars, was involved in trafficking the cash, which Argentine customs found on a flight carrying Venezuelan officials to an energy summit.
Chavez, who said the scandal was a U.S. attempt to sully his name, often vocally supports other candidates in presidential races around Latin America, but most countries bar direct foreign campaign contributions.
In recent years a number of countries in the region have elected leftist governments, some closer than others to Chavez.
The socialist leader also blamed the United States for his deteriorating relations with Washington-allied neighbor Colombia and warned America against meddling in regional affairs, saying it could lead to war.
“How sad would be the day that the North American empire in its need to dominate the world takes us to a war between brothers,” he said, apparently referring to Colombia.
Chavez, who frequently calls for an end to U.S. political and economic dominance in the world, also blamed Washington for recent unrest against the indigenous-controlled government of Bolivia and said the instability could spread.
“Now the empire is trying to generate a civil war in Bolivia,” he said. “If they want to make one of us explode, several will explode.
Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel, editing by Eric Walsh