This may not be not such a good time for a trip to Venezuela. If you didn't get the hint when President Hugo Chavez called George Bush a sulfurous-smelling devil, the oddest spy case to hit the hemisphere in years should make it clear: Flying to Caracas on business is a bit dicey these days.
Franklin Durán faces sentencing today because he didn't register as a foreign agent while (allegedly) attempting to bribe a colleague in South Florida. The bribe was reportedly offered so Durán's colleague would not spill the beans about an alleged plot to funnel money into the Argentinian presidential campaign.
Oops, that's quite an oversight. Durán is asking for leniency because he wasn't spying on or doing anything to harm the US: this was purely a game between Venezuelans and Argentinians. Here's how the Herald summed it up today:
Durán, 41, the only defendant among five Latin American men indicted in 2007 to fight charges at trial, was accused of traveling to South Florida to lead a cover-up of a hemispheric political scandal.
The men were charged with working on behalf of Venezuela's spy agency to silence a colleague who had been caught with a suitcase stuffed with $800,000 on a plane flight to Argentina in August 2007. Prosecutors say the money was a gift from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to Argentina's leading presidential candidate, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. She won the election.
Chavez and Kirchner deny it, of course. Three others pleaded guilty.
Seems like a bit of political brinkmanship is at work. Would we seek prison terms if we found out France was bribing an English politician on US soil?
Chavez, meanwhile, continues with his usual annoying saber-rattling. He's talking with the Russians about allowing them to run military maneuvers in his country -- so very 1980. Now we're locking people up not because they're spying on us, but because they were doing their country's dirty work here. (Is there even an investigation in Argentina or Venezuela?)
Meanwhile, travelers should take note that the State Department warns that, "harassment of U.S. citizens by pro-government groups, Venezuelan airport authorities, and some segments of the police occurs but is quite limited." Hopefully it stays quite limited.
Tristram Korten is a freelance journalist in Miami. He writes frequently about the region for numerous magazines including Details and Salon.com.