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LATIN AMERICA | 16-09-2017 00:45

Credit-card scandal downs Uruguayan VP

Raúl Sendic resigns post after allegations dating back to time at ANCAP, former guerrilla fighter and wife of Mujica replaces him.

Lucia Topolansky, the wife of former President José “Pepe” Mujica, was named Uruguay’s vice-president on Wednesday after lawmakers accepted Raúl Sendic’s resignation amid corruption accusations. 

Topolansky, 72, is a former guerrilla who was imprisoned and later rose through the political ranks to become a lawmaker. She will also head the Senate and the Congress’ general assembly. 

She was a member of the National Liberation Movement MLN-Tupamaros guerrillas in the 1960s and 1970s. She spent 13 years in prison for her activities, most of it during Uruguay’s military regime, and once escaped but was recaptured. 

Sendic, 54, announced his departure over the weekend after allegations of corruption stemming from purported credit-card misuse during his tenure as head of state oil company ANCAP. It is the first time a vice-president has stepped down in Uruguay. 

The corruption allegations surfaced in June, when the weekly publication Busqueda reported that between 2010 and 2013, Sendic used corporate credit cards to make purchases at jewellery, electronics, furniture and other stores apparently unrelated to his official business. 

Journalists Patricia Madrid and Viviana Ruggiero later published a book showing copies of the credit card statements. 

A tribunal of his political party determined he may have engaged in “unacceptable use of public funds” and accused him of lying in his defence. Sendic appeared before the tribunal but was unable to explain the purchases other than to say they seemed “strange.” 

Sendic, who is also a senator and president of Congress, tweeted last Saturday that he had presented his “indeclinable resignation of the vice-presidency” and had communicated the decision to President Tabaré Vázquez. He did not address the allegations, which are also being studied by a public anti-graft entity. 

Under the Constitution, Sendic should be replaced by the senator at the top of the party list that received the most votes in the last elections. That person is Mujica. But the former president is ineligible due to a prohibition on presidential re-election. The senator next in line is his wife, part of the governing Frente Amplio coalition, and Topolansky becomes Uruguay’s first female vice-president.

Chequered history. Sendic, 54, has been at the centre of several different controversies, making him a frequent target of criticism from the opposition, the media and even his own political allies. 

During his time leading ANCAP, the company racked up a huge deficit and required an US$872-million bailout to avoid bankruptcy. That provoked a scandal including within his party, with Economy Minister Danilo Astori blaming Sendic and then-president Mujica. 

Sendic argued that the deficit resulted from expensive but necessary investments, but opposition politicians filed a complaint citing possible acts of corruption. Among other irregularities, the company allegedly made advertising payments to a non-existent radio station. 

ANCAP also launched a million-dollar TV publicity blitz with a slogan that Sendic later used for his own electoral campaign. 

And in 2016, the former vicepresident acknowledged that he did not have a university degree in human genetics after claiming for years that he did. 

In early July, Vázquez said Sendic had been subjected to “the most incredible bullying I have seen in my life, and I find the cruelty astonishing.”

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