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BRASILIA (Reuters) - A Brazilian strategist was paid $20 million (15.5 million pounds) under-the-table for the 2012 re-election campaign of the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, much of it handed over in cash by the man who now leads Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro, according to a plea bargain statement made public on Thursday.
Strategist Joao Santana, nicknamed the "maker of presidents" for helping Brazil's leftist leaders hold power for 13 years, was arrested last year with his wife Monica Moura and they now are serving 8-year prison sentences for million-dollar payments from bribe money in the sprawling Car Wash graft investigation.
In a deposition to Brazilian prosecutors in March, Moura detailed similar illegal, under-the-table payments totalling $53.9 million, mostly paid by Brazilian engineering companies, for their work abroad advising election campaigns in Panama, El Salvador, Angola and Venezuela.
Moura, who looked after the couple's finances, told prosecutors that Maduro, then Chavez's foreign minister, personally paid her with cash in bags in his office in Caracas.
Maduro handed her $11 millions in an unspecified number of meetings and provided her with a bodyguard for her security when she left the foreign ministry, Moura said.
She said $7 million was paid offshore to the couple by Odebrecht, Brazil's largest engineering conglomerate that has admitted to bribing government officials for contracts in Brazil and a dozen other countries, and another $2 million by Brazilian builder Andrade Gutierrez. She said the Venezuelan government never paid a remaining $15 million for the 2012 campaign.
The Maduro government did not immediately reply to requests for comment on Moura's statement.
Maduro, a former bus driver, is facing mounting unrest as his opponents take to the streets in growing numbers demanding overdue elections. At least 39 people have died in the unrest since early April.
Santana helped Brazil's first working class president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva get re-elected in 2006 and managed two successful presidential bids by his hand-picked successor Dilma Rousseff in 2010 and 2014.
Rousseff was impeached last year, ending a 13-year run in office by Lula's Workers Party. Lula is facing five trials on corruption and obstruction of justice indictments and appeared in court on Wednesday to deny a luxury beachfront apartment was a gift from a government contractor.
Both Santana and Moura stated in their plea bargain depositions that Lula and Rousseff knew illegal funds were being used in the campaigns the couple worked on and that they were being paid in dollars deposited in offshore accounts.
Rousseff said in a statement the couple were lying. Lula's lawyers said the plea bargain statements by two defendants proved nothing and were part of "political persecution" of the former president.
Santana advised winning presidential candidates Mauricio Funes in El Salvador and Danilo Medina in the Dominican Republic.
Lula asked Santana to work for Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, Africa’s second-longest serving leader who was having trouble finding a strategist, Moura told prosecutors. She said Odebrecht picked up the $20-million bill.
Santana also worked against his will for defeated Panamanian presidential candidate José Domingos Arias at Lula's request and with Odebrecht paying the couple $11.4 million, Moura said.
Reporting by Ricardo Brito; Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Michael Perry