The New York Times
May 12, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chávez is faced with problems like rising inflation, a diplomatic crisis with neighboring Colombia and defections of officials from his Socialist Party to the political opposition.
But few issues have dogged Mr. Chávez recently as much as his legal battle with the former first lady, Marisabel Rodríguez, which culminated on Sunday when Mr. Chávez withdrew his lawsuit seeking better visitation rights with their 10-year-old daughter, Rosinés.
The president acted after several days of public fury and a wave of accusations against him by Ms. Rodríguez, to whom he was married for six years before their divorce in 2003.
“I could be attacked at any time by these hordes he has on the street,” Ms. Rodríguez, 43, declared at a news conference over the weekend, referring to the president’s sometimes zealous supporters.
She also said she feared for her safety and could press charges against Mr. Chávez under statutes barring aggression against women. “I declare myself a victim of violence, harassment and persecution on the part of the president,” Ms. Rodríguez said.
The strife is more than a personal legal matter: Ms. Rodríguez has become a political figure here as well, making the custody dispute more fodder for the country’s polarized politics.
Ms. Rodríguez emerged as a vocal critic of Mr. Chávez’s policies last year by urging voters to reject his constitutional reform package, as they did. Now she is running for mayor of Barquisimeto, a city with a population of a million or more, and has even suggested that Mr. Chávez’s lawsuit was part of a strategy to deprive her of the right to run for public office. Under Venezuelan law, a judgment against her could have prevented her from running.
Mr. Chávez, 53, had largely refrained from commenting publicly on the dispute, although in the past he had accused Ms. Rodríguez of keeping him from visiting their daughter. The president has been single since his divorce from Ms. Rodríguez, his second wife.
On Sunday, however, he seemed to have had enough.
“I will not allow them to put my daughter in the middle of a spectacle,” he said on his weekly television program. “So I have decided to quit this action.”
In a cover story this month in Caras, a leading celebrity magazine here, Ms. Rodríguez revealed details of the conflict. Their problems began, she said, when she told the president last year of her engagement to Sandro García, a tennis instructor in Barquisimeto.
“He told me, ‘You know what you’re doing,’ “ Ms. Rodríguez said. She said that the day after her discussion with Mr. Chávez, her two government vehicles were taken away, and that she and the president had not spoken to each other since.
Asked by Caras about her return to political life, Ms. Rodríguez replied, “And why not?”