Chávez's ex-wife: potent foe, and candidate for mayor

Por Venezuela Real - 24 de Agosto, 2008, 19:46, Categoría: Imagen gobierno / Chávez

TYLER BRIDGES
Miami Herald
August 24, 2008

One of Hugo Chávez's most outspoken critics, described as a 'nightmare' for the president, has emerged as a leading candidate for mayor of Venezuela's fourth-largest city -- his ex-wife.

Hugo Chávez has left a trail of defeated men in his wake during nearly 10 years as Venezuela's socialist president, winning three elections and surviving one recall attempt. Now his ex-wife and former first lady has emerged as what Venezuelans like to call ``the pebble in his shoe.''

Marisabel Rodríguez is one of his most dogged critics. She's also the mother of his 10-year-old daughter.

Rodríguez's criticism last year of a referendum that Chávez sought to expand his powers helped sink the proposal, the only electoral defeat the president has ever suffered. ''A power grab,'' she called it.

She's garnered more headlines by decrying a list of Chávez critics banned from seeking state and municipal offices this year.

Now Rodríguez is running for mayor of Barquisimeto, her hometown.

She dismisses those who think that she's engaged in a personal vendetta by downplaying her role as one of the president's chief antagonists.

''I'm not running against Chávez,'' Rodríguez told McClatchy during an interview in her middle-class home. ``I'm not running for president. I'm only making a small effort against him by trying to help my city.''

Analysts said, however, that she would become a potent foe for Chávez, who is the United States' most vociferous critic in Latin America.

''She's a nightmare for the president,'' said Manuel Malaver, a Caracas newspaper columnist. ``She was closer to him than anyone else and has become a vocal critic. It will be even worse for him if she wins. She would have a platform to keep criticizing him.''

Chávez has avoided commenting on her candidacy, undoubtedly mindful of the publicity that any utterance would generate.

Rodríguez already has scored a victory over him this year that prompted one outburst. In May, Chávez withdrew a lawsuit seeking better visitation rights with their daughter, Rosines, after his ex-wife called the suit a form of harassment.

''I will not allow them to put my daughter in the middle of a spectacle,'' Chávez said on his weekly television program. ``So I have decided to quit this action.''

THE FALLING-OUT

Rodríguez, a radio reporter, met Chávez in 1997 when he was a long-shot candidate for president. They married later that year. He was elected president in 1998. They separated in 2002 and got divorced the following year. She moved out of the presidential residence in Caracas and returned to Barquisimeto.

''We weren't able to spend a lot of time together,'' Rodríguez said. ``He was held hostage by the power of the office and the demands of the people who surrounded him, including his Cuban advisors. He wants to be bigger than Fidel Castro.''

Rodríguez and Chávez haven't spoken since May 2007, when she called him to say that she'd be getting married the next day to her tennis instructor. Chávez removed the two bodyguards and state vehicle that Rodríguez used for their daughter and herself.

''I don't think he was jealous of me,'' Rodríguez said in the interview. ``I think he was worried about having to share his daughter with another man.''

Rodríguez has since separated from her husband, her fourth. Chávez has remained single.

POLITICAL SUPPORT

Major leaders of the opposition to Chávez in this politically polarized country have endorsed Rodríguez's bid for mayor. Her victory is by no means assured, however.

A popular labor leader and Chávez critic also is running for mayor of Barquisimeto, a city of more than one million people in western Venezuela.

Alfredo Ramos thinks he's the stronger candidate and that Rodríguez ought to step aside in favor of him.

''She's just a media candidate imposed by outside political bosses,'' Ramos said. ``She doesn't have the support of the ordinary people.''

A poll in July meant to winnow the field among opposition candidates gave Rodríguez 19 percent of the vote, followed by Ramos' 16 percent, within the survey's five-percentage-point margin of error.

Oly Mendoza was one of three opposition candidates who set aside their own ambitions to support Rodríguez. Four others are supporting Ramos.

''She is the most viable option to defeat the government's candidate,'' Mendoza said. ``You go out with her, and you see how her candidacy has ignited hope and passion.''

A PUBLIC SPECTACLE

Rodríguez's celebrity is her drawing card. She shook dozens of outstretched hands and bestowed almost as many kisses recently when she walked through the narrow aisles of the San Juan flea market in central Barquisimeto.

Sellers of knockoff brand-name clothes, as well as their customers, gawked at her.

''I just shook Marisabel Rodríguez's hand,'' one young woman said excitedly into her cellphone as she walked away from the former first lady.

Rodríguez showed her humor when several vendors teased her by chanting, ''Chávez! Chávez! Chávez!'' Rodríguez marched over to them, smiling, then posed for a photo and shared in good-natured joshing.

Others weren't so jolly.

''She's a traitor to the [Chávez] revolution,'' vendor Wilmer Peña said, moments after Rodríguez passed by. ``I'm a Chávista until death!''

ONE ON ONE

In the interview, Rodríguez portrayed herself as the only candidate who can bridge the gap between those who glorify Chávez and those who damn his name.

''People want the same change that brought Chávez to power,'' she said, ``but they know that the president is abusing his power and is trying to override the constitution. But it's impossible for the opposition to enter the hearts of the Chávistas. Many of them are looking for something different that isn't necessarily the opposition.''

Rosines interrupted the interview to hug her mother.

''She's my pride and joy,'' Rodríguez said as the girl beamed.

After her daughter walked away, Rodríguez said, ``I tell her at home that I don't agree with her father's policies. She understands that. She sees the poverty and the lack of authority in the streets.''

The election is Nov. 23, the day Rodríguez turns 44.

When she was asked whether she expected Chávez to call her if she wins, Rodríguez said, ``He ought to call me, at least to wish me happy birthday.''





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