Family members sang the Venezuelan national anthem and joined in prayer as the remains of former Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez were temporarily entombed Thursday in a U.S. crypt, while a fight continues over his permanent resting place.
A judge ordered Perez's sealed copper casket moved from a mortuary refrigeration unit to a second-floor mausoleum site to preserve the former president's dignity. But even that was the subject of a bitter battle between family members who are feuding over whether the body should go home to Venezuela or remain in the U.S.
A court-appointed curator first had to find a neutral mausoleum. Then, there was a dispute over whether any photos could be taken of the ceremony _ the ruling was "no." The decision was also made to have cemetery workers carry Perez's casket, so there would be no perceived advantage or slight to either side. Perez's hearse had a motorcycle police escort for the six-mile trip from the mortuary.
Attendance at the brief entombment was restricted to an agreed-upon list of family, friends and attorneys aligned with the two sides: Perez's estranged wife in Venezuela, Blanca Rodriguez de Perez, and his longtime companion in Miami, Cecilia Matos. News media were restricted from the ceremony, but Matos spoke with reporters afterward.
"I am happy that God gave us the privilege of the entombment," Matos said in Spanish, according to an Associated Press translation. "Now we can rest after this nightmare."
Rodriguez de Perez declined comment. Once Venezuela's first lady, she and her group arrived and departed in style in a pair of black stretch limousines. She was also about 25 minutes late, walking slowly into the mausoleum using a copper-colored metal cane.
Participants at the ceremony said the Matos group sang the Venezuelan national anthem and then all family members recited the 23rd Psalm as Perez's casket was placed in the crypt. The two women who shared Perez's life and bore his children were together for the first time in many decades _ and their next confrontation is likely to be in a courtroom.
An August trial is scheduled to determine whether Rodriguez de Perez can take her husbands body back to Venezuela. Matos contends that Perez swore he would never return as long as his political foe Hugo Chavez was in power. He left no written burial instructions.
A new wrinkle on that is Chavez's serious illness that has forced him to seek treatment in Cuba, clouding the nation's political situation. Testimony at earlier hearings in the Perez case claimed Chavez was trying to orchestrate the return of his opponent's remains for political purposes, but Chavez has denied that.
Despite the seemingly broad gulf between the two sides a settlement is possible before the trial, with a closed-door mediation session scheduled for next Thursday, said Matos attorney Rebecca Fischer.
Perez was Venezuelas president from 1974-79 and again from 1989-93. He died Dec. 25 in Miami at age 88.
Curt Anderson is on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Miamicurt