Bitter battle over body of Venezuelan ex-president

AP News
Posted: Apr 02, 2011 3:30 PM
Bitter battle over body of Venezuelan ex-president

Three months after the death of former Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez, his embalmed body is still in limbo _ kept in cold storage in a Miami mortuary while his relatives battle in court over where he should be buried.

The feud has exposed bitter divisions between the family of former first lady Blanca Rodriguez in Caracas and the family of Perez's longtime mistress Cecilia Matos, with whom he shared the last three decades of his life.

The fight also has taken on political symbolism. One side says Perez should be buried in Venezuela, partly to rally opponents of his adversary, President Hugo Chavez, ahead of next year's presidential election. The other side argues Perez's body shouldn't be returned until Chavez is no longer in power.

"I never thought this was going to be so complicated and so draining," Perez's daughter Carolina Perez Rodriguez told The Associated Press. She said she is upset the case looks set to drag on in court for months to come.

"It's terrible because I believe my father doesn't deserve this, being there in a refrigerator," she said in her family's Caracas home, where photos of her father hang on the walls and the family has kept the desk and chair he once used.

Perez was president from 1974-1979 and again from 1989-1993, surviving two failed coup attempts, including one led by Chavez. He left the country in 2000, facing the threat of arrest on corruption accusations, and did not return.

Perez was 88 when he died of respiratory failure on Dec. 25 in Miami, where he had lived in recent years with Matos. The couple had two daughters.

One of them, Maria Francia Perez Matos, said the dispute is taking its toll.

"What's happening with my father is really something strange that you can't believe is happening. It's like something out of a movie," she said. "To have to go to sleep every day knowing that he's there and that he's frozen _ that breaks your heart."

The two families had largely ignored each other for years, and as a result had never talked about burial plans for the ailing Perez.

Days after his death, Blanca Rodriguez _ who was still legally his wife despite years of separation _ persuaded a judge in Miami to issue a temporary order stopping the burial in that city.

Circuit Judge Arthur Rothenberg has set an August trial date in Miami to decide the body's final resting place. Perez's Caracas relatives have appealed, saying they want the matter decided sooner.

Carolina Perez Rodriguez said that no one in her home ever spoke of Matos, Perez's former secretary, despite their long relationship. Her father also never spoke of the family he had started with Matos, Perez Rodriguez recalled.

Matos' family argues that Perez often said he would not return to Venezuela so long as Chavez was president, and the couple had bought two crypts to be buried in Florida.

Venezuelan historian Agustin Blanco Munoz, who wrote a book about Perez, testified in court that Perez told him last year that he didn't want to return to Venezuela, "either alive ... (or) after death as long as Hugo Chavez's regime remains."

The ex-president's Caracas relatives, however, say he had indicated a desire to come home. They note that the leader of his party, at Perez's request, asked the attorney general's office in 2008 to let him return without fear of prosecution.

Former Perez Cabinet minister Beatrice Rangel told the AP that she met Perez in Miami in 2006 and that he told her, "I want to return to Venezuela. I want to die in Venezuela."

While Perez lived in exile, Chavez's government demanded he be turned over to stand trial for his role in quelling bloody 1989 riots in Caracas. After Perez's death, Chavez said: "May the form of politics that he personified rest in peace and leave here forever."

Chavez has said Perez's family has a right to bring his body to Venezuela for burial if they wish.

Some who side with Matos' family believe that a burial in Caracas now would allow Chavez to portray it as the symbolic end of an old-guard political class that Perez personified: the "Fourth Republic," as Chavez often calls it.

Both families acknowledge the legal fight has been expensive. They say that donations from friends have helped cover their growing costs. They have also been quarreling over Perez's possessions and historical documents.

Perez Rodriguez said she hopes her father's personal documents and belongings can eventually become part of a presidential library in Venezuela.

She still holds out hope of settling the dispute, but recognizes it could wear on for a long time.

She noted that the file on the case contains a report by one expert who concluded that Perez's body "if kept at a proper temperature, could last as long as a year."


Associated Press writer Gisela Salomon in Miami contributed to this report.