Some families at odds over Venezuela's president

Foes of Chavez gathering signatures for referendum

November 28, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CARACAS, Venezuela - In politically charged Venezuela, when President Hugo Chavez takes over the airwaves to deliver one of his rambling speeches, Gloria Villamizar leaves her apartment in a huff.

"I just don't want to watch him. I just don't," said Villamizar, 40, a newspaper editorial assistant.

By contrast, her husband, Leopoldo Otero, 53, rarely misses a minute of the pugnacious leader. He turns up the volume on the television set, lights a cigarette and settles in for the hours-long sermons.

"I'm a Chavista," he said.

So it goes with countless Venezuelan families, riven by the country's never-ending political squabbling and, like the nation itself, split among supporters and bitter opponents of the leftist president.

The divisions in this country of 25 million are especially noticeable now that a determined but fractured opposition movement is gearing up for its latest scheme to remove Chavez, this time a four-day signature-gathering that begins today and, if successful, could lead to a referendum on his rule.

Such confrontational politics has helped split old friends and created fissures in usually tight-knit families.

"Families have gotten to the point of aggression, shouting, and, in some cases, even physical violence, a slap or something like that," said Rosalia Davalos, a psychiatrist who has helped families. "I have one couple - he's anti-Chavista, she is pro-Chavez - and they stopped talking and even having sexual relations."

Such extremes are rare. In Venezuela, as in the rest of Latin America, family bonds go well beyond parents and children. Politics is not supposed to get in the way of family unity, or so they say. But the cracks are still there, and in some prominent political families, they have even become public.

Hidalgo Valero, a highly visible and relentless opponent of Chavez and a lawyer who has filed complaints against the government with the United Nations and the Organization of American States, said he cannot talk with his brother about politics anymore.

He is referring to his brother in Washington, Jorge Valero, Chavez's ambassador to the OAS.

"I tell him, "In the future you'll have to deal with the fact that you supported the policies of a bunch of killers,'" said Hidalgo Valero, who, like other opposition leaders, makes the kind of loaded charges that anger Chavez's backers. "To avoid conflict, I don't have any interest in meeting with him."

Jorge Valero, reached in Washington, was more conciliatory, saying he would not call his brother a fascist or a coup plotter, the standard labels the government pins on the opposition.

"I wouldn't judge my brother," he said.

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