The fight to bury Venezuelan President CAP in Miami

Matos says CAP's contact with Blanca, his legal wife, ended then. After finishing his house arrest in 1996, he left the country and lived with Matos in New York; Bal Harbour, where they had a new place; and Santo Domingo.

Meanwhile Chávez won the presidency in 1998. Soon he brought new corruption charges against CAP and began a decades-long struggle to extradite him from the United States. American courts never seriously considered the case.

In 2003, Pérez — then 81 years old — suffered a serious stroke. He and Matos moved full-time to Miami — living first downtown and later in Brickell Key — where she cared for her ailing partner. This past Christmas, Cecilia Victoria, aged 29 and living in Georgia, was at her father's bedside, reading to him from a new book on Venezuelan history. CAP slipped abruptly into unconsciousness and died. "It was really sudden," she says. "We were all in shock."

Cecilia Matos (center) met Carlos Andrés Pérez  at this party when she was 18 years old.
Courtesy of Cecilia Matos
Cecilia Matos (center) met Carlos Andrés Pérez at this party when she was 18 years old.

Two days later, as the Matos family prepared a memorial service in South Miami, Woodlawn Park Cemetery called. "They said, 'We've got a letter from a lawyer that says you need to turn over the body to Blanca by 11 a.m., or you'll be sued by 2 p.m.'," she says. "We couldn't believe it."

To Cecilia Matos and her daughters, the just solution is clear. CAP repeatedly said he'd never return to Venezuela while Chávez was in power. "He told me, 'Do whatever you want except cremate me, and I will not go back to Venezuela until there is a democratic government'," Cecilia says.

The Pérez family tells a different story. In an interview at a downtown law office last month, Maria Carolina, a daughter of CAP and Blanca, said she was certain her father wanted to return after his death. "In Venezuela, everyone wants him buried there," she said, tears streaming from her sightless eyes. "He was always talking to us about how much he wanted to be buried in Venezuela."

CAP left no written will, so Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Arthur Rothenberg will have to decide which side of the family is more credible.

In the meantime, CAP's body rests in a freezer at South Miami's Caballero Rivero Funeral Home. The trial is set for March 21. Rothenberg is expected to rule soon on whether a temporary crypt can be built in the meantime.

Family and legal disputes aside, there's no doubting the fight's political overtones, even though Chávez has said only that CAP's body would be welcomed in Caracas. (Blanca hasn't specified where she would like to bury him.)

"It goes way beyond a family dispute," says Eduardo Gamarra, a Florida International University professor who studies Miami's Venezuelan community. "Chávez always wanted CAP returned so he could prosecute him. Now it's about telling exiles in Miami, 'Look, we got this guy back one way or another.'"

Adds ex-reporter Vicente Pugliese: "CAP should be buried in Miami... He was the first to resist Chávez. Chávez cannot beat him now."

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He would have wanted to be buried in his own country - Venezuela.

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