By Michael E. Miller
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Vicente Pugliese speaks with the same resonant, scratchy baritone that made him a celebrated radio and TV reporter in Caracas until 2002. That's when he made an enemy of Hugo Chávez and fled his homeland.
In his sunny living room in Doral, he smiles sadly and laments what he sees as the Venezuelan caudillo's latest strike against democracy: an ugly legal fight over where to bury Carlos Andrés Pérez, a former president who crushed Chávez's first attempt at a coup and died recently in Miami.
"Carlos Andrés Pérez, for us, is a symbol of democracy," Pugliese says. "For Hugo Chávez, he's a trophy that he wants to bring back to Venezuela against his will."
The fight over where to bury CAP — as he was called — is an only-in-Miami slugfest. On the surface, it's a battle between his longtime partner Cecilia Matos, who wants him interred in the city where they've lived together for the last eight years, and his never-divorced wife, Blanca Pérez, who has sued to bring his body back to Caracas.
But for Miami's 50,000 or so Venezuelan expats like Pugliese — who are usually overshadowed by their more numerous and politically powerful Cuban neighbors — it's freedom versus dictatorship. "CAP beat Hugo Chávez in life, and now in death, he's symbolically fighting Chávez again," says Janette Gonzalez, Pugliese's wife.
Pérez was born in 1922 in a small Andean town near the Colombian border. He rose to political prominence in the '40s after helping to found the Acción Democrática party, a centrist group. At age 26, he married his first cousin, Blanca Rodriguez. They eventually had six children, several of whom suffered genetic disorders.
Then in 1963, at a dinner in Caracas, an 18-year-old beauty with flowing brown hair presented Pérez with a civic achievement award, a small gold key in a box. Pérez was spellbound. He began sending letters to the girl, Cecilia Matos.
Two years later, after meeting at another dinner, they began secretly dating. He was married. It didn't matter. Matos was taken with the intellectual statesman. "He was very charming," she remembers. Matos, a serious-looking woman with sharp cheekbones, has spoken with no other media about the case. She smiles as she remembers her lover: "He would captivate me with the way he talked."
Their relationship strengthened, and then in 1973, Pérez won his first term as president. In the conservative Catholic country, the pair should have been discrete. But CAP didn't hide Matos — instead, he hired her as his personal secretary.
Throughout his term — which saw unprecedented economic growth as Venezuela's oil wealth boomed — Blanca was the official first lady, but Matos had the leader's ear. "He always wanted my advice on decisions," Matos says, recalling that CAP gave her a steady reading list of books on economics and politics.
In 1978, CAP's party lost power amid charges of corruption and improper spending, including on trips with his mistress, Matos. Out of the political limelight, he spent the '80s traveling the world. In title, he was head of a human rights organization. In reality, he was a politician bent on leading his homeland again. Matos and CAP bought an apartment together in New York and had two children: Maria and Cecilia Victoria.
CAP was happy with his new family, but he never followed through on pledges to divorce Blanca, Matos says. "He asked Blanca to please sign the divorce papers. But she said she would commit suicide if they divorced," she states. "He had aspirations to get back to the presidency, and he couldn't have a scandal to jeopardize that."
Indeed, in 1988 CAP made another bid for presidency and won handily as the struggling country sought a return to the boom days. This time, he made little attempt to hide his mistress and their children.
Cecilia Victoria, who was eight years old at the beginning of CAP's second term, remembers riding her bicycle through the presidential palace's hallways and traveling with her father to Spain and Peru. She lived with her sister and mother in one of the official palaces, while Blanca and her children lived in another. They never spoke.
"My dad felt great responsibility for all his kids, so he'd visit Blanca's family all the time," Cecilia Victoria says. "But he lived with us. He slept with us every night."
The delicate balance of CAP's complex family life fell to pieces in 1992. While CAP was abroad in Switzerland, Chávez — then a young lieutenant colonel — led a popular uprising. Cecilia Victoria remembers guards pulling her and Maria, who is a year older, out of bed at 3 a.m., yanking bulletproof vests over their heads, and spiriting them away in unmarked cars. "We passed tanks on the way, headed to our house to blow it up," she says.
CAP quashed the coup and sent his daughters to live with Cecilia, who had fled for safety to New York. The next year, he was impeached for misspending 250 million bolivars (about $17 million). He later served two years of house arrest.
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."
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."