Miami-Caracas Telenovela: Feud Over Ex-Venezuelan Leader's Funeral

Estranged wife, longtime mistress battle over where to bury former President Carlos Andrés Pérez

Carlos Andrés Pérez


When Carlos Andrés Pérez was serving his second term as president of Venezuela (1989-93), the press and political insiders knew about Cecilia Matos, although her name never appeared in print. It was an unwritten rule among Venezuelan newspapers editors and television and radio news directors to never write about or mention Matos.

She was his secretary when the Social Democrat served as interior minister in the 1960s, and at some point began a love affair with the married Pérez. But by 1992, she was considered one of the country's most powerful women, and the perception that she was serving as his de facto vice president helped contribute to Pérez's eventual downfall.

Matos' name is now splashed all over the news in Venezuela, and beyond, as she and Pérez's estranged wife and former first lady Blanquita Rodríguez have launched a court battle over his remains. The former president, popularly known by his initials CAP, suffered a fatal heart attack on Christmas Day at the age of 88. He died in Miami, where he had been living in exile with his longtime mistress and their two daughters.

"May he rest in peace. But with him... may the form of politics that he personified rest in peace and leave here forever," said Pérez's longtime foe, President Hugo Chávez, who led an unsuccessful coup against him in 1992. Chávez said that he would allow Pérez to be buried in his native country.

But in an interview two days following his death, one of the daughters, Cecilia Victoria Pérez, told the Venezuelan news channel Globovision that her father's remains would be buried in his home country "when there is true democracy" and not while Chávez is in power.

Following her comments, the former first lady and her children filed an injunction in a Miami court to have the body flown back to Venezuela for burial. In her court filing, Rodríguez said that she and Pérez were never legally divorced, according to Efe News Agency.

At first, Matos and her two daughters said they wouldn't fight Rodríguez's request to repatriate the body. "The Pérez Matos family isn't going to block any action by the Pérez Rodríguez family" to repatriate the remains, she and her two daughters said in a statement issued to the AFP and reprinted in the Caracas daily Ultimas Noticias. "Repatriation is a way to render tribute to him."

Even José Hernández Borgo, Venezuela's consul in Miami, told Globovision that the remains could be sent to Venezuela as soon as all the paperwork was done.

But by Tuesday the Matos family said they had never agreed to send the body home. Carolina Pérez Rodríguez, CAP's daughter by Blanquita, told Globovision that she was surprised by the Matos' family's change of heart. "We tried to contact them, and their lawyers told our lawyers that at not one given moment had they agreed to have my father's remains sent to Venezuela."

The operatic end is reminiscent of the 1996 funeral of former French President François Mitterand, attended by both his wife and his longtime mistress, and their respective daughters that he'd fathered. The existence of the mistress, Anne Pingeot and their daughter, Mazarine, was revealed only months before Mitterand left office in 1995 by Paris Match magazine.

Pérez has been out of the public eye much longer. He was impeached in 1993 and had served two years in prison on corruption charges before going into exile in 1999. While abroad, the Venezuelan courts had issued another arrest warrant for him in connection with an investigation into the deaths of at least 276 people who were killed in violent rioting that took place in 1989 over austerity measures he had imposed at the beginning of his second term. The former president had long charged that he was being persecuted by Chávez's government.

Martin Delfín


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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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