Notoriously feisty Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d back down from a fight. He’s eagerly tangled with foes like George W. Bush (whom he famously called “the devil”) and the king of Spain (who told Chávez to “shut up” during one heated exchange at a leaders’ summit). But with Venezuelans heading to the polls Sunday in regional elections, Chávez is staring down a new kind of political enemy: Marisabel Rodriguez, his ex-wife.
Rodriguez, a blond-haired former television host, is running for mayor in Barquisimeto, Venezuela’s fourth-largest city. It’s an important vote for Chávez, who’s been pushing hard to promote his allies (in the 2004 regional election, Chávez’s backing helped his supporters win in almost every state). However, Rodriguez—a candidate for the independent left-wing party Podemos—has proven to be a fly in the ointment. Now remarried to a tennis coach, she’s pulled no punches in criticizing her ex: “If he is not a dictator, at least he seems it,” she says.
It’s not the first time the former couple has publicly sparred. After Chávez launched a lawsuit seeking better visitation rights with their daughter, Rodriguez publicly accused him of being a negligent father. Declaring herself “a victim of violence, harassment and persecution,” she even suggested the lawsuit was intended to keep her from running for office (under Venezuelan law, a judgment against her could have stopped her from standing for election). Chávez, who remained uncharacteristically silent on the issue, withdrew the lawsuit earlier this year.
Sunday’s vote will bear watching, and not just for the drama. If Chávez’s supporters win big, observers expect him to push for constitutional reforms that would allow for the president’s indefinite re-election—the same reform he tried, unsuccessfully, to introduce last year in a referendum. At that time, Rodriguez emerged as a powerful critic of her ex-husband, calling his proposed amendments “a leap in the dark.” Could the outspoken Chávez have met his match?