Chavez faces battle with his fiercest critic - his ex-wife

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The Independent US

The Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, has moved swiftly to try to contain the political fallout from a bitter dispute with his ex-wife, announcing he will withdraw a custody suit he had filed against her last week.

The hostilities between Mr Chavez and Marisabel Rodriguez have been gripping Venezuela for days. They include claims that he has failed to pay child support for the daughter they had together, Rosines, before divorcing four years ago. She has also complained of feeling physically threatened by his supporters.

In a television appearance on Sunday, Mr Chavez appeared to go into uncharacteristic retreat, agreeing to withdraw the lawsuit. "I will not allow them to put my daughter in the middle of a spectacle," he said. "So I have decided to quit this action."

His calculation is in part political. Ms Rodriguez has emerged as a potentially powerful foe of the President, notably last year when she went on the record urging the country to oppose plans for a sweeping reform of the constitution which would have allowed him to keep running for president indefinitely. Her move was a sting to Mr Chavez, not least because when voting day came, his proposals were defeated in a referendum. More recently, however, Ms Rodriguez has put herself forward as a candidate for mayor of Barquisimeto, the city where she now lives.

While Mr Chavez has remained single, Ms Rodriguez, 43, has moved on. Last year she married Sandro Garcia, a tennis instructor, in Barquisimeto. It was their engagement that broke the peace with her ex-husband, according to an interview last month with Ms Rodriguez in the popular gossip magazine, Caras. "He told me, 'You know what you're doing,'" the former first lady recalled. Immediately afterwards, however, her two government vehicles were taken from her.

Any pretence of civility vanished after the filing of the custody lawsuit by Mr Chavez. Ms Rodriguez went public with a string of allegations, including that he was a poor father. "Under the divorce agreement he is supposed to deposit a certain amount," she said. "I have everything necessary to demonstrate that he has never made a deposit."

And while she denied his assertions that she is keeping the girl from her father, she barely expressed enthusiasm about them spending more time together. "The President doesn't have the ability to maintain the girl in an appropriate environment," she insisted.

The publicity, if it is not contained soon, could be politically toxic for Mr Chavez. At a subsequent news conference, Ms Rodriguez went much further, complaining that she felt physically imperilled. "I could be attacked at any time by these hordes he has on the street," she suggested. "I declare myself a victim of violence, harassment and persecution on the part of the President."

Ms Rodriguez has also implied that Mr Chavez filed the suit as a ploy to prevent her from running for office. Under Venezuelan laws, she would have been barred from any public role had she lost to him in court.

Mr Chavez has a well-earned reputation for relishing public confrontations, though more usually with political figures from outside Venezuela. Members of the club include the King of Spain Juan Carlos, who was drawn into telling Mr Chavez to "shut up" during a summit last year, and the Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who Mr Chavez accused of trying to spark war between their two countries.