CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A portrait of Hugo Chavez stared down from a black metal frame as Jose Pastano sipped coffee after dinner with his sons in the slum house he shares with 17 relatives on the western edge of the capital.
Leaning forward in his chair, the retired bus mechanic chided his children for backing Venezuela’s opposition, calling them ungrateful for all that the late president had done for the country during his 14 years in power. The ruling party’s narrow win in last month’s presidential vote, Pastano declared, was the only thing keeping U.S. firms from taking over Venezuela’s state oil company.
“You are blind and deaf, you simply do not want to accept the truth,” Pastano fumed. “The truth is that Chavez lifted millions of our countrymen out of poverty.”
In a country evenly split between the ruling party and opposition, countless families have been torn apart by political divisions, mirroring tensions that have spilled out into in the street in sometimes bloody fashion.
Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and children find themselves on opposite sides of the bitter fight between Nicolas Maduro, whom the dying Chavez picked to succeed him, and an opposition that accuses the socialist government of using fraud and intimidation to win the presidency by a slim 1.49 percentage point margin.
Even the country’s legislature broke down in violence last month, when pro-government lawmakers and their aides beat opponents who refused to recognize Maduro’s electoral win.
To be sure, Venezuelans have long been obsessed by politics, especially during the Chavez years, as the populist leader denounced his opponents as “the squalid ones” and the opposition tried vainly to oust him through a coup and a referendum. Many, however, say the tensions have reached a pitch not seen here since that 2002 coup, which briefly pushed Chavez from office.
Throw in a postelection government crackdown on the opposition and, for many, daily life has become a balancing act between personal relationships and fiercely held political convictions.
“In every Chavista family you can always find a member of the opposition, and that relationship leads to conflict,” said Mirla Perez, a professor of social work who studies family relations at the Central University of Venezuela. “It’s a permanent tension that only gets relieved by not talking.”
Many families are splitting along generational lines.
On one side: parents who vividly remember Venezuela’s pre-Chavez struggles with inflation, currency devaluation, crime and political instability. While those problems have remained, and may have even worsened during Chavez’s reign, his supporters point to the social programs Chavez started and take pride in the nationalistic rhetoric Chavez loved spinning.
On the other side of the familial divide: better-educated, more upwardly mobile adult children who spent their formative years exposed to Chavez’s failings.
Jose Pastano’s 43-year-old son Edwin, for example, is a transportation safety consultant, while his other son, Mauri, 47, works in a government medical lab.
“What is the socialism they are talking about?” Mauri cried out on a recent night after dinner. “They call themselves socialists, but they don’t go up into the barrios to help the community!”
Edwin joined in on the attack. The government does nothing about the high crime, buckling roads and piles of trash choking the drains, he argued.
All the while, Jose Pastano’s right eye twitched furiously as he tried to interrupt.
The 71-year-old father suddenly began breathing heavily, then slumped back in his chair and grabbed his chest, trembling.
“I need to calm down,” Pastano said as his wife helped him to his bedroom. The debate was over, at least for that night.
Variations of that scene have played out even among many of Venezuela’s best-known families.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas frequently goes after government critics as the head of the state’s media operation, while his brother Vladimir is a well-known journalist and prominent government critic.
Vladimir Villegas announced Thursday that he would be taking over as director of Globovision, the country’s last opposition television channel.
“It’s a question of navigating in the middle of a country that’s very polarized and divided, a really complicated situation of political animosity,” he said, stressing that he has always maintained good relations with his brother.
“Now, with the minister, I hope to have the best relations,” he said.
In another high-profile case, one of the most important youth organizers for opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles is the daughter of former state governor Didalco Bolivar, who heads a party in the government’s coalition.
“I love my father but I share Capriles’ vision of the country,” said Manuela Bolivar.
Injecting heat into the equation is the closeness many felt for the folksy, charismatic Chavez, who became a virtual member of many families. Since his death, government officials have been even proclaiming that Venezuelans remain all of Chavez’s children.
“The relationship that ordinary Venezuelans had with the president wasn’t a pragmatic relationship, a relationship of power,” Perez said. “It’s a family relationship.”
Perez said she herself has seen her family divided along political lines.
“I had a tremendous argument with my mother” over the Easter holidays, Perez said. “She compared the feelings that she had after the death of Chavez with the feelings she had after my brother’s death.”
Angelica Ramirez, a 22-year-old university student from the eastern Venezuelan state of Bolivar, said she’s stopped talking to her Chavista cousin and avoided visiting her grandparents the day after last month’s vote for fear that political arguments would break out.
“Of course this affects emotions, it creates tension in the family,” Ramirez said.
Her relatives declined interview requests.
In such an environment, 68-year-old Ines Pastano is indeed a rarity: a middle-of-the-road political agnostic.
She explained that her husband suffers from hypertension and heart palpitations and often can’t stand the stress of the family’s political discussions.
Then, she trudged to the center of the living room, and moved to one side.
“The Chavistas are over here,” she said.
She motioned across the room. “And the opposition supporters are over here.”
Finally, she moved back to the center, planting herself squarely between the two halves.
“And I’m here, right in the middle.”
Christopher Toothaker on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ctoothaker
Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mweissenstein