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Fight for presidential corpse plays out in Miami courtroom

Former Venezuelan leader's wife and mistress contest final burial wish

A judge in Miami began weighing arguments on Monday put forward by two families who are fighting over the final resting place of former Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez, who died on Christmas Day in exile in Florida at the age of 88.

The late Social Democrat leader has not been buried, and his body is still being stored at a Miami funeral home. Pérez's longtime mistress, Cecilia Matos, claims he wanted a US burial. But the late president's estranged wife, Blanca Rodríguez de Pérez, insists she has the legal right to bury him in Venezuela because they never divorced.

Circuit Judge Arthur Rothenberg suggested on Monday that the former president's body be put in a temporary crypt until the dispute is resolved.

"The body would be laid to rest with dignity until all of these issues are heard," said Rothenberg, according to the Associated Press. The judge said it would be April at the earliest before he made a decision on the case.

Pérez, who governed for two terms (1974-79 and 1989-93) had been living in exile in Miami for many years. He was impeached and removed from office in 1993, and later served about two years under house arrest on corruption charges. He was charged and convicted of using a secret government fund to pay for security agents to protect then-Nicaraguan President Violeta Chamorro.

In 1992, Pérez was nearly overthrown by Hugo Chávez, then a rebel army lieutenant colonel, who became president in 1999. At the time of Pérez's death, Chávez was preparing to demand that the United States extradite him to face charges related to the deaths of citizens during the 1989 riots to protest the government's austerity measures. More than 300 people died during the nationwide unrest but some human rights organizations believe that the number was closer to 2,000.

Loss of claim

Through their lawyers, Matos and her two daughters by Pérez told the judge that they would agree to have the former leader put in a temporary crypt until the case is decided. But Rodríguez de Pérez and her family said that she feared that she would lose her claim to the body if he was buried in the United States.

The former president's mistress has long claimed that Pérez didn't want to be buried in Venezuela until Chávez, his longtime foe, was no longer in power and when "democracy returned" to the country. But he left no written instructions.

María Francia Perez-Matos, a daughter of Matos and Pérez, said her mother had bought two plots in Miami, for her and Pérez.