BARQUISIMETO, Venezuela — Hugo Chavez has left a trail of defeated men in his wake during nearly 10 years as Venezuela's socialist president, winning three elections and surviving one recall attempt. Now his ex-wife and former first lady has emerged as what Venezuelans like to call "the pebble in his shoe."
Marisabel Rodriguez is one of his most dogged critics. She's also the mother of his 10-year-old daughter.
Rodriguez's criticism last year of a referendum that Chavez sought to expand his powers helped sink the proposal, the only electoral defeat the president has ever suffered. "A power grab," she called it.
She's garnered more headlines by decrying a list of Chavez critics banned from seeking state and municipal offices this year.
Now Rodriguez is running for mayor of Barquisimeto, her hometown.
She dismisses those who think that she's engaged in a personal vendetta by downplaying her role as one of the president's chief antagonists.
"I'm not running against Chavez," Rodriguez told McClatchy during an interview in her middle-class home. "I'm not running for president. I'm only making a small effort against him by trying to help my city."
Analysts said, however, that she'd become a potent foe for Chavez, who's the United States' most vociferous critic in Latin America.
"She's a nightmare for the president," said Manuel Malaver, a Caracas newspaper columnist. "She was closer to him than anyone else and has become a vocal critic. It will be even worse for him if she wins. She would have a platform to keep criticizing him."
Chavez has avoided commenting on her candidacy, undoubtedly mindful of the publicity that any utterance would generate.
Rodriguez already has scored a victory over him this year that prompted one outburst. In May, Chavez withdrew a lawsuit seeking better visitation rights with their daughter, Rosines, after his ex-wife called the suit a form of harassment.
''I will not allow them to put my daughter in the middle of a spectacle,'' Chavez said on his weekly television program. ''So I have decided to quit this action.''
Rodriguez, a radio reporter, met Chavez in 1997 when he was a long-shot candidate for president. They married later that year. He was elected president in 1998. They separated in 2002 and got divorced the following year. She moved out of the presidential residence in Caracas and returned to Barquisimeto.
"We weren't able to spend a lot of time together," Rodriguez said. "He was held hostage by the power of the office and the demands of the people who surrounded him, including his Cuban advisers. He wants to be bigger than Fidel Castro."
Rodriguez and Chavez haven't spoken since May 2007, when she called him to say that she'd be getting married the next day to her tennis instructor. Chavez removed the two bodyguards and state vehicle that Rodriguez used for their daughter and her.
"I don't think he was jealous of me," Rodriguez said in the interview. "I think he was worried about having to share his daughter with another man."
Rodriguez has since separated from her husband, her fourth. Chavez has remained single.
Major leaders of the opposition to Chavez in this politically polarized country have endorsed Rodriguez's bid for mayor. Her victory is by no means assured, however.
A popular labor leader and Chavez critic also is running for mayor of Barquisimeto, a city of more than 1 million people in western Venezuela.
Alfredo Ramos thinks that he's the stronger candidate and Rodriguez ought to step aside in favor of him.
"She's just a media candidate imposed by outside political bosses," Ramos said in an interview. "She doesn't have the support of the ordinary people."
A poll in July meant to winnow the field among opposition candidates gave Rodriguez 19 percent of the vote, followed by Ramos' 16 percent, within the survey's 5 percentage point margin of error.
Oly Mendoza was one of three opposition candidates who set aside their own ambitions to support Rodriguez. Four others are supporting Ramos.
"She is the most viable option to defeat the government's candidate," Mendoza said. "You go out with her, and you see how her candidacy has ignited hope and passion."
Rodriguez's celebrity is her drawing card. She shook dozens of outstretched hands and bestowed almost as many kisses last Sunday when she walked through the narrow aisles of the San Juan flea market in central Barquisimeto.
Sellers of knockoff brand-name clothes, as well as their customers, gawked at her.
"I just shook Marisabel Rodriguez's hand," one young woman said excitedly into her cell phone as she walked away from the former first lady.
Rodriguez showed her humor when several vendors teased her by chanting, "Chavez! Chavez! Chavez!" Rodriguez marched over to them, smiling, then posed for a photo and shared in good-natured joshing.
Others weren't so jolly.
"She's a traitor to the (Chavez) revolution," vendor Wilmer Pena said, moments after Rodriguez passed by. "I'm a Chavista until death!"
In the interview, Rodriguez portrayed herself as the only candidate who can bridge the gap between those who glorify Chavez and those who damn his name.
"People want the same change that brought Chavez to power," she said, "but they know that the president is abusing his power and is trying to override the constitution. But it's impossible for the opposition to enter the hearts of the Chavistas. Many of them are looking for something different that isn't necessarily the opposition."
Rosines interrupted the interview to hug her mother.
"She's my pride and joy," Rodriguez said as the girl beamed.
After her daughter walked away, Rodriguez said, "I tell her at home that I don't agree with her father's policies. She understands that. She sees the poverty and the lack of authority in the streets."
The election is Nov. 23, the day Rodriguez turns 44.
When she was asked whether she expected Chavez to call her if she wins, Rodriguez said, "He ought to call me, at least to wish me happy birthday."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008