Caracas, Venezuela: She was raised by a leader of Venezuela’s opposition and made a name for herself on a popular anti-government TV show. He is the tourism minister and one of the socialist administration’s most passionate defenders.
In this deeply polarised nation, where bitter politics often intrude into the most personal of arenas, the marriage of Isabel Gonzalez and Andres Izarra is as improbable as Romeo and Juliet.
And the pressure on them perhaps has never been stronger following the arrest of Gonzalez’s stepfather, Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma. One of the most hardline critics of President Nicolas Maduro, Ledezma was hauled away by police for allegedly plotting a coup with the US.
The opposition calls the charge baseless, saying it is an attempt by Maduro to stamp out dissent and distract attention from an economy unravelling as quickly as is support for the revolution started 16 years ago by the late Hugo Chavez.
Shortly after the mayor’s arrest two weeks ago, attention turned to Izarra and whether family loyalty would trump ideological zeal. Ledezma’s wife and Gonzalez’s mother, Mitzy Capriles de Ledezma, kicked off the speculation by saying her “beloved” son-in-law had resigned from his post in solidarity with his wife. William Izarra, a retired air force officer and one of Chavez’s chief theorists, then shot back with a tweet saying that he and his son “will remain revolutionaries to the end of our lives.”
Izarra, a normally prolific user of social media, has said almost nothing, only tweeting that he continues working on behalf of the revolution.
Gonzalez and Izarra met in 2005 when he was a repeat guest on Hello Citizen, the feisty anti-government counterpoint to the Hello President program launched by Chavez.
Gonzalez, then in her mid-20s, was a journalist on the show when Izarra, then communications minister, was invited on as a sort of Chavista punching bag to defend a new media law making it easier for the government to take critical broadcasters off the air.
A romance, kept secret at first, ensued and about six months later Gonzalez paid a visit to the home of her boss and the show’s popular anchor, Leopoldo Castillo, to tell him a marriage was planned.
“We were all in tears,” Castillo recalled. “I felt obligated to let her know she was going to have a very difficult life so she better love him a lot.”
Those difficulties came quickly. In announcing her engagement with an on-air farewell, Gonzalez complained about intolerance from co-workers, said her car tyres had been slashed and told of being insulted by complete strangers at a cafe. Government supporters, meanwhile, questioned whether Izarra wasn’t opening the door to a fifth column by marrying into the family of an opposition standard bearer.
The couple and their families have tried to keep the marriage out of the limelight.
Ledezma, during the height of anti-Maduro protests he helped lead last year, irritably batted away questions about his relationship with his son-in-law, saying only that when they got together they avoided any discussion of politics.
“There are two grandchildren in the middle — nobody wants to sow violence into the heart of a family,” the mayor journalists.
Despite each politician’s reputation as a bruiser, Ledezma and Izarra treat each other with respect at family gatherings even if they sit at opposite ends of the table, friends and relatives said. While tense exchanges aren’t unknown, more recently both have made an effort to find common ground discussing things like baseball and food, said Daniela Schadendorf, Gonzalez’s half-sister.
“It’s not the happiest of situations, but we’ve all had to learn that love comes first,” Schadendorf said.
Yorelis Acosta, a Caracas-based psychologist and professor, said she has seen numerous relationships torn apart by Venezuela’s insult-driven politics.
Government officials frequently castigate their opponents as “the squalid ones” and accuse them of conspiratorial intrigue. Meanwhile, members of the sometimes elitist opposition regularly disdain Maduro for his working-class roots as a bus driver. They liken Izarra to Nazi Germany’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.
Those who know Izarra say his marriage into the bosom of the opposition isn’t entirely out of character. Almost uniquely among Chavistas, he was raised among Caracas’ elites and speaks flawless English thanks to a stint at state school in Massachusetts.
He joined the Chavista movement late, in 2002, when as a journalist at RCTV he was shocked by how the network closed ranks around the coup that briefly ousted the socialist leader. In 2005-2008, Izarra headed Telesur, the left-leaning regional news network started by Chavez.
Although a vociferous and combative defender of the administration, he has been silent about his father-in-law’s arrest.
Acosta said the example of tolerance Izarra and Ledezma appear to have in their private lives could serve as a model for overcoming Venezuela’s political impasse and avoid a disastrous bloodletting.
“The political environment is heated enough,” she said. “We don’t need to throw more fuel on the fire.”