Venezuela's Crackdown On Democracy Pits Brother Against Brother In one of the most prominent displays, the host of a TV program critical of the increasingly authoritarian government is sharply at odds with his younger brother, Venezuela's communications minister.
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Venezuela's Crackdown On Democracy Pits Brother Against Brother

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Venezuela's Crackdown On Democracy Pits Brother Against Brother

Venezuela's Crackdown On Democracy Pits Brother Against Brother

Venezuela's Crackdown On Democracy Pits Brother Against Brother

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/548576351/548576352" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In one of the most prominent displays, the host of a TV program critical of the increasingly authoritarian government is sharply at odds with his younger brother, Venezuela's communications minister.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's turn to Venezuela now. The economic nosedive in that country along with a presidential power grab have sparked deadly street protests along with U.S. sanctions against President Nicolas Maduro's government. The crisis is dividing many Venezuelan families. From Caracas, John Otis brings us the story of two brothers on opposite sides of the fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VLADIMIR AT 1")

VLADIMIR VILLEGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Vladimir Villegas hosts Venezuela's most-watched TV interview program called "Vladimir At 1 p.m." (ph). The show, which airs on the independent Globovision TV station, is sharply critical of Maduro's increasingly authoritarian government. This puts 55-year-old Vladimir at loggerheads with his younger brother.

Forty-seven-year-old Ernesto Villegas is Venezuela's communications minister. His job is to defend the Maduro government. When Ernesto recently appeared on Vladimir's TV program, they clashed from the start.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VLADIMIR AT 1")

VILLEGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Vladimir began by holding up pieces of a broken Globovision TV camera and complained to his brother that government troops had smashed it during a protest. They also argued over who was responsible for the more than 120 people killed during the anti-Maduro demonstrations.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VLADIMIR AT 1")

VILLEGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

ERNESTO VILLEGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: With their voices rising, Ernesto slammed a set of binders on Vladimir's desk. An incensed Vladimir called for a commercial break so he could calm down. It made for riveting television, but family feuds over politics are common. Since the late Hugo Chavez ushered in his socialist revolution in 1999, many Venezuelan families have been bickering over its good and bad points.

BENJAMIN SCHARIFKER: Polarization in Venezuela is very, very strong.

OTIS: That's Benjamin Scharifker, dean of the Metropolitan University in Caracas. He says extended families often include government workers who support the revolution as well as relatives who are jobless, hungry and desperate for change.

SCHARIFKER: Unfortunately, it's very common. And in most cases, relations are broken completely.

OTIS: The Villegas brothers grew up in a staunchly left-wing household. Their father was a communist labor leader who was jailed in the 1950s. Vladimir and Ernesto worked as journalists, then joined the revolutionary government. Vladimir was Maduro's top deputy when the president served as Venezuela's foreign minister. But Vladimir quit in 2007, complaining that the government was starting to roll back democratic freedoms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VILLEGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Every day, I thank myself for this decision," Vladimir says, "because it gives me the moral authority to question the government." Indeed, his program is one of the few that dares to criticize Maduro. But the government has not renewed Globovision's transmission license, so the TV station and Vladimir's program could eventually be forced off the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VILLEGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: All this, Vladimir says, reminds him of "Animal Farm," George Orwell's fable about creeping totalitarianism. In July, for example, Maduro engineered the election of a special assembly to rewrite the constitution, a move that could give him dictatorial powers. Despite their differences, the Villegas brothers say they love and respect one another.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VILLEGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: When Ernesto was the ruling party's candidate for mayor of Caracas in 2013, Vladimir says he voted for his brother, even though he usually sides with the opposition.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VILLEGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Laughter).

OTIS: And when President Maduro recently called Vladimir a fascist on state television, Ernesto, who was with Maduro, stood up before the cameras to praise his brother. What's more, Ernesto, who seldom gives interviews to independent journalists, sometimes shows up on Vladimir's TV program as a favor. But they rarely find common ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VLADIMIR AT 1")

VILLEGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

VILLEGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: That was the case during Ernesto's recent appearance. He accused his brother of being a lap dog for the opposition. Vladimir called Ernesto the minister of propaganda. But at the end of the program, the two shook hands. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Caracas.

(SOUNDBITE OF VANILLA'S "RITUAL")

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