Maldonado's F1 win stirs controversy in Venezuela

Images of Pastor Maldonado celebrating his Formula One victory in the Spanish Grand Prix are being replayed to patriotic music on Venezuelan television, and President Hugo Chavez is heaping praise on the driver.

Updated: May 18, 2012 10:47 IST
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Caracas, Venezuela: Images of Pastor Maldonado celebrating his Formula One victory in the Spanish Grand Prix are being replayed to patriotic music on Venezuelan television, and President Hugo Chavez is heaping praise on the driver.

But while F1 fans on both sides of Venezuela's polarized political landscape are lauding Maldonado's performance, some critics have also been questioning how many millions of dollars Venezuela's state oil company has spent in sponsorship money for the team it's now touting, and whether it makes sense.

Chavez opponent Yon Goicoechea called it ironic that Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, a company that has recently increased its debt, has been financing the Williams team in "a sport of elites," while the government claims to represent the interests of the poor.

In an article published Tuesday in the newspaper El Universal, titled "Maldonado and the idiots," Goicoechea wrote: "No one remembers that Pastor Maldonado costs Pdvsa $66 million a year." He criticized the way some opposition leaders had praised Maldonado's performance, saying "what's most probable is that in a few days we'll see him on TV supporting Chavez."

Promoting Maldonado's F1 win, state television is showing archive video of Chavez with Maldonado at an event months ago. PDVSA, for its part, has not publicly confirmed how much it is providing to the Williams team in sponsorship money despite requests by opposition lawmakers.

Most opposition leaders, however, seem uninterested in criticizing the government's promotion of a sport that is popular in the country, especially in an election year.

Jorge Rodriguez, Chavez's campaign manager ahead of the October 7 election, criticized Goicoechea's remarks as "fascism."

"Fascism doesn't put up with that, doesn't put up with victory," Rodriguez said at a news conference on Tuesday. "Chavez has been supporting Pastor and all Venezuelan sports teams for a long time.

"Pastor's triumph is everyone's triumph, independent of political ideology."

Maldonado held off Fernando Alonso to win the Spanish GP on Sunday, becoming the sport's first Venezuelan winner.

Venezuelan opposition lawmaker Carlos Ramos has been demanding for months to know exactly how much sponsorship money the state oil company has been providing to the Williams team. Ramos said Tuesday that despite requests for that information late last year, he has yet to receive a response from PDVSA.

As for Maldonado's victory, Ramos said: "We're happy about that, of course." But he said that doesn't take away his long-standing concern that the government should fully disclose details of its sponsorship, which he noted had not received congressional approval.

"All public funds should be administered with transparency, absolutely all of them," Ramos said in a telephone interview. "I hope they give us some explanation."

Several months ago, opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado suggested the government ought to be providing more financing for athletic programs benefiting youngsters rather than financing the F1 team.

In his article on Tuesday, Goicoechea said it's "ironic that with that money nearly 100 schools could be built."

Venezuela Sports Minister Hector Rodriguez dismissed such criticisms on Monday, saying: "Pastor's triumph is even a triumph for those people who did not believe in him, even the people who criticized him."

Chavez praised Maldonado in a message on Twitter for what he called "this first triumph in F1." Maldonado, in turn, warmly thanked Chavez in a Twitter message "for making this historical achievement for Venezuela a reality."

Maldonado said on state television that Chavez had called him after the race to personally congratulate him. The 27-year-old focused on describing the effort that went into his team's achievement in Spain.

"We've worked a lot, arduously, since last year... to try to improve," Maldonado said. "That's made the difference, that we've persevered."

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