The clock had just struck midnight. Most of the country was asleep. But that did not stop President Hugo Chavez from announcing in the early hours of July 16 that the latest phase of his Bolivarian Revolution had been stirred into motion.
Marching to the national anthem, a team of soldiers, forensic specialists and presidential aides gathered around the sarcophagus of Simon Bolivar, the 19th-century aristocrat who freed much of South America from Spain. A state television crew filmed the group, clad in white lab coats, hair nets and ventilation masks, attempt what seemed like an anemic half-goose step.
Then they unscrewed the burial casket, lifted off its lid and removed a Venezuelan flag covering the remains. A camera suspended from above captured images of a skeleton. Insomniacs here with dropped jaws watched live coverage of the Bolivar exhumation on state television, with narration provided by Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami.
For those unfortunate enough to have dozed off, there was always Twitter.
“What impressive moments we’ve lived tonight!” Chavez told followers in a series of Twitter messages sent during the exhumation that were redistributed by the state news agency a few hours later. “Rise up, Simon, as it’s not time to die! Immediately I remembered that Bolivar lives!”
Even Venezuelans used to Chavez’s political theater were surprised by the exhumation, which pushed aside issues like a scandal over imported food found rotting in ports, anger over an economy mired in recession and evidence offered by Colombia that Colombian guerrillas are encamped on Venezuelan soil.
With all this going on, Venezuelans have been scratching their heads in recent weeks over the possible motives for Chavez’s removal of Bolivar’s remains from the National Pantheon.
The president offered his own explanation. It involves the urgent need to do tests to determine whether Bolivar died of arsenic poisoning in Santa Marta, Colombia, instead of from tuberculosis in 1830, as historians have long accepted. A commission assembled here by Chavez has been examining this theory for the past three years.
Their work is based on claims among some Bolivarianologos, as specialists here on the history of Bolivar are called, that a long-lost letter by Bolivar reveals how he was betrayed by Colombia’s aristocracy. By deciphering the letter using Masonic codes, they suggest the conspiracy was even broader, including Andrew Jackson, then president of the US, and the king of Spain.
Findings presented at a medical conference this year in the US have encouraged Chavez further. At the conference, Paul Auwaerter, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University, said Bolivar
likely died of arsenic ingestion, an assertion seized upon by state media here to support the claim that Bolivar was murdered.
It matters little that Auwaerter says his research has been misconstrued, since an ingestion of arsenic could have been unintentional through arsenic-containing medications common in that era or contaminated drinking water. “I do not agree with President Chavez’s theories,” he said by e-mail.
Undeterred, the government here says it will get to the bottom of Bolivar’s death. The attorney general attended the exhumation, making it clear that the authorities view the mystery of Bolivar’s bones as the equivalent of a crime scene and a matter of national importance.
The exhumation could serve multiple purposes. If Chavez can say Bolivar was murdered in Colombia, he could try to use that against Colombia’s current government, with which Venezuela’s relations are cold, while reinforcing his longstanding claims that Colombians and others are plotting to assassinate him.
It would also allow Chavez to rewrite a major aspect of Venezuela’s history. The president already closely identifies himself and his political movement with Bolivar, renaming the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, his espionage agency the Bolivarian Intelligence Service and
so on. Portraits of Bolivar hang alongside Chavez’s in federal government offices.
This country’s intelligentsia fixates on Bolivar’s legacy and the use of Bolivar not just by Chavez but by rulers stretching back to the 19th century.
Slip into a bookstore and titles like Divine Bolivar, The Cult of Bolivar, Thought of the Liberator and Why I’m Not Bolivarian line the shelves. Scholars argue over how it was possible for one 20th-century dictator, Juan Vicente Gomez, to have conveniently shared the dates of his birth and death with Bolivar’s.
Some of Chavez’s top aides have begun using the exhumation as a method for attacking his opponents. Last month, the culture minister, Francisco Sesto, chastised Baltazar Porras, a Venezuelan archbishop, for “verbal desecration” for contending that Bolivar was, in fact, dead.
Political movements drawing strength from the remains of the dead are not new here or elsewhere in Latin America. One recent example came from Carlos Menem, Argentina’s former president, who returned the remains of the 19th-century warlord Juan Manuel de Rosas from England for burial in Argentina in 1989.
“Disputes over bodies are disputes over power, power over the past and power in the present,” said Lyman Johnson, an historian at the University of North Carolina who specializes in Latin America’s body cults. “These powerful meanings force new life into long-dead bodies.”
Chavez, with his removal of teeth and other bone fragments from Bolivar’s skeleton for DNA testing, may be taking the appropriation of the dead to new levels. The authorities here have ignored requests from descendants of Bolivar’s family (Bolivar himself is not widely believed to have had children) to leave the remains alone.
“The exhumation was one of the most grotesque spectacles I have ever seen,” said Lope Mendoza, 71, a prominent businessman here who is a great-great-grandnephew of Bolivar’s.
Still, the authorities here say they are far from finished. They plan to build a new pantheon for Bolivar to be completed by next year in which the bones will be deposited in a golden urn instead of a lead sarcophagus.
Next up for exhumation, said Vice President Elias Jaua, is Bolivar’s sister Maria Antonia Bolivar, whose remains lie at the Caracas Cathedral. Jaua said DNA testing must be done on her skeleton as well to determine whether the bones found in Bolivar’s tomb are actually Bolivar’s.
“Once we are certain that these are the Liberator’s remains,” Jaua said, “we will prepare a documentary in order to bestow testimony to history.”
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