Thu, Aug 05, 2010 - Page 14 News List

Chavez digs deep to rewrite history

Venezuelans have been left scratching their heads after the country’s president exhumed Simon Bolivar’s remains to see if, contrary to the textbook version of his demise, he was poisoned

By Simon Romero  /  NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE , CARACAS

Experts make an inventory of the files of Simon Bolivar, which, by presidential decree, were transferred earlier this year from the National History Academy to the National General Archive in Caracas, Venezuela.

PHOTO: EPA

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.

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