CARACAS, Venezuela – 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
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
United States, and the king of Spain.
Findings presented at a medical conference
this year in the United States 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, a
historian at the University of North Carolina who specializes in Latin
America’s body cults. “These powerful meanings force new life into long-dead
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.”