Notebook

March 12, 2013 6:21 pm

An obsession to save the spirit of Bolívar

El Comandante was fated to follow El Libertador, writes Benedict Mander

The late Hugo Chávez’s obsession with Simón Bolívar was no secret. He was, after all, the supreme leader of what he called a “Bolivarian revolution” and renamed his country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

But there is plenty to suggest that his fascination with South America’s 19th century “liberator” ran deeper than that: one biographer even claimed that in the early days of his presidency he would leave an empty chair for Bolívar at cabinet meetings.

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Perhaps, though, it was his determination to solve a murder mystery that is the most telling aspect of his devotion to Bolívar.

Not satisfied with the version of history books that holds that Venezuela’s independence hero died of tuberculosis, Chávez suspected that he was in fact poisoned by dastardly Colombian oligarchs.

So, at about midnight on July 15 2010, a team of soldiers and forensic scientists opened Bolívar’s lead coffin to exhume his mortal remains and perform an autopsy. “That glorious skeleton must be Bolívar, for we could feel his spark,” Chávez tweeted from the scene.

Although the surreal ceremony broadcast live on state television did not yield conclusive results, some more superstitious Venezuelans whisper it may have triggered something akin to the curse of the pharaohs, since a number of people present were subsequently taken ill.

Be that as it may, Bolívar’s remains were moved to an ostentatious mausoleum built at Chávez’s request (he helped design it, too) that dominates the skyline of downtown Caracas – it has even been described as a modern-day Venezuelan version of the pyramids.

Banx cartoon

Now, Chávez’s adoring supporters are clamouring for his final resting place to be at Bolívar’s side.

There would be one significant difference, though. Despite Chávez’s professed distaste for the display of corpses – in 2009 he ordered the closure of the “Bodies Revealed” exhibition because it was a sign of humanity’s “moral decay” – officials have pledged to embalm his body so that it can be seen “for eternity”.

Although this follows in the best communist tradition of Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, several popes were also embalmed, as was Abraham Lincoln.

Closer to home, Argentina’s “Evita” Perón was also embalmed, and she now enjoys saintlike status. Many think Chávez will soon join her among South America’s pantheon of secular saints.

It would fit quite neatly the Bolivarian mythology that Chávez constructed. After all, he saw himself as the reincarnation of Bolívar, and his movement as the realisation of the rebellious Venezuelan’s dreams of freedom from the imperialist yoke.

And just as the socialist leader believed that Bolívar was assassinated, his own successor, Venezuela’s acting president Nicolás Maduro, has claimed that Chávez was also killed by imperialists (read: the US government/CIA, etc), by infecting him with cancer.

Many may think that absurd. But there is another interpretation at which Mr Maduro has hinted. Like Christ, Chávez died to save his people, and he will rise again – rather like he did after a failed coup, staging a dramatic return to the presidential palace by helicopter in the early hours of April 14 2002.

On that same date next month, when presidential elections will be held, Mr Maduro is hoping to inherit the earthly task of consolidating the work of both Bolívar and Chávez.

. . .

Stretching the line

Venezuelans have an admirable ability to put up with queues. Although it is not a blessing that I share, it is useful: whether it’s waiting in a Caracas traffic jam or standing to buy subsidised but scarce groceries at state-run stores.

Some queues, like being on a waiting list to buy a new car, can take months, even years. Others can simply be a waste of time, like those waiting for their government allowance of foreign currency at the deliciously cheap (alas, mostly unobtainable) official exchange rate.

But the most remarkable queue I’ve witnessed after six years in Caracas is the line to see Chávez lying in state. At one point it reportedly stretched to 7km, with people waiting more than 24 hours in line.

At least Chávez is a scarce commodity, unlike most other things Venezuelans have to queue for, despite it being a wealthy country. Still, I’d rather wait until the furore has died down – after all, officials have promised that his embalmed body will be on display for ever, so I suppose there’s no great rush.

benedict.mander@ft.com

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