Venezuelans debate how to preserve Chavez’s legacy — and his body

March 15, 2013

His frenzied followers just don’t want to say goodbye, and Hugo Chavez’s heirs say maybe they won’t have to.

Ten days after his death, Chavez’s most loyal lieutenants are debating where to place his body even as they keep his memory alive with a steady stream of televised tributes and speeches extolling his self-styled revolutionary movement.

The initial idea to embalm him — “like Lenin,” as the new president, Nicolas Maduro, put it — is still possible.

But Maduro said that plan may prove unworkable because the government waited too long to begin preparing the body for eternal viewing after Chavez died on March 5 following a long battle with cancer. That would have entailed draining fluid from his plump corpse and pumping chemicals through his arteries.

“More than his physical body, we have to have the Commander in eternal remembrance, especially this generation that heard him, touched him, that saw him,” said Maduro, Chavez’s hand-picked successor. “We have to have his image alive, his voice, his thoughts.”

Chavez’s body had been on display under glass at Venezuela’s version of West Point but was moved on Friday to the Museum of the Bolivarian Revolution a few hundred yards from the presidential palace where he ruled for 14 stormy years. Maduro said the next possible resting place could be the Pantheon in the city’s center, in a choice spot next to Chavez’s guiding light, the 19th-century liberation hero Simon Bolivar.

But in death, as in life, Chavez has caused an uproar, with some Venezuelans wondering how far the hero worship can go.

“We’re seeing the construction of a myth,” said Jose Bifano, a historian at the Central University of Venezuela. “They are looking to convert him into a myth with the objective of maintaining his movement. It’s blatant and manipulative.”

A difficult process

At the Military Academy, Chavez’s body had lain in state at an airy chapel, behind an encased gold sword, surrounded by flowers and flanked by two honor guards. Night and day, hundreds of thousands stood in line to enter and glimpse him, if only for a couple of seconds before guards moved them along.

El Comandante, a graduate of the academy, has been decked out in his military best — his broad chest covered in medals, a tri-colored presidential sash over his shoulder and beret snuggly fit over the top of his head. His fleshy face is dark burgundy. His eyes are shut tight. Dollops of make-up have erased creases.

“There is not much difference seeing him in life and in this state because he was a great man and great men don’t change,” said Rony Antonio Caracas, 27, moments after seeing the late president’s remains shortly after 1 a.m. on a recent day. “He looked spectacular, just as we expected.”

The grand plan had been to preserve the corpse so “our people can have him always, always there present and always with the people,” as Maduro explained shortly after Chavez died at age 58.

To make it all happen, said Francisco Fernandez, an expert on preserving corpses, Chavez’s body would have needed a massage to do away with puffiness. Undigested food would have been removed and chemicals injected. The body should have been thoroughly cleaned, bacteria eliminated.

It’s not an easy process, said Fernandez, who teaches at the Central University of Venezuela, and the body would need constant tune-ups. The tropical weather doesn’t help, nor do the rolling blackouts.

“You need to be constantly re-embalming and re-injecting chemicals to allow him to last a long time,” he said.

And while Venezuela has the will, it doesn’t exactly have the expertise.

Though Maduro has not detailed the government’s reasoning, the chemicals used in the embalming process would destroy the evidence the government says it needs to prove that Chavez’s cancer was caused by its “historic enemy” — the United States.

The former president’s loyalists, though, say they hope the government finds a way.

“I still have the hope of seeing him,” said Edgar Caseres, 43, who tried and failed to see the corpse at the military academy. “I want them to give us the privilege of seeing him.”

The government has said it consulted Russia — the world champs of preserving dead leaders.

Their big breakthrough in the science of keeping flesh fresh came in 1924, with the Soviet founder, Lenin. Since then, a range of countries — most of them authoritarian — have preserved their dead leaders, from Mao Zedong in China to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam.

In the Americas, long-term embalming has been carried out only on Argentine first lady Eva Peron, who died of cancer in 1952. Her body was then shuttled around Argentina for years and wound up in Milan before finally being buried in Buenos Aires.

The people’s wishes

Though that wax-covered hereafter has apparently been set aside, the late president’s body will, for some time, be at the museum in the 23rd of January neighborhood. It was in the former military facility where Chavez oversaw a bloody putsch in 1992, failing to oust President Carlos Andres Perez but becoming a household name.

Now, the people who live there — in the barrio most associated with Chavez — are ecstatic about having such a revered neighbor in their midst.

“We’re going to be so close to him!” said Julia Chacon, 73, whose home is right next to the museum. “I will go when I can, at least the days and the hours when you are permitted to go.”

Chavez’s last wishes are less clear. On his televised talk show, “Hello Mr. President,” he more than once said he wanted to be buried on a peaceful stretch of his family’s land in the great plains where he grew up.

In the end, said Maria Ninfa Uzcategui, 59, who also lives near the museum, Chavez’s wishes don’t count.

“He’s of the people,” she said, “and the people want him here.”

Emilia Diaz-Struck contributed to this

report.

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