Chávez, Assailed on Many Fronts, Is Riveted by 19th-Century Idol

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 23, 2008

CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chávez begins his 10th year in office with inflation in Venezuela the highest in Latin America, food shortages prompting rioting, crime growing and the populist leader's own popularity sliding.

But among Chávez's new priorities is proving that Simón Bolívar, the 19th-century hero who is the inspiration for his movement, was slain by corrupt oligarchs and did not succumb to tuberculosis. Historians from Caracas to London agree that the great liberator died in his bed in Santa Marta, Colombia, fevered, sick and broken, on Dec. 17, 1830.

Now, as Venezuela's official Gazette recorded on Jan. 28, Ch¿vez has convened a high commission, led by his vice president and composed of nine cabinet ministers and the attorney general. Their job is to exhume Bol¿var's remains, which lie in a sarcophagus at the National Pantheon in downtown Caracas, and carry out the necessary scientific tests to confirm Chávez's contention -- that treacherous assassins murdered Bol¿var.

"This commission has been created because the executive considers it to be of great historical and cultural value to clarify important doubts regarding the death of the Liberator," the Venezuela's official Gazette said.

The president's latest focus on Bolívar, the Caracas-born aristocrat whose rebel armies freed from Spanish rule what would become six Latin American countries, is understandable. Bolívar is so revered by Chávez that he calls his transformation of Venezuela a Bol¿varian Revolution, has renamed the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and has reportedly left a chair empty at meetings to honor "the Liberator."

Chávez's version of Bolívar also fits the president's ideology. Bolívar, Chávez said, was a socialist like himself, stridently opposed to the United States and determined to build a classless society. And because Bol¿var's dream of uniting Latin America would have been a blow to oligarchs and imperialists, Ch¿vez said, the corrupt high classes in Bogota and Caracas conspired to kill him.

"Some say he was very ill and knew he was going to die, and he wanted to die by the side of the sea and he died happy, and Colombia was happy and Venezuela was happy," Chávez said in a long speech Dec. 17, the anniversary of Bolívar's death, standing next to the Liberator's remains. "How the oligarchs fooled us, the ones here, the ones there. How the historians who falsified history fooled us."

In Venezuela, though, even some of Chávez's most ardent followers say he may be taking an obsession with Bolívar too far.

"This doesn't make any sense," said Alberto Mueller Rojas, a retired general who serves as an adviser to the president on international affairs and military matters. "Why should I care? Bol¿var died. If they killed him, they killed him. If he died of tuberculosis, he died of tuberculosis. In this day and age, this doesn't have any significance."

Chávez's priorities in recent months have ranged from negotiating the release of Colombian hostages to touting the value of coca, the leaf used to make cocaine, to hurling invective at Colombian President ¿lvaro Uribe, whom he accuses of being Washington's lapdog. He's even taken time out to herald Venezuela's foray into Antarctica -- a team of scientists the government is sending for exploration and research purposes.

Political analysts, though, say his feverishness may be hurting him. Polls show Venezuelans most concerned about crime, the economy and shortages of milk, toilet paper and other necessities.

"Clearly, Chávez is distracted by many issues," said Larry Birns, president of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a policy analysis group supportive of many of Chávez's policies. "I think one of the weaknesses of the present Venezuelan administration is it's juggling too many bits and pieces of a policy, and it is, to a large extent, undermining its own credibility abroad."

Datanalisis, a Caracas pollster, now says that fewer than 40 percent of Venezuelans have confidence Chávez can resolve their problems. Another pollster, Alfredo Keller and Partners, said last week that Chávez's popularity had dropped to 38 percent, from 65 percent in 2006.

Luis Vicente León, an analyst and pollster at Datanalisis, said Chávez had lower approval ratings from 2001 to 2003, when they hovered just above 30 percent. But his slide has been precipitous since losing a Dec. 2 referendum that would have given him more powers.

The trend "for him is bad, very bad," Le¿n said. "We've never seen a slide so significant in such a short period."

Chávez's revelations on Bol¿var have astonished students of history from as far away as Europe and the United States. Among other things, he has said that one of Colombia's founding fathers, Francisco José de Paula Santander, was complicit in Bolívar's death.

"Historically, he's got it all wrong. It's quite incorrect," said John Lynch, a professor emeritus at the University of London whose recent "Simón Bolívar: A Life" is considered a definitive autobiography. "The facts have been known for some time, that Bolívar died of natural causes. He was attended by a qualified doctor who wrote bulletins, did an autopsy, and all these things have been aired, published."

Lynch and other historians also take Chávez to task for presenting Bolívar as a social revolutionary who sought to transform the region into an egalitarian paradise countering U.S. power. Undoubtedly a great man, Bol¿var never sought to wipe away the underpinnings of society, nor did he particularly fear the United States or pine for a Latin American nation.

"What does Chávez do? He utilizes him for his own ends, and he interprets him his way," said El¿as Pino, a Venezuelan historian whose book, "The Divine Bolívar," outlines how Latin American leaders have created the cult of Bolívar for political purposes. "So he quotes him perfectly, like a schoolchild. He has a prodigious memory, but the majority of the citations, if not all of them, are out of context."

At the Pantheon on a recent afternoon, several Venezuelans said they thought Chávez should focus his energies on resolving the country's problems.

"How can you disturb the memory of Bol¿var, touch his bones and say that Santander killed Bolívar?" said Ivan Adames, a security guard. "Please! That's something my daughter, who's barely 7, would say is absurd."

Arlington Serrano, 26, noted that the diaries of those who were with Bol¿var in his dying days are proof enough of how the great man died. "Ch¿vez wasn't there at the moment," Serrano said. "If those who were there said he died of illness, then he died of illness."

Chávez, though, is having none of it.

He said that Bolívar was too strong, too fit, to have succumbed to illness in his march to Santa Marta. Lowering his voice for dramatic effect during his speech about Bol¿var, looking at his ministers with a conspiratorial glare, he suggested that oligarchs may even have stolen the Liberator's bones.

"We have the moral obligation to clear this up, to open that sacrosanct coffin," he said. "And then examine the remains that are there. Hopefully they're Bol¿var's. Hopefully."

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