Behind exhumation of Simon Bolivar is Hugo Chavez's warped obsession

By Thor Halvorssen
Sunday, July 25, 2010; B05

Upon Julius Caesar's murder, a struggle erupted over who would control his legacy. Octavius, Caesar's great-nephew, manipulated his position as Caesar's heir to wrest power from his rivals. He made Caesar a god and raised a temple, using Caesar's remains to underscore their connection. Symbolism was crucial, and to dispel any doubts about his legitimacy, Octavius added "Julius Caesar" to his name.

Shortly after midnight on July 16, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez reached back in time. He presided at the exhumation of the remains of Simón Bolívar -- Latin America's greatest independence hero, who helped liberate the region from Spain in the 19th century, and the object of Chávez's personal and political obsession.

The skeleton was pulled apart. Pieces were removed, such as teeth and bone fragments, for "testing." The rest was put in a new coffin with the Chávez government's seal. Chávez, who also tweeted the proceedings, gave a rambling speech in which he asked Christ to repeat his Lazarus miracle and raise the dead once more. He also apparently conversed with Bolívar's bones.

"I had some doubts," Chávez told his nation, paraphrasing the poet Pablo Neruda, "but after seeing his remains, my heart said, 'Yes, it is me.' Father, is that you, or who are you? The answer: 'It is me, but I awaken every hundred years when the people awaken.' "

By presidential decree, every television station in Venezuela showed images of Bolívar in historic paintings, then images of the skeleton, and then images of Chávez, with the national anthem blaring. The message of this macabre parody was unmistakable: Chávez is not a follower of Bolívar -- Chávez is Bolívar, reincarnated. And anyone who opposes or criticizes him is a traitor not just to Chávez but to history.

Legally, Bolívar's body is in the care of the Venezuelan state, but his most immediate known kin were Pedro and Eduardo Mendoza-Goiticoa -- the direct descendants of Bolívar's youngest sister, Juana Bolívar y Palacios. Eduardo, my grandfather, died less than a year ago in Caracas. My great-uncle Pedro died last month at the age of 96. No attempt was made to notify him of the plan to open Bolívar's tomb.

If you can imagine Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Lincoln rolled into one, you can appreciate Bolívar's historical power in much of Latin America, and why a "Bolivarian " revolution is infinitely more legitimizing than a "Chávez" revolution. Chávez's aggressive appropriation of Bolívar -- first politically and now physically -- is especially meaningful because it is an attempt to wipe away the most important opposition leader and philosophical nemesis Chávez could ever face: Bolívar himself.

After his failed coup attempt in 1992 against Venezuela's democratically elected government, Chávez, who had named his rebel movement for Bolívar, was imprisoned for two years and eventually received a presidential pardon. Upon running for office in 1998, Chávez dubbed his party the Bolivarian Movement, and as president he changed the name of Venezuela to include "Bolivarian Republic." He has often left an empty chair at cabinet meetings, for Bolívar's spirit, and even ordered the central bank to deliver Bolívar's sword for his personal use. (He has since presented replicas to Moammar Gaddafi, Robert Mugabe, Alexander Lukashenko, Vladimir Putin, Raúl Castro and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.)

Bolívar would be outraged by the notion of Chávez, a socialist, as his intellectual or political heir. In his correspondence, Bolívar revealed himself as someone in the company of Thomas Jefferson much more than Karl Marx (who documented his hatred for Bolívar in great detail). He described the American form of government -- so disparaged by Chávez -- as "the best on Earth." The small library that accompanied him on his military campaigns included Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations," several biographies of George Washington and dozens of works on the rights of man and the tyranny of illegitimate government.

In language and thought, Bolívar was a student of the Enlightenment, and his struggle against Spain's domination of South America reflected that inspiration. He was an admirer of the American Revolution, and his worldview was shaped by travels in Europe and by the works of Hume, Montesquieu and Voltaire. Bolívar understood that great nations are governed by laws, not men; liberalism, separation of powers, civil liberties, free trade and freedom of thought are recurring themes of his speeches and writings.

Chávez, in his personalization of power, assault on private property, stifling of dissent and destruction of the separation of powers, does not embrace Bolívar's legacy. He represents its antithesis.

The idea to open Bolívar's sarcophagus first surfaced in a 2007 speech by Chávez in which he suggested that the remains in the coffin were not those of Bolívar. At the time, a popular outcry against opening the coffin nixed Chávez's curiosity, though not for long. As Chávez rattled sabers against neighboring Colombia, he publicly hypothesized that Bolívar had been killed by the Colombian "oligarchy."

Enter Paul Auwaerter, Johns Hopkins medical school's clinical director for infectious diseases. This year, Auwaerter, who enjoys diagnostic puzzles, presented findings at an annual conference analyzing the deaths of historical figures. He concluded that tuberculosis did not kill Bolívar in 1830; chronic arsenicosis did. A popular tonic at the time, arsenic was used frequently by Bolívar to treat fever spells.

The Chávez government seized on the news and began preparations to exhume the body. Auwaerter, who told me that his work was misconstrued, believes the available medical information supports chronic ingestion, not foul play. But Chávez says Auwaerter has provided proof of Bolívar's murder.

I imagine that soon the government will declare that the investigation proves that Bolívar was murdered, either by Colombians or Americans or both. Indeed, I would not be surprised if the government announced that DNA evidence showed that Chávez is a long-lost relative of Bolívar!

For Chávez, this is not just an existential obsession, but possibly an electoral one. His main political opponent for the presidency is Leopoldo Lopez Mendoza, a cousin of mine and former municipal leader in Caracas whose approval in the polls exceeded 70 percent before the government arbitrarily disqualified him from running for elected office. The state-run media machinery frequently caricatures him as an unlikely relative of the Liberator, though Lopez has not made a public issue of his bloodline.

Chávez's necromancy will not end with Bolívar. He has announced that he will exhume corpses of Bolívar's family members and has promised to establish a new Bolívar mausoleum.

I hope that one day doctors convene a different conference, one to solve the puzzle of Chávez's warped psychology. How sad that, at the same time that Chávez shows Venezuela Bolívar's remains, Bolívar must endure what remains of his beloved Venezuela.

Thor Halvorssen is a film producer and president of the Human Rights Foundation.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company