Bolívar's Botched Bequest

Latin America's Liberator and the Tyrants Who Love Him

When he died of tuberculosis in 1830, the Venezuelan revolutionary Simón Bolívar -- a military leader and politician who guided Latin America to independence from colonial Spain and who is known throughout Latin America as El Libertador -- was buried in the Cathedral of Santa Marta, in what is now Colombia. But Bolívar has enjoyed little rest since then: the Liberator's bones have been dug up several times, ultimately finding their way to present-day Venezuela. The most recent exhumation was carried out in 2010, at the behest of Venezuela's then president, Hugo Chávez. Throughout his career, Chávez had sought to link himself to Bolívar in ways large and small, even renaming his country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Chávez had his hero dug up so that forensic scientists could test whether the Liberator had been poisoned by Colombian oligarchs, whom Chávez saw as the ancestors of his own rivals.

The somber business of disinterring human remains could not quell Chávez's enthusiasm for appropriating Bolívar's image, nor, for that matter, did it affect his unique sense of propriety. Watching as the Liberator's remains were brought up, Chávez took to Twitter. "That glorious skeleton must be Bolívar, because his flame can be felt," he declared. "Bolívar lives!" The tests offered no proof of foul play. But no matter; Chávez declared that Bolívar would once again be reburied, this time in a new $150 million mausoleum in downtown Caracas, the city where Bolívar was born in 1783.

Even in death, Chávez seemed to be trying to connect himself to Bolívar. Less than a week after Chávez passed away from cancer, in March, his political heir apparent, Nicolás Maduro, the interim president of Venezuela, intimated that Chávez himself had been poisoned and announced that he would invite "the world's best scientists" to investigate.

Chávez was only the latest in a long line of Latin American ideologues who have sought to appropriate Bolívar for their own ends. The Argentine dictator Juan Perón cast himself as Bolívar's heir as he tried to build a unified Latin American front against the influence of foreign powers in the region. Cuba's Fidel Castro, well to Perón's left, likes to quote the poet Pablo Neruda to suggest that Bolívar's message was one of populist solidarity: the Liberator, Neruda wrote, "awaken[s] every time the people regain consciousness."

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