Review Essay

Bolívar's Botched Bequest

Latin America's Liberator and the Tyrants Who Love Him

In This Review


A figurine depicting South American independence leader Simon Bolívar is seen in Caracas ahead of the inauguration of a new 160-foot high mausoleum to cradle the independence leader's remains, 2012. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/ Courtesy Reuters)

Bolívar: American Liberator BY MARIE ARANA. Simon & Schuster, 2013, 544 pp. $35.00.

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

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