For Hugo Chávez, Simón Bolívar is more than a founding father to be feted once a year on his birthday. He’s the icon of an entire political movement. He’s a muse whose words inspire nearly two centuries after his death.
For Chávez, Bolívar is an obsession.
The president’s admiration for “El Libertador,” who has been his guiding light since Chávez was a rank-and-file soldier, goes far beyond the conventional reverence most Venezuelans hold for the independence leader who was honored Saturday on the 227th anniversary of his birth. The socialist Chávez views himself as the modern emissary and disciple of Bolívar, and sees parallels between his hero’s efforts to free South America from Spanish rule and his own crusade to challenge U.S. influence in the region.
Critics say he is trying to cast himself as Bolívar’s reincarnation — an allegation Chávez vehemently denies.
Chávez’s fascination with Bolívar has been on display like never before this month as he has exhumed Bolivar’s bones in hopes of using modern forensics to confirm his identity — and investigate a theory that his idol was felled by a murder conspiracy. Historians have generally concluded Bolivar died of tuberculosis, and some Venezuelans are saying Chávez has gone too far. “It’s madness. Bolívar’s dead. His remains should remain untouched,” said Rosalinda Fuentes, a 53-year-old housewife who doesn’t support either Chávez or his political opponents.
On walls in Caracas, graffiti has appeared reading: “Let me rest in peace. Bolívar.”
On Saturday, dozens of government officials and supporters attended a Mass in which a priest blessed a flag to be placed over Bolívar’s tomb inside the National Pantheon. Venezuelans stitched stars on the flag this week as authorities drove it across the country. Fireworks exploded as the service concluded. “Viva Bolívar!” pro-Chávez lawmaker Darío Vivas shouted. Chávez supporters planned to march the handcrafted flag through downtown Caracas later.
Chávez is undeterred in using Bolívar as his political stamp and a nationalist symbol to rally his supporters. A portrait of the 19th century independence leader often serves as a backdrop during televised speeches in which Chávez reads Bolívar’s writings and expounds on his aims. His political movement — the Bolivarian Revolution — takes its name from his idol. Shortly after taking office in 1999, Chávez pressured a popularly elected assembly packed with his allies to change the country’s name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Chávez has vowed to build a monument to Bolívar atop the mountains that fringe Caracas.
At public events, he sometimes brandishes Bolívar’s sword — a solid-gold saber encrusted with more than 1,000 diamonds, rubies and other precious stones. He has given gold-plated replicas of the sword to foreign allies, including former Cuban President Fidel Castro and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Chávez’s opponents contend the president manipulates the history of Bolívar to serve his own political purposes. And some accuse Chávez of launching the investigation into Bolívar’s death in hopes of affecting legislative elections in September. They say he wants to distract public attention from problems such as crime, 31 percent inflation and a scandal involving thousands of tons of food left rotting in government storage. Opposition newspaper editor Teodoro Petkoff says Chávez tries to portray himself as a modern-day Bolívar, attempting to win support by tapping into nationalist sentiment. “The Chavista revival of the cult has created its own replica of the Holy Trinity: Bolívar, Chávez and the people,” Petkoff wrote in a stinging editorial in his daily, Tal Cual.
Vice President Elias Jaua responded that only “sick minds are capable of judging a very serious investigation.” Chávez backers believe he is striving to achieve goals similar to those of Bolívar in terms of promoting an independent and united Latin America. The territories that Bolívar helped free from Spanish rule across the northern Andes for a time formed “Gran Colombia,” a republic that later broke up into what is now Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama amid power struggles. Gen. Jacinto Pérez Arcay, one of Chávez’s closest confidants, said the president is similarly seeking to achieve Latin American integration through a regional bloc of nations founded by Venezuela and Cuba.
Chávez takes offense when some suggest his fixation with Bolívar is excessive. In a speech Wednesday, he denied attempting to compare himself with Bolívar, and he accused opponents of spreading false rumors that he occasionally leaves an empty chair for Bolívar’s “spirit” during meetings or when he dines with family. “What’s the objective? To label Chávez as crazy,” he said. “Of course I’m far from comparing myself with our father Bolívar. I’m a microscopic soldier next to the giant.”
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