Venezuela reburies a hero and raises a controversy

Critics of Hugo Chávez are aghast at Simón Bolívar’s mausoleum, Virginia López reports from Caracas in this article for The Canberra Times.

MORE than 180 years after his death, the South American independence hero Simón Bolívar will be given an ostentatious and controversial new resting place in Venezuela thanks to his most famous modern-day follower, Hugo Chávez.

The Venezuelan President has commissioned a $A138 million, white-tiled and domed mausoleum in Caracas to pay homage to the nation’s founding father.

But as Venezuelans await the twice-delayed inauguration, now scheduled for December 17, many see the structure more as an emblem of their President’s highly personalised style of leadership.

From the striking design and secretive planning to the separation of Bolívar’s corpse from those of his revolutionary comrades, the 54-metre-high structure not only dominates the skyline but also the debate about the best way to respect Latin America’s most celebrated revolutionary.

Minister of State Francisco Farruco Sesto, the minister in charge of the transformation of greater Caracas, said the idea of the mausoleum came about two years ago when Bolívar’s bones were disinterred to test Mr Chávez’s personal theory that the Liberator – as he is known – was poisoned by political enemies.

Though the results of the autopsy did not prove this suspicion, Mr Sesto said that ”we were greatly moved by the experience of exhuming the remains, and we needed to feel that the Liberator had a dignified home”.

Some admirers liken the building – a white ascending curve flanked by a towering metal structure – to the snowy Andean peaks where Bolívar waged war against Spanish dominion.

Critics and comics have compared it to a giant meringue or a skateboarding ramp.

”It is an architectural excess that completely ignores its surroundings and violates all the canons for intervening historical patrimony,” said Graziano Gasparini, the country’s leading authority on colonial architecture.

The mausoleum stands in the centre of old Caracas. It is flanked by an 18th-century military fortress and the National Pantheon, a neo-gothic church where Bolívar was previously buried alongside other independence heroes and illustrious Venezuelans.

It is the secrecy under which the monument was conceived and commissioned that Mr Gasparini criticised most.

”If they had called a contest among architects of the five countries Bolívar liberated, it would have given the project greater relevance,” he said. ”Instead, you have a building that imposes itself over the neighbouring structures and a government that decides everything behind closed doors.”

Since coming to power in 1998, Mr Chávez has frequently cited Bolívar as the source of inspiration for his personal brand of socialism. From renaming the country – now the Bolívarian Republic of Venezuela – to regional trade agreements such as the Bolívarian Alliance for the Americas, which aims to resurrect Bolívar’s dream of a united region, Mr Chávez has found numerous uses of his historical symbolism.

Most recently, the government unveiled what it said was a reconstruction of Bolívar’s face, which now stares down from billboards and murals across the country.

Historian Ines Quintero said this constant rehashing of history for political purposes was nothing new, but in the case of the mausoleum it contradicted Mr Chávez’s revolutionary rhetoric. ”When you take Bolívar out of the National Pantheon and place him alone in a mausoleum, the other men buried there become a preamble to the sole hero.”

She said this undermined a more revolutionary approach to history, in which social movements rather than individuals are the real agents of change.

Others see the mausoleum as the latest attempt by Mr Chávez to link his name to that of the national hero.

”It is an ugly monstrosity, a waste of money, and a monument to Chávez, not to Bolívar, who needs no further glory,” said Bolívar’s British biographer John Lynch.

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