Reverence for iconic hero going too far? Chavez’s obsession with Simon Bolivar runs deep

By Christopher Toothaker, AP
Saturday, July 24, 2010

Simon Bolivar an obsession for Venezuela’s Chavez

CARACAS, Venezuela — For Hugo Chavez, Simon Bolivar 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 Chavez, Bolivar is an obsession.

The president’s admiration for “El Libertador,” who has been his guiding light since Chavez 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 Chavez views himself as the modern emissary and disciple of Bolivar, 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 Bolivar’s reincarnation — an allegation Chavez vehemently denies.

Chavez’s fascination with Bolivar 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 Chavez has gone too far.

“It’s madness. Bolivar’s dead. His remains should remain untouched,” said Rosalinda Fuentes, a 53-year-old housewife who doesn’t support either Chavez or his political opponents.

On walls in Caracas, graffiti has appeared reading: “Let me rest in peace. Bolivar.”

On Saturday, Chavez presided over a special ceremony honoring Bolivar at the National Pantheon, where soldiers dressed in colonial-era uniforms placed a new flag over the independence hero’s tomb.

The flag was driven across the country this week. Along the way, Venezuelans stitched on stars. Thousands of Chavez supporters marched the large red, yellow and blue flag through downtown Caracas on Saturday to the pantheon.

“Today we bring you this gift made by the hand of your people,” Chavez said as he stared down at his hero’s coffin.

Marcos Suarez, a 57-year-old security guard, said Chavez is right to investigate Bolivar’s death.

“Bolivar’s legacy lives on today,” Suarez said. “We must know the truth about his fate.”

Chavez is undeterred in using Bolivar 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 Chavez reads Bolivar’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, Chavez pressured a popularly elected assembly packed with his allies to change the country’s name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

Chavez has vowed to build a monument to Bolivar atop the mountains that fringe Caracas.

At public events, he sometimes brandishes Bolivar’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.

Chavez’s opponents contend the president manipulates the history of Bolivar to serve his own political purposes.

And some accuse Chavez of launching the investigation into Bolivar’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 Chavez tries to portray himself as a modern-day Bolivar, attempting to win support by tapping into nationalist sentiment.

“The Chavista revival of the cult has created its own replica of the Holy Trinity: Bolivar, Chavez 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.”

Chavez backers believe he is striving to achieve goals similar to those of Bolivar in terms of promoting an independent and united Latin America.

The territories that Bolivar 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 Perez Arcay, one of Chavez’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.

Chavez takes offense when some suggest his fixation with Bolivar is excessive.

In a speech Wednesday, he denied attempting to compare himself with Bolivar, and he accused opponents of spreading false rumors that he occasionally leaves an empty chair for Bolivar’s “spirit” during meetings or when he dines with family.

“What’s the objective? To label Chavez as crazy,” he said.

“Of course I’m far from comparing myself with our father Bolivar. I’m a microscopic soldier next to the giant.”

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