Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The Death and Afterlives of Hugo Chávez: Some Preliminary Comparative Reflections on the Death, Burials and Exhumations of Simón Bolívar

The memorial ceremony held in Caracas to commemorate the life of Hugo Chávez Frias on Friday was an international event as well as a national moment of mourning and political transition. As I watched the live Venevision webstreaming in the UK, I was drawn to reflect on some of the historical parallels with the death and burials of Simón Bolívar, Chávez’s historical lodestar. I have expressed some of these thoughts in piecemeal and unsatisfactory fashion on various rolling news media over the last few days, and this blog takes the form of developing some of ideas on the links and comparisons between Chávez and Bolívar. It is also a first step towards a paper I will be giving on 1 June 2013 at the ‘International Conference on War, Demobilization and Memory: The Legacy of War in the Era of Atlantic Revolutions at King’s College London (http://wdm.web.unc.edu/). 

There have been many assessments of Chávez’s achievements in office in the last week or so: it is not my intention to repeat these here, nor to reflect on his possible political legacy in Venezuela, Latin America or worldwide (I refer readers to the reflections of Oscar Guardiola Rivera and Héctor Abad Faciolince). Many people have also written about the role of death and the rituals associated with it, in political cultures across the world, particularly in times of transition: I particularly like Katherine Verdery's 1999 book The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Post-Socialist Change.

An old image of the National Pantheon in Caracas, from http://caracas.ciberturista.com/files/2010/01/Panteon-Nacional-Caracas-Venezuela.jpg
International attendance at Friday’s memorial service appeared to demonstrate a markedly ideological pattern. Bolivia, Iran, Brazil and Cuba were well represented. Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner paid her respects but left before the ceremony on medical advice. The U.S. sent two minor but sympathetic politicians, and Britain was represented by its Ambassador to Venezuela. 

In the days leading up to the memorial service there was much media speculation as to where Chávez would be buried. Opposition figures suggested, rather calumniously, that the immense new mausoleum constructed to house the remains of Simón Bolívar in the centre of Caracas, would now be adopted to shelter Chávez’s mortal remains alongside his great hero. Others speculated that the convention establishing a minimum twenty-five year waiting list for burial to the National Pantheon, might be waived in the case of Hugo Chávez. The new mausoleum for Bolívar, which is an annex to the existing National Pantheon, has attracted much media interest on the basis of its size (it is huge), its shape (it looks like a skateboard ramp) and its considerable cost. Bolivar’s remains have been in the National Pantheon since the 1880s, when the former church was converted into a space of memory dedicated to individuals who had given their lives in service to the Venezuelan Republic.

Image of the new mausoleum to Bolivar, centre, from http://blogs.reuters.com/photographers-blog/files/2012/11/RTR3AHKL-e1353357870501.jpg

In the National Pantheon, a statue to Bolívar occupies the space of the altar, leaving el libertador to physically take over the space formerly occupied by religion – this is as good an example as any of the way that nineteenth-century nation-states in Latin America tried, in the century after independence from Iberian colonial rule, to replace religious iconography of King and Spain with patriotic martyrs and new national identities. In Venezuela, as the historian Germán Carrera Damas showed long ago, the Cult of Bolivar (1969) fitted the bill and was taken up by politicians and generals of all political ideologies from the mid-nineteenth century. Dedicating this church to Bolívar, placing statues of him across the country, and calling Viva Bolívar at political rallies: we might think that Hugo Chávez invented all of this, but the ‘cult of Bolivar’ has been a centrepiece of Venezuelan political and cultural life for over a hundred and fifty years. The historian Elias Pino Iturrieta showed more recently how the historical Bolívar was stripped of his human flaws and presented by latter-day Bolivarians as an infallible hero, predestined to bring liberty to the continent (El divino Bolívar, 2005). Nevertheless, the ever-present focus on Bolívar as a subject of history writing has necessarily brought out his multi-faced and contradictory character in recent years – as a slaveowning abolitionist, for example, as a democrat who flirted with authoritarianism, and as an anti-imperialist who courted the leading empires of the day.

I have spent quite a lot of time in, or trying to get into, the National Pantheon in Caracas over the last decade or so. When Chávez won the presidency in 1998, and decided to rename the country as the ‘Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’, one of his aims was to renovate and refurbish much of central Caracas and its historical monuments to the independence era. Principal among its targets was the National Pantheon, which consequently and ironically has often shut for refurbishments when I visited from the nearby National Library, National Archive or the archive of the Fundación John Boulton, which moved a few years ago into the colonial house next door to the National Pantheon. Next to Bolivar’s statue lie the remains of Daniel O’Leary, the Irishman who was Bolivar’s loyal aide-de-camp, and who in later life became a historian who preserved and edited Bolivar’s correspondence for publication (I have written previously about Daniel O’Leary’s own funeral,which took place in Bogota in Colombia in 1854, and which was – like Chávez’s, like Bolivar’s – a moment where international and national agendas coincided and were represented through death rituals). Also buried in the Pantheon, alongside many Venezuelan presidents, writers, military officers and musicians, are the Italian Carlo Castelli, the Prussian Heinrich Lutzen and the Venezuelan Carmelo Fernandez, who had all fought under Daniel O’Leary at the Battle of El Santuario in 1829 – the subject of my last book. There are other British remains buried there too, testament to the legacy of the British and Irish involvement in Venezuelan independence – Charles Minchin and Thomas Green are two of those who names are recorded. I spent many hours scanning the plaques in the naves for mention of General Gregor MacGregor, a Scottish adventurer who served Venezuela’s armed forces and who died in Caracas in 1845. I found none. MacGregor was a charismatic, controversial figure with radical views and a love of new challenges: I suspect that he and Hugo Chávez would have got on quite well.

But Hugo Chávez and Gregor MacGregor will not, it seems now, be sharing adjacent resting places. The day before the president’s funeral, his deputy, Nicolás Maduro, declared that Chávez’s body would be embalmed so that they could remain on view ‘for eternity’, placed in a new Museum of the Revolution in central Caracas, several blocks away from Bolivar’s mausoleum. Maduro compared this to the preservation of Lenin or Mao’s remains, displayed for the enjoyment of party loyalists or curious tourists. But a permanent location for the display is still a very long way off, and the presidential election on 14 April, in which Maduro will most likely face off against Henrique Capriles, defeated last year by Chávez, means that Maduro’s decision could well still be overturned by a new president. It seems pretty moot whether Maduro’s commitment to embalming would be honoured by a new government run by anti-Chavistas.

Two weeks ago, Hugo Chávez returned from Cuba to Venezuela, a trip he had made on repeated occasions during his cancer treatment, for the last time. His funeral took place within a fortnight. In contrast, twelve years had to pass between Simón Bolívar’s death in Santa Marta, Colombia, in 1830, and the repatriation of his remains to Caracas in 1842. On March 1, 1830, Bolívar had resigned the presidency of Gran Colombia (the super-republic comprising the republics we know today as Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama), later declaring that “he who serves the revolution ploughs the sea.” Sick, disenchanted, and disillusioned he prepared to go into exile but died before he could leave Gran Colombia, on December 17, 1830.

For ten years after Bolivar’s death his friends were in exile across the Caribbean, or slowly reintegrating themselves into political and economic life through civil warfare and political violence. In the years 1839–42 Venezuela finally experienced a period of peace presided over by its dominant national caudillo José Antonio Páez, the overwhelming victor in the presidential elections of late 1838. Páez’s cabinet was stacked with former Bolivarians. As the leader of a government representing what Venezuelan historians call oligarchic conservatism, Páez and his ministers proposed and enacted measures that they thought would integrate the republic into the modern, prosperous world, for example, private road-building schemes, national schools, immigration, and repayment of the national debt. With Guillermo Smith in the Finance (and later, also, Foreign Affairs) Ministry Venezuela’s progress was firmly tied to British power in these years. In Daniel O’Leary’s words, “General Paez has always shewn a desire to cultivate the friendship of England in preference to any other country. One of the last acts of Paez’s administration, as he sought to improve its popularity to ensure the election of his nominated successor, Carlos Soublette, was to arrange the repatriation of the remains of Simón Bolívar.

The Repatriation of Bolívar’s Remains from Santa Marta to Caracas

One of Carmelo Fernandez's sketches of Bolivar's funeral procession, from http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_Ddu9ptTiQtM/TUk0JLTN32I/AAAAAAAAAR0/M_kxpprvE_A/s1600/Funeral_Bolivar.jpg.

The following discussion of the historical national and international contexts of the first exhumation of Bolivar's remains comes from my recent book The Struggle for Power in Post-Independence Colombia and VenezuelaWith the consolidation of power in the early 1840s of Conservative regimes in both New Granada (under General Herrán) and Venezuela (under General Páez) came the rehabilitation of the memory of Simón Bolívar. The repatriation of Bolívar’s remains from Santa Marta to the Venezuelan capital in 1842 provided an opportunity for the two governments to wallow in nostalgia for an apparently lost and glorious past. The staging of the repatriation was notably and consciously Eurocentric. The Italian Agustín Codazzi was commissioned to design and build, in Paris, a carriage that would carry the urn containing Bolívar’s remains, as well as “a Victory Arch to adorn the solemn act.” Daniel O’Leary was charged with communicating with the Italian sculptor Pietro Tenerani, who was to create, in Rome, a marble monument where the remains would lie. Some of the friends who had been with Bolívar in his last days were also invited, including Alejandro Próspero Reverend, the French doctor who had treated Bolívar. A new urn was commissioned to be made in Bogotá to carry Bolívar’s remains to Caracas, though Bolívar’s heart was to be left in Santa Marta “as a symbol of eternal friendship between the two countries.” Daniel O’Leary was at the time British consul in Puerto Cabello and acting consul in Caracas. It was Daniel O’Leary’s idea that a British warship should be sent to Santa Marta to assist in transferring Bolívar’s remains. The Venezuelan mission sailed for Santa Marta accompanied by the esteemed artist and El Santuario veteran Carmelo Fernández. Throughout the journey Fernández drew 18 sketches of the expedition’s progress. 

The governor of Santa Marta in 1842 was Joaquín Posada Gutierrez. In his memoirs he recalled that the Venezuelan commissioners arrived at Santa Marta not on their own ship the Constitución, but in La Circe, the French corvette that had in theory been accompanying them. This was a suitable beginning for a multinational event where the British and French, especially, were ever present. Posada Gutierrez welcomed the commissioners ashore with a speech evoking the memory of Bolívar, “the man whose fame filled the world.” When the marble stone was lifted away from the grave, the foreign and national warships in the harbor (the Venezuelan Constitución and brig Caracas, HMS Albatross, the French corvette La Circe, the Dutch sloop Venus, and the Danish sloop Sainte Croix) all began regular cannon-fire to mark the occasion. The exhumation of the remains attracted interest from invited guests and locals alike, who all crowded for a glimpse. The funeral convoy to the port the next day was made up of “all the honourable individuals, regardless of colour” who were in the town and “five or six thousand people” waved goodbye to the relics on November 22, 1842, when they began the 21-day journey from Santa Marta to the port of La Guaira. O’Leary joined the “magnificent” cortege from La Guaira over the mountain to Caracas on December 15, and he walked with the diplomatic community on December 17 when Bolívar’s remains were taken into the San Francisco church. They lay there for seven days before moving on December 23 to the cathedral. Dreaming that even in death Bolívar would once again unite people despite their diverse origins or politics, O’Leary noted that “every one seemed desirous that party spirit should be buried in the Tomb of Bolívar.” He reported to London that “the British and Foreign naval officers who attended the funeral rites have been treated with great hospitality.

From the moment of their arrival in Caracas, Bolívar’s remains were subject to the most pompous and exaggerated accompaniment. The head of state, ministers, generals, the diplomatic community, and “thousands of well-wishers” turned out to the streets. Rafael Urdaneta, at the time the governor of Guayana, recalled that “the foreign residents of Caracas and La Guaira, filled with the same enthusiasm as the locals, had joined in the preparations and mixed in the lines wearing national uniforms.” President José Antonio Páez presided over the ceremonies in one of the last acts of his presidential term. The representatives of foreign powers, such as O’Leary, were to bear witness to Venezuela’s modernity and the honours it paid to Bolívar.

For O’Leary, the repatriation of Bolívar’s remains to Venezuela had taken place under British guidance and with British approval. This was only right and proper in O’Leary’s opinion, given that (as he had written in 1841) Britain’s only “desire [was] to maintain with [Venezuela . . .] the most friendly relations, without aiming at exclusive advantages or pretending to establish any undue influence in the country.” The beginning of the rehabilitation of Bolívar’s memory was proof for O’Leary that he, his friends and Bolívar had been right all along, that a strong, central government supported by European imperial powers was the only way to preserve the republic.

Using History to Look Forwards: Hugo Chávez and the Death of Simón Bolívar

Even as Latin American leaders look to the future, they often ground their political discourse, and the way they look at the world, upon their countries’ historical pasts. One good example is the way the mortal remains of Simón Bolívar have been treated and debated in contemporary Venezuela. Bolivar’s remains (excluding his heart, which stayed back in Santa Marta, Colombia, after his first exhumation in 1842) lie in what is now the National Pantheon in the centre of Caracas, which was consecrated as such in the 1870s under the watchful eye of the caudillo Antonio Guzman Blanco. Guzman Blanco is famed for his attempts to modernise Venezuela, to overhaul its urban planning in the model of Von Hausman’s Paris, and for his populist authoritarianism. Guzman Blanco gave the definitive shift to the Bolivarian cult, erecting statues, renaming avenues, and orchestrating the publication of the 32 volumes of Bolivarian documentation. Whereas in the 1870s the National Pantheon occupied a secluded, rural setting in between urban Caracas and the northern mountain range separating it from the Caribbean – and with an awe-inspiring view of the city, combining peace and tranquillity with scope and horizon –it has now been fully overtaken by urban development, and now looks onto a concrete plaza and series of dual carriageway flyovers. Despite frequent architectural makeovers, on the inside and outside, the Pantheon still feels like a hangover from another, more patriotic era that had been left behind by urbanisation and development. The new architectural gesture of the mausoleum dedicated to Bolívar now stands behind it, looking down its graceful slopes disapproving at the Pantheon’s colonial rigidity. Inside, Bolivar’s remains have seldom been left to rest in peace.

In the last decade the tomb of Bolívar enclosed within the National Pantheon has been visited by luminaries including Vladimir Putin, Evo Morales and Lula da Silva, as Chávez has made it into a unmissable stopping point on a Bolivarian tour of the capital. In 2010 much of Hispanic America marked the bicentenary of its separation from Spanish colonial rule. Although the first declarations of independence had been issued in 1809 (in Quito, Ecuador, and Cartagena, Colombia) and other regions first declared their separation in 1811 – including Venezuela, 1810 was chosen as the year in which the continent as a whole would come together to celebrate the end of colonialism. Of course – and I write as someone who participated in many of the historical symposia, conferences and lectures that took place in Europe and the Americas to mark the date – the whole thing was a largely arbitrary excuse for diverse administrations to spend money on celebrations and events that, they hoped, would shore up their own popularity and legitimacy. 1810 was chosen because Mexico, the largest country with the most money to throw at the celebrations at the time, had a clear event and date to mark: the 1810 Grito de Dolores issued by the priest Miguel Hidalgo (Mexico did not achieve independence until eleven years later, and even then it was through negotiation with the departing rulers, rather than through military victory – so expect further parties in 2021).

In 2011, Venezuela organised a wide array of projects to celebrate its own bicentenary – though, as with Mexico, independence had only been assured a decade later, with the 1819 battle of Carabobo, the bicentenary of which Chávez had pledged to attend, as president, in 2019. To commemorate 1811, historical research projects were funded, entire barrios repainted, health centres opened, and political battles waged, all in the name of independence. Political murals festooned urban walls, and banners hung from the balconies of public buildings, all declaring the ongoing urgency of maintaining Venezuela’s independence. In 2011, in Caracas, I witnessed the major night-time parade organised by the government, in which two hundred years of history were synthesised into a three hour rolling, acrobatic, choreographed and orchestrated tableau, ranging from the heroes of independence and their heroism, through the discovery of oil and the subsequent struggles of unionised workers. I have never seen so many fireworks, or roller skates, in my life. This was a revolutionary history, publicly funded, massively televised and disseminated, in which Bolívar kicked open the door that became a national, proud and ongoing history. It is part of a staunchly revisionist project which has little time for the niceties of traditional historical interpretation, and a great appreciation of the value of symbolic gestures in linking history to the daily revolutionary programme of overhauling Venezuelan society. In early 2010, for example, Chávez and President Rafael Correa of Ecuador presided over a ceremony in which the supposed remains of Manuela Saenz, Bolivar’s lover, were buried in the National Pantheon. Nobody at the time tried to hide the fact that Saenz had been buried, in 1856, in a mass, pauper’s grave in Paita, northern Ecuador, and that it was most likely that none of the earth being so honoured in Caracas in 2010 had any physical link to her. However, the symbolic gesture reached beyond the particles to display a continental and gendered appreciation for the sacrifices of independence – which played well in Chávez’s popular constituencies. The BBC cited a Chávez supporter, a student called Silvester Montillo, who explained his reasons for supporting the earlier effort to exhume and celebrate Manuela Saenz, Bolivar’s lover: "Some people have criticised the government for spending money on this," he said. "But they don't understand what it stands for. It doesn't matter to us whether there are traces of her DNA in the urn or not. What's important is that Manuela Saenz represents the history of Venezuela and the history of all Latin America”.

The Death of Bolivar
Ever since his election as president in 1998, and with increasing prominence in the wake of the 2002 attempted coup against him, Hugo Chávez liked to mention in his public addresses that Bolívar might not have died, in 1830, of the drawn-out battle against tuberculosis that he lost under the care of a French doctor, Alexandre Prospero Reverend, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, in Santa Marta. Instead, Chávez speculated, Bolívar might have been the victim of poisoning; and that poisoning might have originated in Bolivar’s political enemies – and those enemies might have been foreigners – like Dr Reverend – and even might have been from the U.S.A. A team of U.S. scientists led by Paul Auwaerter of Johns Hopkins University examined the case in 2010, and published their findings in a scholarly journal (Paul G. Auwaerter, John Dove, and Philip A. Mackowiak, ‘Simón Bolívar’s Medical Labyrinth: An Infectious Diseases Conundrum’, Clinical Infectious Diseases 2011;52(1):78–85). They noted that arsenic poisoning was indeed a possibility, and that this may have come from the water system in Lima, Peru, where Bolívar lived for a year in 1825-6. Like a posthumous game of Cluedo, it really might have been the lead piping. Alternative explanations posited include the arsenic having been contained in a medical remedy.

On 15 July 2010, Bolivar’s coffin was opened up in a ceremony with Chávez in attendance without fanfare, subsequently broadcast on national television in an interlude of the president’s television show Aló Presidente. Chávez told his audience that when he stood next to Bolivar’s remains, with the coffin opened, the words of the poet Pablo Neruda came to him: ‘Father, is it you, or isn’t it you, or who are you?’. (In Neruda’s poem Canto general (1950), Bolívar replies ‘It is me, and I awaken every one hundred years, when the people awaken’). Chávez commented that opening the coffin was ‘a sublime moment directed straight at the heart of our nation’s soul’. He told viewers that when he visited the Pantheon that time, he remembered Bolivar’s last words: ‘If my death contributes to consolidating union [in our country] I will go calmly down into my grave’. Chávez confessed that he whispered to Bolivar’s remains: ‘Good Venezuelans are building that union you wanted, so that one day you can rest in peace’. Before showing the images on television, Chávez contrasted this public gesture with the previous occasions when Bolivar’s remains had been disinterred, for the private benefit and enjoyment only of the governing elites and their friends. Observing from afar, it was clear to me that Chávez understood his actions as revolutionising the similar exhumations undertaken by previous regimes. His actions were legitimated, he argued, by being in the name of the people – facilitated by the television pictures that enabled the exhumation to be viewed across the nation. On the film, Chávez was heard to say ‘Viva Bolívar. It is not a skeleton. It’s the Great Bolívar, who has returned’. He later tweeted ‘Bolívar has not died, we are his children’ (Quotes, and translations, from The Scotsman, 16 July 2010).

A final report on the exhumation was announced, as promised, in July 2011, in the week in which I was in Caracas participating in a week of events to commemorate Britain’s involvement in Venezuela’s independence. The President could not hide his disappointment at the ambiguity of the final report, which concluded that Bolívar might not have died of tuberculosis, but that the tests which had been performed could not confirm or deny any cause. Chávez announced that he would continue believing that Bolívar might have been poisoned, reported in Ultimas Noticias and El Universal, 28 July 2011). We can assume that popular memory in Venezuela continues to share some doubt over the causes of Bolivar’s death.

The Death of Hugo Chávez
Over the last two years, it has been well known across the world that Hugo Chávez was receiving treatment for cancer, in Cuba, that was attacking his pelvic region. Whilst the government released regular health/recovery updates, the opposition complained that they were receiving insufficient detail about the president’s condition, and the nature of the cancer from which he was suffering. This was particularly the case during the election campaign of late 2012, when the president’s poor health made him slow down his traditional national travelling and campaigning, and therefore become a recurrent theme of the campaign itself. When he returned to Venezuela in February 2013 there was some word that he had recovered his health, but much stronger rumours that the Cuban doctors had decided that nothing more could be done. Given the speed with which global communications networks function, it has not taken long for doubts over the nature of Chávez’s condition, and the cause and timing of his death, to surface. The Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez has suggested that the Cuban government manipulated Chávez’s death in order to maximise the sentiment and melodrama of the announcement of his death, and subsequent funeral, suggesting even that Chávez may have died in Cuba. The ABC newspaper in Spain, never renowned for its objective reporting of Venezuelan affairs in recent years, ventured that because Chávez was not seen alive in public after his return from Cuba, he must have been dead upon arrival. It might be noted that Chávez himself, and his successor Nicolás Maduro, played their own parts in promoting scurrilous gossip about his illness. Both alleged – Maduro in the days after Chávez’s death – that the CIA or other United States agencies had formed part of a plot to poison Latin American leftist leaders with cancer. Already we can see the faultlines emerging of a dispute over the causes and timing of Chávez’s death that will have as much to do with political expediency as medical accuracy.

Some Conclusions

During his period in presidential office, Hugo Chávez and his advisors worked to a well defined plan to associate themselves with a revolutionised image of Simón Bolívar, which they hoped cement themselves as the legitimate rulers of a popular, democratic Venezuela. Clear continuities can be detected between that plan, and the aims of the so-called oligarchy that ran Venezuela in 1842 under Jose Antonio Paez, at the time of the first exhumation of Simón Bolívar.

The exhumation of Bolívar might also encourage us to reflect on the nature of Bolívar as the outstanding dead body of the independence period. Repeated attempts to dig up, recloth and rebury Bolívar speak to the absolute centrality of Bolívar in Venezuelan nationality, the result of a century and a half’s conspicuous, deliberate myth-creation. Bolivar’s remains were repatriated twelve years after his death, the National Pantheon was designed around his body thirty years later, and even one hundred and eighty years after his death, scientists were still opening up his coffin and testing the contents of his bones and the remaining materials which might once have formed a part of his body. The decision to embalm Hugo Chávez, and leave him on display ‘eternally’, certainly feels at the time of writing to be an act of political opportunism on the part of Nicolás Maduro as much as a gesture of national gratitude. Of more significance, however, are the long historical parallels with the death, burials and exhumations of Simón Bolívar. Given these parallels, and the ways in which Bolivar’s reputation has been used by governments of diverse political persuasions in the years since his death, it might be expected that Hugo Chávez’s mortal remains might not expect to rest in peace for many years to come.

Like Bolívar, Chávez came as President to represent the hopes of the majority of the people he governed. They were both army officers who embraced democracy and recognised the importance of a country’s history in shaping its contemporary identity and its relationship with the world. Chávez saw himself as building on the foundations constructed by Bolívar, which allowed him to redistribute wealth, build alliances across continents and globally, and work to reduce poverty in South America, long held to be the most unequal continent in the world.  Compared to those goals, the question of where his mortal remains will lie, is of relatively little importance.

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