Chávez has Bolívar remains exhumed to find if Colombian foes killed him


HUGO CHÁVEZ has overseen the exhumation of the remains of South America’s liberator Simón Bolívar from his tomb in Caracas in order to carry out tests to see if he was murdered by opponents in Colombia 180 years ago.

The Venezuelan president rejects the widely accepted thesis that Bolívar, who in a series of brilliant military campaigns freed the northern half of the south American continent from Spanish rule, died from tuberculosis at the age of 47. Instead he claims his idol was assassinated by enemies.

Bolívar died in 1830 in what is now Colombia while on his way into exile in Europe. He was disillusioned at his failure to hold the lands he had liberated together as one country, Gran Colombia. As the former imperial regions split into Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela, many of his generals began to plot against him.

Tests will be carried out on the remains by Venezuela’s state forensic laboratory to try and determine the cause of death.

Mr Chávez announced the exhumation on Twitter.“What impressive moments we have lived this night!!! We have seen the remains of the Great Bolívar! I confess we cried, we swore. I tell them: this has to be Bolívar, this glorious skeleton, because you can feel his presence. My God,” he wrote.

At a press conference late on Friday Mr Chávez played television footage of the moment a blackened flag was peeled back to reveal Bolívar’s remains. Accompanied by the national anthem, the clip showed a well-preserved skeleton lying in its resting place in the national pantheon in Caracas.

Mr Chávez hero worships “the liberator” and has named his left-wing political crusade the Bolivarian revolution and changed his country’s name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, though many historians say he is twisting Bolívar’s often conservative politics to suit his own radical agenda.

Venezuela’s political opposition denounced the exhumation as a stunt while historians in Venezuela and abroad were also critical.

“I am afraid the whole episode is preposterous and grotesque,” said Prof John Lynch, author of the acclaimed biography Simón Bolívar: A Life. “The correct medical records show he died from natural causes. I would vouch for them rather than any conspiracy theory.”

In April, a paper presented at a conference in the US on the deaths of famous historical figures suggested Bolívar might have died from arsenic poisoning. Members of the Venezuelan embassy attended the conference and Mr Chávez seized on the suggestion of the role of arsenic in Bolívar’s death, telling supporters in a speech in Venezuela: “They killed him.”

“Here in my heart for years I’ve had the conviction that Bolívar didn’t die of tuberculosis. I don’t know if we’ll be able to prove it, but I think they assassinated Bolívar.”

But in an e-mail to The Irish TimesProf Paul Auwaerter, the paper’s author, said he did not support any murder theory. “If significant arsenic levels are found, then alternative and unintended reasons exist for why this may have occurred that have nothing to do with an assassination,” he said.

Arsenic was prescribed at the time for many ailments.

In the past Mr Chávez has implied that Gen Francisco de Paula Santander was behind Bolívar’s death. Santander is revered in Colombia as one of the heroes of the independence struggle.

Friday’s exhumation comes just a day after a renewed outbreak of tensions between Colombia and Venezuela over accusations by Bogotá that Colombian rebel leaders are operating from Venezuelan territory.