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by William H. Benson

August 5, 2010

     Across my desk last week came an interesting quote: “The unreal is more powerful than the real, because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it, because it’s only intangible ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last. Stone crumbles, wood rots, people—well, they die—but things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on.”

     Nowhere in the world today is that more the situation than in the South American country of Venezuela. There, the current-day ruler Hugo Chavez has become obsessed over the memory of Simon Bolivar, the revolutionary leader who threw the Spanish rulers out of their New World empire in South America two centuries ago.

     Truly, Bolivar was a most remarkable human being, and is still deeply admired and respected across most of South America as the “El Libertador,” and “El Emancipator.” Called the “Second George Washington,” Bolivar liberated Venezuela—as well as Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia—from Spanish rule and declared their independence.

     His words are still widely quoted: “El arte de vencer se aprende en las derotas,” which means “the art of conquering one learns in his or her failures.” Also, Bolivar said, “The first duty of a government is to give education to the people.” Because Bolivar hated slavery, he said, “Henceforth, there shall be but one class of men in Venezuela. All shall be citizens.”

     And yet, Chavez has paid excessive homage to the former revolutionary. When Chavez reads his televised speeches, he seats himself in front of one of several large paintings of Bolivar, which serves as a backdrop. He frequently brandishes Bolivar’s sword, “a solid-gold saber encrusted with more than 1,000 diamonds, rubies, and other precious stones,” and then he gives out replicas of the sword to other national leaders.

     Chavez leaves an empty chair at meetings or when dining, ostensibly, so he claims, for Simon Bolivar’s spirit to join him, and he celebrates Bolivar’s birthday every year, as he did on July 24, the 227th anniversary of Bolivar’s birth.

     However, the most bizarre display of veneration happened shortly after midnight on July 16 of this year, when Hugo Chavez presided over the exhumation (or some say, desecration) of Bolivar’s remains from his grave. Chavez was reported to have then prayed for a resurrection, similar to the miracle that Christ had performed upon Lazarus.

     “I had some doubts,” Chavez said, “but after seeing his remains, my heart said, ‘Yes, it is me.’ Father, is that you, or who are you? The answer: ‘It is me, but I awaken every hundred years when the people awaken.’”

     In January of 2008, Chavez set up a commission to investigate his firm belief that Bolivar was actually murdered, perhaps by arsenic poisoning, which contradicts the reports of those who witnessed his death, and said that at the age of forty-seven in 1830, he died of tuberculosis.

     Why this obeisance before the memory and bones of Simon Bolivar? Some believe that Chavez is evoking the memory of Bolivar by using a left-wing view of the revolutionary’s writings and supposed ambitions as a basis for his own socialist government and his defiance of the United States. And yet, Bolivar was the very antithesis of what Chavez now believes and does. In fact, Bolivar was more attuned with the Enlightenment views of Jefferson and Rousseau than with Marx or Engels.

     Others say that Chavez’s superficial act of homage is simply a distraction, trying to turn the citizens of Venezuela away from facing the sobering reality of what his mismanagement has wreaked upon their country, for he faces elections this September. Chavez is rattling swords with Colombia, his hostile neighbor to the east. The country’s economy currently groans under a 31 percent inflation rate, the world’s highest, and there are shortages of basic supplies in the nation’s markets. The voices of opposition have all been silenced or fled the country.

     Over and above that though, one author wrote that, “The desecration of Bolivar’s tomb is as shocking as anything Chavez has ever done.”

     Centuries before Shakespeare left instructions that upon his tombstone would be inscribed the following: “Blessed be the man that spares these stones, and cursed be he that moves my bones.”