CARACAS, Venezuela — A lot of charges have been leveled over the years against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, but subtlety is not one. Facing what some think is terminal cancer, Chávez is building a $140 million extravaganza to house the remains of Venezuela's founding father, Simón Bolívar. And rumors have it that the building may be intended for Chávez as well.
Erasing Venezuela's 2 million-unit housing deficit has been one of the main priorities of Chávez's socialist revolution, especially as the Oct. 7 presidential election nears. But the government's latest "housing" project, a $140 million edifice for one man, is raising questions about the president's priorities and motivations.
Chávez is expected to inaugurate an imposing 160-foot-high, earthquake-proof mausoleum for Bolívar's remains. The project has been shrouded in secrecy, as well as plagued by cost overruns and construction delays, and many Venezuelans also have the nagging suspicion that the mausoleum might also be intended for Chávez, who is battling what might be terminal cancer.
"This is a monument to Chávez's megalomania," says Juan de Dios, who heads the Caracas-based Bolívarian Society, an organization that seeks to keep alive the memory and legacy of El Libertador, as Bolívar is known. "It's just too much." Bolívar is a hero in Venezuela and most of South America, thanks to his fight to liberate the continent's Spanish colonies in the 19th century. Bolívar, one of the few men in history to have a country named after him, is considered one of South America's most influential political leaders.
For the last 170 years, Bolívar's remains have rested in the National Pantheon, a neo-Gothic former church located near the center of Caracas. Bolívar died in neighboring Colombia in 1830 at age 47. His remains were brought to Venezuela in 1842 at the government's request.
The Pantheon also serves as the final resting for place more than 100 famous Venezuelans -- and therein lies the rub. In today's Venezuela, many former patriots are now regarded with suspicion. Many dignitaries buried in the Pantheon "really aren't heroes," Vice President Elías Jaua claimed when the government announced that it was considering a new building. Among those interred are former presidents Cipriano Castro and Antonio Guzmán Blanco, whose records were at best spotty and whose administrations were riddled with corruption.
"[The government] approached us with an idea for a modest mausoleum in 2008, keeping in line with the neighborhood," says de Dios, referring to the neighborhood where the Pantheon is. "This part of Caracas is one of the few areas that still has some colonial-style buildings."
Modest is not the word most would use to describe the final result. The 17-story building towers over the Pantheon's two bell towers, and it includes 2,600 tons of steel (in spite of a nationwide shortage of steel construction rods). The new building is located directly behind the Pantheon, and the Pantheon's back wall was demolished and a glass hallway erected to connect the two structures.