"Chávez looks to Simón Bolívar as the inspiration of his Bolívarian movement, partly because Bolívar is such a towering giant in Venezuelan history -- a combination of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesus Christ, all rolled into one," says Bart Jones, author of ¡Hugo!: The Hugo Chávez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution. "For Chávez, Bolívar represents true democracy and a society where Venezuela's vast oil wealth is not hoarded by a corrupt oligarchy the way it was for decades, but is more equally distributed among the masses."
Chávez's obsession with Bolívar has grown, especially as he tries to draw parallels between his movement and that of his hero in the run-up to the presidential election. Both men faced opposition from rich oligarchs, Chávez has repeatedly said. And both faced death threats from their enemies. Bolívar escaped various assassination attempts, while Chávez narrowly survived a 2002 coup attempt.
But the obsession began to appear bizarrely over the top when Chávez began calling for an investigation into Bolívar's death in 2008. Although Bolívar had died in 1830 of tuberculosis, Chávez said he had his doubts -- according to some popular conspiracies, Bolívar was actually poisoned -- and ordered El Libertador 's remains exhumed in 2010. After extensive testing, examiners said that Bolívar seemingly had died of natural causes. The results failed to convince Chávez.
"My grandmother died of tuberculosis, and I know how that is," Chávez said during a televised news conference. "How Bolívar died isn't similar." Undeterred, Chávez has also questioned whether the remains are really Bolívar's.
Adding more fuel to the controversy, Chávez also unveiled a computer-generated 3-D artist's rendition of Bolívar's face, made by forensic artists studying Bolívar's skull. The unveiling occurred during a nationwide address that Chávez obliged all television and radio stations to carry. The image resembled earlier portraits of Bolívar except that his skin color was an olive shade, suggesting that Bolívar was a mestizo -- which he wasn't -- and his lips were fuller and his nose broader, suggesting traces of an African ancestor. Critics charged that Bolívar had been altered to be more politically correct.
"They are playing games with his image," de Dios says. "They are manipulating history."
Many suspect Chavez's obsession with Bolívar is due in part to his own battle with cancer. Although the president has claimed to be cured following three operations and chemotherapy and radiotherapy, doubts persist. The president moves slowly in public and uses heavy makeup. Meetings and public events are frequently canceled, stoking rumors that the mausoleum may one day hold more than Bolívar's remains. An admittedly dubious website devoted to Chavez's health, SOSChavez.net, claims that the companies working on the mausoleum have been instructed to prepare two tombs within the building.
Chavez, himself, is keeping mum about the rumors.
"I am feeling fine," he told foreign journalists a few days ago during a news conference, while declining to give more details about his medical condition. A spokesperson at the presidential palace declined to comment on whether the mausoleum was designed to hold someone else besides Bolívar.