Hugo and the Hereafter

Is Hugo Chávez's monstrous new mausoleum for his idol, Simón Bolívar, a hint that he may want to be buried there himself?

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.

One side of the mausoleum takes the shape of an enormous concave wall rising steeply to a point, clad in white Spanish ceramic tile. It has been likened to a skateboard ramp -- or worse, by critics. "It looks like a cage to hold King Kong," said Ramon Olivares, an art student walking near the structure. His friend, Pedro Gonzalez, who is studying interior design, just grimaced and said, "You're being too kind. This is oversized and doesn't blend in well. There's no flow to the lines, and it's disruptive."

Inside, in a stark, black marble hall, Bolívar's wooden sarcophagus, set with precious stones, will be at the center of the mausoleum flanked by the flags of the six countries -- Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama -- that Bolívar liberated.

Outside the mausoleum, the existing plaza has been expanded. A steel sculpture of a rose, in honor of Manuela Sáenz, Bolívar's longtime companion, is off to one side. As part of the project, the government might also construct up to 800 public housing units, which has further raised eyebrows. Populist as it may be, many don't consider the shadow of the liberator's tomb an appropriate place for a housing project.

The project's cost was originally pegged at $78 million. The government initially tried to raise funds by asking Venezuelans to donate 1 bolívar apiece, but in May, the government raised the overall price tag by an additional $52 million, which will come out of the state's coffers.

While it hasn't been confirmed, the mausoleum is presumed to be the work of Chávez's minister for the revolutionary transformation of Caracas, Francisco Sesto. Chávez created Sesto's position to circumvent the local government after the president's ruling Socialist Party lost control of Greater Caracas in 2010 elections. The building's contract was never submitted to open competition, but the general consensus is that Sesto, a Spanish-born architect, had substantial input from Chávez.

"Sesto didn't want to listen to anyone," de Dios says. "We would make a suggestion, and he would just shut down." Sesto declined a request to be interviewed for this article.

The project has received mixed reviews, largely split among the viewer's political sympathies. Chávez supporters say the mausoleum is needed, while those opposed, including Chávez's challenger in the presidential election, Henrique Capriles Radonski, say the money could have been better spent, especially at a time when Venezuela's foreign debt is soaring and the country is facing other problems, such as skyrocketing crime rates, high inflation, and a growing unemployment.

The best way to honor Bolívar is by "solving the problems of Venezuelans," Capriles has argued.

Meanwhile, like many Venezuelan politicians, Chávez has sought to bolster his presidential credentials by positioning his populist revolution as the natural extension of Bolívar's principles and thoughts.

El Libertador is a ubiquitous presence in the country. Nearly every town and village has a Plaza Bolívar with a statue of the country's second president. Most cities have an Avenida Bolívar, and the country's currency, the bolívar, also carries his name. Bolívar's portrait graces government offices, and Venezuela's largest bank note also carries his picture. The number of such honors has only increased under Chávez, who changed the name of the country to the Bolívarian Republic of Venezuela in 1999 and subsequently altered the flag and coat of arms.

Chávez constantly mentions Bolívar, who makes up a kind of holy trinity along with Jesus Christ and Fidel Castro in his speeches. According to Chávez, Bolívar was a firm opponent of the United States, capitalism, and oligarchs throughout the region. Historians are divided, however, on the veracity of these claims.

"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.



Sinai's Invisible War

Egypt's new president has used the recent Sinai attacks to clean house. But nobody knows what really happened -- and the military isn't talking.

EL-ARISH, Egypt — Over the weekend, Mohamed Morsy cleaned house. Following weeks of deadlock with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt's first popularly elected president finally stepped out of the military's shadow, sacking a laundry list of top generals, including Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and annulling a controversial military decree that curbed the president's powers.

The surprising political showdown came on the heels of a devastating terrorist attack in el-Arish, North Sinai, on Aug. 5 that left 16 members of the Egyptian security forces dead and the military looking complacent. Morsy pounced on the opportunity, ordering both a shakeup of the armed forces and an all-out offensive in Sinai, pounding supposed militant strongholds with missiles and helicopter gunships -- the first use of such hardware since the 1973 war with Israel.

But if it's clear that the "Ramadan massacre," as it has become known in Egypt, gave Morsy the political space to outmaneuver the generals, what exactly is happening in the Sinai remains something of a mystery. Who was behind the Aug. 5 attack -- and who has borne the brunt of the military's subsequent incursion -- are still open questions.

One soldier who survived the attack blamed "masked men" with a "Palestinian dialect" in an interview after the fact. Others have pointed to "infidels," "elements from the Gaza Strip," and Israel's Mossad. Few seem to have a firm grasp on the facts.

Yet this was not the first time unknown militants have wreaked havoc in Sinai. For years now, Egyptian security forces have been battling a ghost in the desert. Since the 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, militants have blown up the pipeline that supplies natural gas to Israel 15 times. Only weeks before the Ramadan massacre, gunmen on a motorbike attacked a military outpost in Sheikh Zuweid, leaving two members of the Egyptian military dead.

Yet analysts have struggled to pinpoint the source of the terror. Some flirted with blaming al Qaeda, while others hedged their bets by fingering groups "inspired by al Qaeda." Takfir wal-Hijra, a loosely organized extremist group with roots in Sinai, is also a usual suspect. The organization views most people as infidels -- including Muslims who fail to follow their strict interpretation of Islam -- and adheres to a radical militant ideology that requires them to purify the world of kufar, or heretics. But aside from a handful of attacks that security forces have attributed to Takfir wal-Hijra, there seems to be little consensus about who is to blame for the uptick in violence.

In part, this is because the extremist groups themselves appear to be proliferating -- or at least morphing. Over the past two years, the Internet has been flooded with statements and videos released by unknown groups vowing to create a puritanical Islamic state in Sinai. A statement released two days before last week's attack by a group calling itself Jund al-Sharia ("soldiers of sharia"), for instance, called for a Sinai "emirate" governed by Islamic law and threatened to attack the Egyptian military if it did not release prisoners the group claimed were "falsely" detained. In reality, however, no one has been able to verify the location or reach of these groups -- or even if they exist outside of cyberspace.

Similar mystery shrouds the Ramadan attack, for which no one has yet claimed responsibility. According to an Egyptian general from the border guard intelligence team who spoke on the condition of anonymity, "There is serious intel that those who committed the Sunday massacre are members of Palestinian Islamic Jaljala Army." The Jaljala Army is an extremist offshoot of Hamas based in Gaza, meaning that its members would have had to cross into Sinai via the intricate web of tunnels controlled by Hamas.

Ibrahim Menei, who owns and operates one of the tunnels, also thinks that Hamas, which has condemned the attacks, is at least partially responsible. "Of the hundreds of tunnels used for smuggling, not more than 10 are designed for smuggling humans in and out of Gaza. They are not more than 200 meters long, and no one enters them without paying a minimal fee to Hamas. You can be in Sinai in 15 minutes," Menei explained to me in an interview.

Both the general and Menei, who has built a fortune over the years smuggling weapons, animals, drugs, food, and building materials into Gaza, agree that Palestinian fighters could not have acted alone. As Menei noted, such fighters would have needed the assistance of "bad" Bedouin who provide safe houses, logistics, and on-the-ground intelligence. In other words, radicals on the Egyptian side of the border must also have been involved in the attack.

But the haphazard response by Egyptian officials suggests that they are as in the dark as ever. Following one of the highly publicized raids on the border town of Sheikh Zuweid, Gen. Ahmed Bakr, the head of North Sinai security, announced that the military apprehended six terrorists including Selmi Salama Sweilam, nicknamed "Bin Laden" by Egyptian authorities for his alleged role in numerous terrorist operations. Three of the suspects were released two days later.

A visit to the village in Sheikh Zuweid where Selmi was supposedly apprehended, however, suggests that the raid was a sham -- designed to appease the public and deflect attention away from the military's incompetence. According to Um Suleiman, the wife of "Bin Laden," masked security forces stormed her home early in the morning, beating her viciously and terrorizing her children. The men ransacked the house, broke down the cupboards, and spilled big bags of wheat and barley on the floor.

"They picked up six men who have nothing to do with terrorism, including our 72-year-old neighbor who was feeding his goat at the time, my 20-year-old son, and my ill, 68-year-old husband, whom they called Bin Laden," she said.

Suleiman and her eight children showed off stacks of date boxes, which she insisted were Selmi's only source of income. "We voted for Morsy to escape Mubarak's injustice. Now we don't believe in him! It's the same way they treated us in 2005 after the Dahab and Sharm El Sheikh bombings," Suleiman complained.

The raids in North Sinai have produced other dubious accounts of how the military is prevailing against those responsible for the recent violence. Last Wednesday, the SCAF issued a statement saying that the operation targeting "armed terrorist elements" in Sinai "has accomplished this task with complete success."

That same day, reports leaked by Sinai security officials to dozens of journalists claimed that battles were ongoing in the al-Halal mountain in central Sinai, where security forces were supposedly pounding Islamic insurgents. But not a single Bedouin or journalist was able to confirm these clashes. Journalists have since dubbed the operation "Sinai's Invisible War."

More misinformation came from an overzealous state TV reporter who announced on Wednesday that 20 militants had been killed in the village of el-Touma, in the Sheikh Zuewid district of Sinai. Journalists and Bedouin flocked to the scene and later to the el-Arish hospital, but no bodies were ever located. Residents showed the press parts of two spent rockets and the charred remains of a vehicle, but that was the extent of damage.

Following the report, official security spokesmen who are usually media-friendly went mute and stopped answering their phones. Wire services and other media outlets broadcast the figures globally, announcing that 20 insurgents had been killed. But the initial report was never confirmed. In fact, it was almost certainly false. The journalist who first reported the attack on Nile TV through a phone interview has been exiled from Sinai for more than a year because of his reputation for feeding lies to the media. He actually reported the attack from the city of Fayoum, located in another Egyptian directorate some 260 miles away.

Soon after, the same reporter fed a story to another media outlet about an attack on the United Nations multinational peacekeeping force (MFO) based in Sinai. MFO spokesman Kathleen Riley denied the attack outright, calling it an "inaccurate report."

Al-Ahram, a state owned newspaper, ran a similarly dubious story on Friday, claiming that 60 "terrorists" had been killed in airstrikes. No bodies were ever recovered.

Over the weekend, el-Arish's residents greeted a long convoy of jeeps carrying rocket launchers and M-60 tanks aboard flatbed trucks. Onlookers waved dutifully to the troops as they headed toward the front lines, but they were undoubtedly wondering where this "invisible war" was taking place.