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.