Chavez Seeks to Prove Bolivar Was Murdered

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is creating a commission to exhume the body of Simon Bolivar — the 19th century independence hero of South America. Chavez hopes of prove the liberator didn't die of TB in 1830 as historians believe.

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We go now to Venezuela, a country whose fiery and bombastic president is famous, or in some quarters, infamous, for his speeches and theories. The latest hypothesis from President Hugo Chavez has raised eyebrows, not just among politicians, but among historians. His theory is that Venezuela's 19th century independence hero, Simon Bolivar, did not die ill in bed as is generally believed. He's now saying that Bolivar was murdered by treacherous conspirators. The president's sleuthing has some Venezuelans wondering whether he should be concentrating on more current issues like inflation and violent crime. NPR's Juan Forero reports from Venezuela's capital.

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Spanish Spoken)

JUAN FORERO: Venezuela's populist president gives speeches all the time and his frequent pronouncements often astonish. But in a recent marathon speech, he said this.

President CHAVEZ: (Through translator) They tell us that Bolivar left government because he was sick with tuberculosis. Lies, lies, a thousand lies, so there are doubts, serious doubts.

FORERO: Serious enough doubts, the president says, to launch an investigation. Chavez appointed his vice president and told him to head a commission of nine cabinet ministers. Their job, to clear up the circumstances of Bolivar's death in 1830 in Santa Marta, Colombia.

Historians say Bolivar, sick and broken, having watched his plans for a grand country disintegrate, died on the coast. He has since become an icon, never more so than here in Caracas, where he was born. Chavez says Bolivar was slain by Colombia and Venezuelan oligarchs, who may have even stolen his bones. Chavez spoke at the National Pantheon where a sarcophagus is believed to hold Bolivar's remains.

President CHAVEZ: (Through translator) We have the moral obligation to clear this up, open that sacrosanct coffin.

FORERO: Bolivar, after all, was the father of the country and was the guiding light for Chavez, who calls his transformation of Venezuela a Bolivarian revolution.

(Soundbite of chatter)

FORERO: But on a recent day at the Pantheon, as boys rode skateboards and played baseball outside, Jozmar Linares said she thought Chavez needed to put his priorities in order.

Ms. JOSMAR LINARES: (Through translator) It's a waste of time for us, to invest time and money in a commission when there are other necessities that need resolving.

FORERO: They include Latin America's highest inflation, food shortages, and rampant crime that's seen homicides rise more than 15 percent in the last two years. Luis Vicente Leon tracks Chavez's popularity for the Caracas polling firm Datanalisis. He says Chavez's support has fallen fast since losing a referendum in December that would have expanded his powers. It's now below 50 percent.

Mr. LUIS VICENTE LEON (Datanalisis Pollster): People now think that Chavez has to solve their problems and they have a lot of absolutely concrete problems. And they don't care about these long and abstract features, like talking about Bolivar assassination or about Che Guevara.

FORERO: John Lynch recently published a highly acclaimed biography, "Simon Bolivar: A Life." He sharply disagrees with Chavez and says the documentation and diaries of the day show Bolivar was dying as he abandoned the capital of Bogota for the coast.

Mr. JOHN LYNCH (Author, "Simon Bolivar: A Life"): Historically, he's got it all wrong. It's quite incorrect. The facts are - they've been known for some time. In spite of the disagreements, my own view remains that of the tradition that he died of tuberculosis.

FORERO: The government's latest project doesn't seem to have sparked much support from ordinary Venezuelans. But it's greatly appreciated by political humorists. One is Gilberto Gonzalez.

Mr. GILBERTO GONZALEZ (Venezuelan Political Humorist): (Through translator) The president is very creative. He's always looking for new ways to draw attention to himself.

FORERO: Gonzalez says he hasn't yet worked in the Bolivar assassination scenario into his shows. He says this president produces humorous material faster than he can use it.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Caracas, Venezuela.

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