Bolivar everywhere

November 20, 2012

Our Father
thou art in Heaven,
in water, in air
in all our silent and broad latitude
everything bears your name, Father, in our dwelling:
excerpt from Chant to Bolivar, by Pablo Neruda


Caracas, Venezuela

by Carlos Garcia Rawlins

In a country where “everything bears his name”, the currency, plazas, schools, and political speeches, among others, the Father of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela finally has a tomb in line with his historical stature.

Simon Bolivar’s mausoleum stands adjacent to the National Pantheon, a former neoclassical 18th Century church. Although the Pantheon, with its colonial structure and its pastel colors, is joined by the foundation with the mausoleum, this new “skating ramp” of a building breaks completely with the surrounding architecture to become not just the first contemporary architectural landmark of Caracas, but also the first modern building erected by City Hall.

Bolivar said that when his work was done he would go quietly to his grave. As it turned out, his was to be an extravagant tomb erected to shelter the remains that a group of scientists exhumed to determine the cause of death, 182 years after the fact. The curiosity over what really ended the life of The Liberator had become a matter of state for the government of Hugo Chavez.

This year, President Chavez revealed another result of the study: a new face for Bolivar as determined from the reconstruction of his skull after the exhumation. In spite of that, the face of Bolivar can only be the one already in the collective memory of all Venezuelans. We see him strolling the streets, we can caress his face in our pockets, or we argue over him in the markets.

A sharp-featured actor dressed as Bolivar recites phrases of the hero in a downtown Caracas plaza. He is there for children to meet, alive, real. They play with him, they can touch him, and they react emotionally. He is an “action figure” in flesh and blood. The Liberator’s face and his sayings are painted on walls all over the country. He is quoted in daily conversations. It could be said that there are at least as many Bolivars as there are Venezuelans.

For all that, the cult to his person surpasses the 50-meter high monument in which some 2,900 tons of steel, $140 million, and the dedicated work of hundreds of men were invested.

All the aspects of the project seem over-dimensioned, including the Rosa Roja de Paita monument of Bolivar’s most celebrated mistress, Manuela Saenz. This 14-meter statue is made of weathering steel and stands on the north side of the new mausoleum. The remains of Saenz were brought to the National Pantheon from Ecuador in 2010.

However, beyond the elegant facade, little is known about the interior of the mausoleum. It is known that the sarcophagus will be illuminated with natural light and that the ceiling will rise 17 floors above the “small corpse of the brave captain,” of the country’s most famous man. Everything else, as tends to happen with the Bolivarian history, is a mystery waiting to be unraveled.

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