Less than a day after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s communication minister appeared on television to announce that the socialist leader was in failing health, Chavez died. In 2010, the late Christopher Hitchens wrote about a 2008 visit to Venezuela with actor Sean Penn during which he gained a rare insight into Chavez’s mental health.
CARACAS, Venezuela — Recent accounts of Hugo Chavez’s politicized necrophilia may seem almost too lurid to believe, but I can testify from personal experience that they may well be an understatement.
In the early hours of July 16 — just at the midnight hour, to be precise — Venezuela’s capo officiated at a grisly ceremony. This involved the exhumation of the mortal remains of Simon Bolivar, leader of Latin America’s rebellion against Spain, who died in 1830.
According to a vividly written article by Thor Halvorssen in the Washington Post July 25, the skeleton was picked apart — even as Chavez tweeted the proceedings for his audience — and some teeth and bone fragments were taken away for testing. The residual pieces were placed in a coffin stamped with the Chavez government’s seal.
In one of the rather free-associating speeches for which he has become celebrated, Chavez appealed to Jesus Christ to restage the raising of Lazarus and reanimate Bolivar’s constituent parts. He went on:
"I had some doubts, but after seeing his remains, my heart said, ‘Yes, it is me.’ Father, is that you, or who are you? The answer: It is me, but I awaken every hundred years when the people awaken."
As if "channeling" this none-too-subtle identification of Chavez with the national hero, Venezuelan television was compelled to run images of Bolivar, followed by footage of the remains, and then pictures of the boss. The national anthem provided the soundtrack. Not since North Korean media declared Kim Jong Il to be the reincarnation of Kim Il Sung has there been such a blatant attempt to create a necrocracy, or perhaps mausolocracy, in which a living claimant assumes the fleshly mantle of the departed.
Simon Bolivar’s cadaver is like any other cadaver, but his legacy is a great deal more worth stealing than that of Kim Il Sung. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel The General in His Labyrinth is one place to begin, if you want to understand the combination of heroic and tragic qualities that keep his memory alive to this day. (In New York, his equestrian statue still dominates the intersection of the Avenue of the Americas and Central Park South.) The idea of a United States of South America will always be a tenuous dream, but in his bloody struggle for its realization, Bolivar cut a considerable figure, as he did in his other capacities as double-dealer, war criminal, and serial fornicator, also lovingly portrayed by Marquez.
In the fall of 2008, I went to Venezuela as a guest of Sean Penn’s, whose friendship with Chavez is warm. The third member of our party was the excellent historian Douglas Brinkley, and we spent some quality time flying around the country on Chavez’s presidential jet and bouncing with him from rally to rally at ground level, as well. The boss loves to talk and has clocked up speeches of Castro-like length. Bolivar is the theme of which he never tires. His early uniformed movement of mutineers — which failed to bring off a military coup in 1992 — was named for Bolivar. Turning belatedly but successfully to electoral politics, he called his followers the Bolivarian Movement. Since he became president, the country’s official name has been the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. (Chavez must sometimes wish that he had been born in Bolivia in the first place.) At cabinet meetings, he has been known to leave an empty chair, in case the shade of Bolivar might choose to attend the otherwise rather Chavez-dominated proceedings.
It did not take long for this hero-obsession to disclose itself in bizarre forms. One evening, as we were jetting through the skies, Brinkley mildly asked whether Chavez’s large purchases of Russian warships might not be interpreted by Washington as a violation of the Monroe Doctrine. The boss’ response was impressively immediate. He did not know for sure, he said, but he very much hoped so. "The United States was born with an imperialist impulse. There has been a long confrontation between Monroe and Bolivar... It is necessary that the Monroe Doctrine be broken." As his tirade against evil America mounted, Penn broke in to say that surely Chavez would be happy to see the arrest of Osama Bin Laden.
I was hugely impressed by the way that the boss scorned this overture. He essentially doubted the existence of al-Qaida, let alone reports of its attacks on the enemy to the north. "I don’t know anything about Osama Bin Laden that doesn’t come to me through the filter of the West and its propaganda." To this, Penn replied that surely Bin Laden had provided quite a number of his very own broadcasts and videos. I was again impressed by the way that Chavez rejected this proffered lucid-interval lifeline. All of this so-called evidence, too, was a mere product of imperialist television. After all, "there is film of the Americans landing on the moon," he scoffed. "Does that mean the moon shot really happened? In the film, the Yanqui flag is flying straight out. So, is there wind on the moon?" As Chavez beamed with triumph at this logic, an awkwardness descended on my comrades, and on the conversation.
Chavez, in other words, is very close to the climactic moment when he will announce that he is a poached egg and that he requires a very large piece of buttered toast so that he can lie down and take a soothing nap. Even his macabre foraging in the coffin of Simon Bolivar was initially prompted by his theory that an autopsy would prove that "The Liberator" had been poisoned — most probably by dastardly Colombians. This would perhaps provide a posthumous licence for Venezuela’s continuing hospitality to the narco-criminal gang FARC, a cross-border activity that does little to foster regional brotherhood.
Many people laughed when Chavez appeared at the podium of the United Nations in September 2006 and declared that he smelled sulfur from the devil himself because of the presence of George W. Bush. But the evidence is that he does have an idiotic weakness for spells and incantations, as well as many of the symptoms of paranoia and megalomania. After the failure of Bolivar’s attempted Gran Colombia federation — which briefly united Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and other nations — the U.S. minister in Bogota, future president William Henry Harrison, said of him that "[u]nder the mask of patriotism and attachment to liberty, he has really been preparing the means of investing himself with arbitrary power." The first time was tragedy; this time is also tragedy but mixed with a strong element of farce.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.