South America’s founding father got a unique present for his 229th birthday: a new face and a fresh autopsy.
Using forensic techniques and computerized scans of his skull, Venezuelan researchers created a lifelike portrait of Latin American independence hero Simón Bolivar.
“From now on, your face will shine much stronger because we know with precision what you looked like,” Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said Tuesday as he unveiled the portrait.
The big reveal didn’t provide much of a shock. With his high forehead, aquiline nose and sallow cheeks, the study suggests that the artist of Bolivar’s time mostly got him right.
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“The face matches the iconography we have,” said Lourdes Pérez, one of the researchers on the case.
Bolivar has long been revered in Latin America, where he helped free Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia from the Spanish. But during his 13 years in the presidency, Chávez has helped turn the Venezuelan-born Bolivar into a cult figure.
Among Chávez’s first acts as president in 1999 was to push through a constitution that changed the country’s name to “The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” El Libertador’s image is plastered in government offices and Chávez rarely gives a speech where his name isn’t dropped.
Chávez obsession hit a high point in July 2010 when he presided over the exhumation of Bolivar’s bones and provided a poetic blow-by-blow on his Twitter account.
“I confess that we have cried and we have sworn allegiance,” he Tweeted from the crypt. “This skeleton has to be Bolivar because we can feel his flame.”
Chávez maintains that his hero was murdered by his enemies, and didn’t die of tuberculosis in the Colombian port city of Santa Marta on Dec. 17, 1830, as history books, and a previous forensic exam, suggest.
On Tuesday, members of the presidential commission said they did not find evidence of pulmonary tuberculosis, but warned that the samples were degraded and that the studies were inconclusive. One of the medical researchers, whom the government identified as Yanuacelis Cruz, said the investigation did turn up traces of arsenic and insect venom from lytta vesicatoria, or blister beetle. But arsenic and the venom were common remedies at the time for respiratory diseases, she said.
Chávez is unlikely to bury his suspicions. Earlier this month, he said at a news conference that he was remained convinced that Bolivar was poisoned but admitted he had no evidence. On Tuesday, before he let doctors present their report, he cautioned the audience that the study was incomplete and that it didn’t provide any firm conclusions.
The revamped portrait and death certificate are among the events that will mark Bolivar’s birthday. The government also plans to inaugurate a long-delayed and massive new mausoleum for the independence hero.
The gleaming white and black structure swoops up like a sail, dwarfing everything in the neighborhood, including the National Pantheon that had been Bolivar’s resting place since 1842.
Rising 160-feet, the building features Spanish tile, South African granite and a price tag of more than $116 million.
With presidential elections looming Oct. 7, it has been the subject of controversy. Critics have called it a waste of money, and said it looks like the tomb of a pharaoh, not a liberator.
Campaigning in one of Caracas’ most downtrodden neighborhoods, Chávez’s chief rival in the race, Henrique Capriles, 39, called the structure a distraction.
“This government prefers to build a mausoleum to the Liberator rather than honor his memory,” he said Tuesday. “The best way to honor his legacy is solving the problems of the nation.”
Its opulence and scale have also led to snide remarks that Chávez — who is recovering from an undisclosed form of cancer — may want to share the crypt.
Earlier this month, newspaper columnist Mario Villegas asked legislators to pass a law that would “prohibit anyone, either now or in the future, from being buried in this monument who is not Simón Bolivar.”
Drinking beer on a street curb recently as he watched workers put the finishing touches on the building, Alirio Gudiño, 62, said Bolivar’s historical importance is such that he deserves a grand edifice.
“This is a magnificent piece of work,” he said. “But nothing is too grand for the Libertador.”