The Magazine

Hugo Chávez, Tomb Raider

From the Scrapbook

Aug 9, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 44
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The Scrapbook confesses that it takes a certain unhealthy interest in recent accounts of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez’s exhumation of the corpse of Simón Bolivar. No disrespect to the Liberator is intended here, of course; but the details could hardly be invented.

Chávez seems to believe that he is the (literal) reincarnation of Bolivar, and is also convinced that Bolivar did not die of tuberculosis in 1830, as is generally understood, but was murdered—probably, in Chávez’s imagination, by Colombia or the United States. 

To be sure, the fact that Chávez is so attached to the man who won Venezuela’s independence from Spain​—he keeps an empty chair at cabinet meetings in case the Liberator should stop by—is a puzzlement in itself. Hugo Chávez seems to have a kind of obsessive hatred for the United States of America and its system of government; Simón Bolivar was not just a friend and admirer of the U.S. presidents of his day, but regarded himself as a Jeffersonian democrat, and carried a copy of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations into battle against the Spanish.

But The Scrapbook expects neither logic nor rationality from the man who has appropriated the name and image of South America’s great democratic leader in his quest to transform Venezuela into a socialist dictatorship. Nor does it expect what we might call appropriate mortuary behavior. When Bolivar’s remains were removed from their coffin and teeth and bone fragments were excised for “testing,” Chávez gazed intently at the Liberator’s skeleton, and declared, “Yes, it is me.” Then he inquired of the bones, “Father, is that you, or who are you?” To which Bolivar responded, according to Chávez: “It is me, but I awaken every hundred years when the people awaken.” (Thor Halvorssen, a distant relation of Bolivar’s, tells the story well in the July 25 Washington Post.) 

Readers will be interested to know that Chávez tweeted the proceedings, as Bolivar was moved from his burial place into a new coffin featuring the Chávez government seal, and that Chávez delivered a speech on Vene-zuelan television in which he implored Christ (unsuccessfully, as it turns out) to raise Bolivar from the dead. 

All of which raises an interesting, and ominous, problem. The global village has often harbored national leaders who might be described as mildly eccentric—Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi—and a few whose eccentricities lapse into malevolence: Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. But Hugo Chávez, in The Scrapbook’s considered view, appears to be insane: unstable, delusional, paranoid, violent. This has not prevented him from earning the allegiance of assorted foreign admirers—Sean Penn and Oliver Stone from Hollywood, Amy Goodman of radio’s “Democracy Now!”—but it deepens the misery of the Venezuelan people and surely endangers Vene-zuela’s neighbor, Colombia. Indeed, the Colombian government has recently demonstrated, in categorical detail, that the Chávez regime provides safe haven for thousands of FARC guerrillas, whose narco-terrorism has sought to destabilize Colombia for years.

It’s tempting—in truth, it’s irresistible​—to delight in the lunatic behavior of Hugo Chávez as he carries on his necromance with the late Simón Bolivar. But the comic details of such bizarre behavior mask a deeper, and catastrophic, pathology of misrule and regional peril.

Speaking Ill of the Obituarists

In their obituaries for Daniel Schorr last week, both the New York Times and the Washington Post touched on a disgraceful episode in the late reporter’s career—a dishonest story he concocted for CBS during the 1964 presidential campaign. The obituaries were equally dishonest. Here’s the Times:

Mr. Schorr, while at CBS, reported on the enthusiasm of right-wing Germans for Goldwater as he secured the presidential nomination that year. Mr. Schorr noted that a planned postconvention Goldwater trip mainly involved time at an American military recreation center in Berchtesgaden, site of a favorite Hitler retreat.

And here’s the Post:

Amid the 1964 election, Mr. Schorr enraged Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater when he reported that Goldwater had formed an alliance with some right-wing Germans and planned to spend time at one of Adolf Hitler’s retreats.

There’s no hint in either of these accounts that Goldwater’s rage was justifiable: The story was a crock. In a 2001 review in these pages of Schorr’s memoir, Staying Tuned, Andrew Ferguson set the record straight:

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