Simón Bolívar, often referred to as "The George Washington of South America" was a Venezuelan who was the most visible leader of South America's struggle for independence from Spain. A charismatic politician and military leader, he fought Spanish forces up and down northern South America for years, and by the mid-1820s, the continent was free.
Humbled by his inability to unite the squabbling nations of South America after independence and suffering from tuberculosis, Bolívar decided to go into exile in Europe in 1830. He died en route, however, near Santa Marta, Colombia on December 17 of that same year.
Today, Bolívar is revered all over Latin America (and particularly in his native Venezuela). He is seen as a visionary and dreamer, a man who saw the future of his land and felt that the best way to face the future was independent and united. There are any number things named after him, from a nation (Bolivia) to currency to provinces, towns, city squares and more. Bolívar has even become a popular first name for boys.
Although his illness was well-known, after his death (he was only 47) some thought that perhaps he had been poisoned. There is some evidence to support this belief: Bolívar had survived a serious assassination attempt in September, 1828 and his close friend and fellow revolutionary José Antonio de Sucre was assassinated only a few months before Bolívar himself died.
Why kill Bolívar?
He was quite stubborn and although he always resisted the notion of making himself an all-powerful dictator, he never really discounted it either. The leaders of the nations that arose from the ashes of Gran Colombia would always see the popular Bolívar as a threat. In addition, there were many that simply thought that Bolívar's time had come and gone: yes, he had led the struggle for independence from Spain, but now that it was over, it was time for the soldiers to step down and let the statesmen take over.
Why reopen the case now?
Hugo Chávez, more so than any other politician, has closely identified himself with Bolívar's legacy. During Chavez' years in office, the nation has been renamed to "The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela," and any number of other, smaller changes have taken place, including a new flag, countless parks and schools renamed after Bolívar and more.
By appointing himself the guardian of Bolívar's legacy, Chávez links himself to the great man in the hearts and minds of all Venezuelans. Making a public spectacle of exhuming his remains will make sure that people continue to connect the two of them, although it is difficult to imagine what results Chávez would like to see.
If evidence of foul play is not found, he will have needlessly disturbed the bones of Venezuela's greatest citizen. If Bolívar was poisoned, then what? Determining who did it would be impossible. If some evidence of foul play is found, it may be cause for historians to take a closer look at Bolívar's final days, but little more than that. Incidentally, most historians think there is no evidence of a poisoning plot whatsoever.
In other words, this latest ploy could further solidify Chavez's place as Venezuela's leader, and it also could backfire. Whatever happens, it will be interesting to watch this drama unfold: history in the making right before our eyes!