President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela ordered the exhumation of the remains of Simon Bolivar, Latin America’s liberator, in order to put an end to the speculation surrounding the hero’s death. While historians are generally in agreement that Bolivar died of tuberculosis in 1830, others maintained that the hero died of unintentional arsenic poisoning (since this was the standard medical treatment during his time).
Dr. Paul Auwaerter in a University of Maryland Conference argued that death due to tuberculosis cannot explain Bolivar’s final six months. Auwaerter said that the hero did not exhibit symptoms of TB and may have had arsenic-induced bacterial infection. Dr. Auwaerter concluded that Bolivar “died of chronic arsenic poisoning that led to a serious respiratory illness…and most of the signs and symptoms point to slow, chronic poisoning, the kind that might result from drinking contaminated water.”
Chavez however is convinced that Bolivar might have been murdered, a suspicion bolstered by the many attempts on the life of the most illustrious Latin American military figure. One of the failed assassination plots was in September 1828, a month after Bolivar installed himself dictator of Gran Colombia (the short-lived republic that encompassed a great part of South and Central America). Bolivar narrowly escaped the attempt through the help of his lover, Manuela Saenz.
“They killed him. Here in my heart for years I’ve had the conviction that Bolivar didn’t die of tuberculosis,” Chavez said. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to prove it, but I think they assassinated Bolivar.”
Death by Arsenic
The examination of chronic arsenic poisoning is a well-established method in paleopathology. The Paleopathology Laboratory of the Virginia Commonwealth University, for example, has studied the long-term exposure to arsenic of a Chilean pre-Columban population. The mummies showed arsenic lesions on their internal organs. The nails, ribs, hairs, and skin also exhibited high concentrations of the compound.
In a similar vein, Boston and Ariaza (2009) examined the human remains of the Chinchorro Culture (5000 BP) in the Atacama desert coast of Chile, they suggested that the endemic presence of arsenic may have had a role in the mummification practice of the Chinchorros. To ascertain this, they examined teratogenic arsenic lesions (i.e., cleft palate, polydactyly, syndactyly, spina bifida, club foot, eye malformations, and hip joint dislocation), which are indicative of arsenic poisoning when found together. Although they only found spina bifida, they reported that the “presence of spina bifida in the three valleys suggests a genetic-environmental interplay within the populations.”
I imagine Auwaeter et al conducted a similar assessment to forward the arsenic poisoning hypothesis. Next step is the Hugo Chavez-commissioned DNA testing on Bolivar’s exhumed remains. This is the same procedure that put an end to the controversy surrounding Napoleon Bonaparte’s death. Bonaparte, once thought to have been poisoned by his prison guards, was found to have died of other causes (still up in debate) and not from arsenic poisoning.
That the exhumation is ideologically-driven is not a secret. Chavez refers to his ideology as Bolivarianismo, which advocates for participatory democracy, socialism, and Latin American unity. This is also a homage to the military figure who attempted to unite the entire Latin America against Spanish colonization. It comes as no surprise therefore to see Chavez beaming with pride when Simon Bolivar’s remains were exposed. He exclaimed, “Viva Bolivar! It’s not a skeleton. It’s the Great Bolivar, who has returned…Our father who is in the earth, the water and the air … You awake every hundred years when the people awaken. I confess that we have cried, we have sworn allegiance.”
This was not the first time however that leaders used the past to serve the political purposes of the present. Anthropology, archaeology in particular, is rife with examples that exploit the past for a nationalist project. The eminent archaeologist, Bruce Trigger, noted that “Political unrest, national crises, and rapid economic and social change frequently stimulate interests in a nation’s past, which often is romantically represented as having been more stable than the present and therefore as having more valuable lessons to teach the modern times.”
This is especially true in many places with strong nationalist movements. Archaeologists in Nazi Germany, for example, conducted excavations to prove that Germany was the origin of all civilizations. In the years of Mao Zedong’s rule in China, archaeology was encouraged as long as it supports the government’s theory of a linear evolutionary progression from “primitive promiscuous bands via matrilinearity to patrilinearity; from Savagery, Barbarism, Feudal Society to Civilization and so on–stages first proposed by Lewis Henry Morgan, borrowed by Engels, and systematized in the Soviet Union” (Glover, 2006).
The case of Bolivar’s exhumation is thus not an exemption. The team of Spanish and Venezuelan scientists’ study results might be scientifically neutral and valid in the end. They might even contradict Chavez. But that is not the point. Bolivar’s bones are not just a bunch of arsenic-drenched tissues. This is not just about Bolivar anymore.