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Venezuela opens Bolivar's tomb to examine remains

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez gestures during a meeting with the athletes that will compete in the Central American Games at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Wednesday, July 14, 2010. The games will be held July 16-Aug. 1 in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. The painting at back portraits Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolivar. Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez gestures during a meeting with the athletes that will compete in the Central American Games at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Wednesday, July 14, 2010. The games will be held July 16-Aug. 1 in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. The painting at back portraits Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolivar. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
By Ian James
Associated Press Writer / July 17, 2010

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CARACAS, Venezuela—Hugo Chavez has opened the coffin of his idol Simon Bolivar as Venezuela investigates the president's suspicions of foul play in the South American independence hero's death nearly two centuries ago.

Chavez announced the exhumation of Bolivar's remains Friday and displayed the intact skeleton briefly on national television, saying he wept when he saw the bones of the inspiration for his Bolivarian Revolution.

While historians have generally concluded that Bolivar died of tuberculosis in 1830, Chavez has another theory -- that Bolivar was murdered -- even though he acknowledges it may not be possible to prove.

State television showed footage of white-clad officials opening the coffin. Specialists will carry out DNA testing on the remains, which were well-preserved and include teeth in "perfect" shape, hair, remnants of a shirt and boots, Chavez said.

Those who opened the coffin wore surgical gloves, hair nets and gas masks. Chavez interrupted a speech late Friday to show footage of them rolling back a black cloth to reveal the skeleton while the national anthem played.

"Viva Bolivar," Chavez said. "It's not a skeleton. It's the Great Bolivar, who has returned."

Chavez opened Bolivar's tomb unannounced, spreading the news on Twitter shortly after midnight Thursday: "What impressive moments we have lived tonight!! We have seen the remains of the Great Bolivar!"

"Our father who is in the earth, the water and the air ... You awake every hundred years when the people awaken," Chavez continued. "I confess that we have cried, we have sworn allegiance."

The president often speaks under a portrait of "The Liberator" and quotes his words. Chavez has also renamed Venezuela the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and say he's creating a socialist system based on Bolivar's ideals.

Chavez has sometimes raised a sword that belonged to Bolivar at public events, and he views his presidency as a modern extension of Bolivar's struggle to liberate and unite Latin America.

"That glorious skeleton has to be Bolivar, because his flame can be felt. My God," Chavez said in another tweet. "Bolivar lives... We are his flame!"

Bolivar's remains have been kept since 1876 at the National Pantheon in Caracas, where foreign leaders visiting Chavez often pay homage at the tomb with flower-laying ceremonies.

Chavez said one key aim is "glorifying Bolivar" by removing his remains from a lead sarcophagus and moving them to a grander final resting place. He said the skeleton was temporarily moved to a vacuum-sealed plastic case, promising to place it in a gold casket.

The government also will build a new pantheon to house Bolivar's remains, Chavez said.

According to traditional accounts, Bolivar spent his last days bedridden and died at 47 of tuberculosis at an estate in modern-day Colombia.

However, Chavez has expressed doubts about the original autopsy and says he believes -- based on his interpretation of writings about Bolivar's life -- that he could have been assassinated by his enemies, possibly poisoned. Chavez first suggested in December 2007 that Venezuela should open Bolivar's coffin to examine the remains.

Opposition leaders called the opening of the coffin a ridiculous show and urged Chavez to focus instead on problems like crime, inflation and corruption.

Some prominent Venezuelan scholars dismiss the theory and accuse Chavez of trying to rewrite history to fit his beliefs.

Historian Ines Quintero called the sudden exhumation surprising and said the government should explain its aims and on what basis it is carrying out the study.

Earlier this year, a doctor from Johns Hopkins University questioned the tuberculosis story and said he believes arsenic prescribed as a medical treatment contributed to Bolivar's death. Dr. Paul Auwaerter, who presented his case at a conference on the deaths of famous figures, said however that he doesn't support the assassination theory.

Chavez said he has at times doubted that the entombed remains are those of Bolivar, but that as he gazed at the eye sockets in the skull, he asked: "Father, is it you?" And, Chavez said, "My heart told me, 'It's me.'"

Chavez did not offer specifics of the aims of the investigation beyond saying experts would use DNA testing to verify the remains are actually Bolivar's. He said experts took X-rays and samples to analyze. The team includes forensic experts, anthropologists and others, from Venezuela as well as Spain, he said.

More than 50 specialists have been involved, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz said.

Earlier this month, Chavez oversaw another ceremony in which the symbolic remains of Bolivar's lover Manuela Saenz, credited by some with helping him liberate several nations from Spanish rule, were moved to the National Pantheon.

Saenz died during a diphtheria epidemic in 1856. Her body was burned and dumped, along with those of many other victims, in a mass grave in Ecuador. At the ceremony earlier this month, Chavez and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa placed earth gathered from the grave where Saenz was buried next to Bolivar's tomb.

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Associated Press Writer Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this report.

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