The sacred body of the state

The recent "exhumation of the body of Simon Bolivar" involves an interesting collusion between forensic science,the state and the magic of spirit possession. But what is it all for?
Godofredo Pereira
6 September 2010

Venezuela´s president Hugo Chavéz has recently tapped into his country’s most powerful figurehead and source of mythical material, the Libertador Simón Bolívar. This is not the first time – in fact most of Chavéz’ self-styled persona is built following in the steps of Bolívar – neither has he been the first one to do it. In The Magic of the State, Michael Taussig tells us how the whole country is constantly using the figure of Bolívar as a source of energy, a mystical and magical one, and in fact many political revolutionaries in history have attempted to gain some of his power, in ways that include being possessed by his spirit, notably Álvaro Fayad of the M-19 guerrillas that stole his sword: “It was not simply to re-appropriate the history of the Liberator (…) It was to continue that history. That’s why we took the sword”(Taussig, 1997,189). But if Bolívar has always been a mythical figure, object of semi-religious adoration, the most recent event marks perhaps the first time that a scientific procedure – forensic analysis - is used, not to dismantle the construction of these fetishes, but in fact to help produce them.

In the morning of July 16, 2010 Simón Bolívar was removed from his grave so that a governmental forensic team could analyse the remnants of a death that occurred almost 200 years ago, a death which Chavéz suspects was the result of a conspiracy. According to most history books, Bolívar died from tuberculosis in 1830 after having successfully achieved the independence of several Central-American nations from Spanish colonial rule. But if arsenic poisoning is proven to be the cause of death, this will obviously enhance the figure of Bolívar as a heroic persona, isolated, in charge of a nation, resistant against colonialism and made the object of treacherous assassination attempts. Better still, it will also add to the parallels with Chavéz’s own political persona, who claims to be the target of assassination attempts by Colombia or USA’s yanquis.

It is noticeable how two distinct types of magic were present in this evocation: at the same time that forensic scientific rituals were followed - everyone wearing breathing masks, hairnets, protective contamination suits and gloves - the state was also on show with a performance of its own, with the military (now dressed in scientific white) marching to the national anthem, and proceeding to open the burial casket and fold the Venezuelan flag so that it covered the body. In the background another gigantic flag hung on the wall, while state television documented the overall procedure. We can see that here we are not witnessing a dichotomy between science and the magic of spirit possession, or between modernity and ‘primitive’ thought. It is more that the scientific enquiry into objects provides the most up-to-date and thorough process for the ‘revelation’ of material’s hidden secrets. More than anything, it is a sense of animism that permeates the entire process, the belief in both the object’s spiritual properties and it’s capacity to tell a story, as only a human (living being) would be able to do. And as the example shows, this capacity was in no way questioned by modernity.

But what is it that this decaying corpse will tell the world? How is it going to be made to speak? One should bear in mind that it is not simply being investigated in order to reveal that which state of the art technical procedures of bone or tissue analysis, and the whole gamut of C.S.I.-type technologies might be able to tell, but to confirm a long-devised theory. So the probability is that either the object tells what it is expected to tell, or that it will remain silent due to ‘technical shortcomings’. But one should not expect from this research to hear words that in any way might undermine Simón Bolívar’s role as Venezuela’s premier heroic figure. Neither one should expect that the conclusions and data are made open to public scrutiny. Bolívar is not only the body but also the spirit of the state, and in this case forensics will only re-affirm that. It cannot do otherwise. In fact the decision to exhume Bolívar’s sacred body after all these years, insists that inside that coffin is the state’s all-pervading soul. This reified body is the central monument of Venezuela, its most important symbol and most sacred fetish.

On Twitter, Chavéz himself has written: "That glorious skeleton must be Bolívar, because his flame can be felt. Bolívar lives!" Exactly how Bolívar lives is yet to be discovered. Does he live in the history books and in the fact of an independent Venezuela? Or does he live through yet another attempt of spirit possession and re-incarnation? This is now up for grabs. But the event of his exhumation at least exposes to daylight a glimpse of the magic rituals that serve as modus-operandi for most of contemporary politics.

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