A tomb for the Pharaoh of Barinas

A tomb for the Pharaoh of Barinas

Despite holding a political philosophy based, in part, on valuing groups above individuals, Marxist governments have long been fond of embalming particularly memorable leaders and putting them on permanent display. Lenin, Mao, Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, two generations of Kims, Gottwald, Dimitrov…. The list goes on and on.

Yet despite Latin America’s strong regional tradition of leftwing populism, this practice has never really caught on. With the exception of the Inca mummies and Eva Perón (who only ever held minor political positions and was preserved at the behest of a distraught husband, not a government), nature has generally been allowed to take its course upon even the most venerated of corpses.

This may be changing however. On Thursday afternoon, following several days during which thousands of Venezuelans waited in multi-kilometer queues to pay respects to the body of Hugo Chávez, acting president Nicolás Maduro announced that El Comandante’s mummified cadaver would be placed within a "crystal urn" in a yet-to-be-completed Caracas museum, so that the people could "see him for eternity."

Many Venezuelans reacted to this news with cheers, while others found the idea macabre or even disrespectful, given Chávez’s own stated preference that he be buried among the savannahs of his home state of Barinas. Some are simply relieved hoping that an earlier idea under discussion (and still supported by Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly) that El Comandante be buried next to Simón Bolívar in the National Pantheon – may be set aside at least for the time being. Such an act would theoretically require a constitutional amendment to bypass the mandated 25-year waiting period. On the other hand, these days Venezuelan constitutional provisions seem to have been relegated to the level of "guidelines" rather than actual rules. And given the multiple contradictory announcements that have been made by several high-ranking government leaders including Maduro, there is little certainty. 

Specialists in the preservation arts have likewise warned that, unless a specific cocktail of chemicals has already been injected into the body, preferably mere hours after the cessation of life signs, the hot climate and humidity of Caracas may render preservation now difficult if not infeasible. Then again, among the more conspiratorially minded, there is even speculation that Chávez has already been permanently embalmed. Some of the more imaginative rumors contend that he actually died in Cuba soon after traveling there for surgery in mid-December 2012 — only to have the news kept secret by the regime until it was finally deemed convenient to come clean a few days ago.

The move might also be aimed at providing the ruling party with a new powerful symbol of PSUV power and influence within the capital. The Venezuelan constitution mandates that new elections must take place within thirty days of the official pronouncement of a presidential death. And while the government has made it clear that keeping to this timeline may prove tricky, given the massive funerary folderol currently taking place in Caracas, elections do seem likely to come about quite soon. After all, following weeks of public events celebrating the life of Hugo Chávez, of mourning visits to Caracas by world leaders, and of hagiographic celebrity op-eds, Maduro and his fellow socialists have every incentive to make the most of this free pro-government publicity by holding elections sooner rather than later.

On his own, the acting president is an untested and uncharismatic man, with a known penchant for secrecy and a bit of a mean streak. And yet, given that he is Chávez’s anointed heir, these flaws are likely to strike many potential voters as immaterial, at least for the time being. The more time that elapses, however, the greater the chance that Venezuelans may form new opinions of the neo-Chavista regime (rather than sticking to their old ones). Should they do so, this would come as a boon to Henrique Capriles, who, as the most likely opposition candidate, will have a far better shot against Nicolás Maduro than against Hugo Chávez’s ghost.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and is a regular columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.