Caracas: The exhumation of independence hero Simon Bolivar has aroused impassioned debate here, with critics charging it was done not for scientific reasons, but at the "whim" of President Hugo Chavez.
The Venezuelan government, which unexpectedly disinterred the remains in the National Pantheon last week, said it was to confirm they were Bolivar`s and determine whether his death in 1830 was caused by tuberculosis -- or, as Chavez suspects, poisoning.
"I had been thinking about it for years," said Chavez, an ardent admirer who named his leftist political movement after the man who liberated much of South America from Spain in the early 19th century.
"When I was a cadet and stood guard next to his sarcophagus I`d ask myself: `My God, what could be inside? Could Bolivar be in there? I had my doubts," he admitted.
Blas Bruni Celli, an eminent Venezuelan pathologist and a student of the Liberator`s death, has no such doubts.
"There is absolute evidence that tuberculosis caused Bolivar`s death," he said. The autopsy performed in 1830 by his doctor, Alejandro Prospero Reverend, "leaves no doubt," he said.
"The exhumation is completely useless," he said.
It was the first time Bolivar`s sarcophagus had been opened since his remains were brought to Caracas in 1842 from Santa Marta, Colombia, where he died.
A team of Venezuelan and foreign experts examined his remains for several hours, taking samples for DNA tests, as Chavez added drama by showing images of the remains and twittering his reaction.
"It`s not a skeleton. It`s the great Bolivar, who has returned!" he tweeted.
The reaction to the President`s performance has been intense, both for and against, in a country that professes great devotion to Bolivar.
"Bolivar is a sacred figure who we will now remember not as the image that appears in paintings and statues, but as that image of a skeleton that has desecrated the Liberator," declared psychologist Mercedes Pulido.
Vice President Elias Jaua defended the investigation as "historic" and "necessary”, insisting it was conducted with the utmost "seriousness" and respect for the Liberator.
The results "will clear up doubts that have not been invented by our government”, he said.
Bruni Celli, however, points to the rigorous process followed when Bolivar`s remains were exhumed and brought to Caracas.
"There is no doubt that those bones in the Pantheon are Bolivar`s," he said. "I see great ignorance on the part of the government. Those bones should never have been touched. They were something sacred, a symbol," he said.
Carmen Bohorquez, a historian who is the vice minister of culture, contends it would be "irresponsible" not to scientifically prove that the remains belonged to Bolivar.
But the director of the National Academy of History, Elias Pino, called it a "dangerous step by Chavez toward the rewriting of the history of Venezuela and Latin America”.
"He is showing the people that he owns one of the fundamental pieces of the (historical) memory: the physical remains of Simon Bolivar."
Pino said countries that also were liberated by Bolivar, like neighbouring Colombia, could have a problem with the exhumation, although Bogota "probably hasn`t wanted to throw fuel on the fire”.
"An act of this kind should be justified, but here the only justification is the whim of the chief of state," he said.
Pablo Perez, the opposition governor of the western state of Zulia, said Chavez was seeking to divert the public`s attention from more immediate problems, like scarcity, crime and unemployment.
On Saturday, the 227th anniversary of Bolivar`s birth, his tomb will once again be closed. Next year, the government plans to build a new mausoleum with "gold and diamonds" for the country`s founder.