Latin America & Caribbean

Venezuela honours Simon Bolivar's lover Manuela Saenz

The full state honours on the airport tarmac in San Antonio de Tachira, on the border with Colombia, suggested that one of the Venezuelan government's closest allies was about to touch down.

But, as the plane landed and the door opened, it was not a head of state or a neighbouring president who emerged but a delegation carrying a small wooden box.

Inside are what the government of Hugo Chavez calls the "symbolic remains" of one of the country's 19th Century independence heroes, Manuela Saenz.

Known as the Liberator of the Liberator, Saenz was the lover of the forefather of modern Latin America, Simon Bolivar, whom she once helped save from assassination.

On Monday, her remains were laid alongside those of her lover in the national pantheon building.

'Symbolic remains'

The story of Bolivar's mistress - a woman who was born an illegitimate child of a nobleman, but rose to the rank of general in Bolivar's rebel army - has captured the imagination of Latin American historians for years.

But, it is only now that an incredible reversal in the popular image of Manuela Saenz, who died despised and destitute, is under way, largely prompted by the left-wing governments of Ecuador and Venezuela, which have honoured her in Caracas.

The "symbolic remains" were taken from the small city of Paita in northern Peru where Saenz died from diphtheria, impoverished and shunned by society, in 1856.

Her body was put into a mass grave and it is from that region that earth has been taken and carried through Peru, Colombia and Ecuador to Venezuela.

The funeral procession which led the small box of Peruvian earth to the Plaza Bolivar in central Caracas was as sombre as any for a present-day leader or general.

The head of the National Assembly, Cilia Flores, delivered a eulogy in which she spoke about the lack of recognition for the role of women in forming an independent Latin America.

The remains were taken to the house where Simon Bolivar was born to lie in state.

'Bolivarian cult'

The red-clad Chavez supporters in the Plaza Bolivar echoed Ms Flores's sentiments, talking of the need to "reconstruct" the historical memory in Venezuela to include figures such as Saenz.

But some local academics do not see these ceremonies in such terms.

"The intention (of the government) is to manipulate history but also to 'revolutionise' the Bolivarian cult," says Elias Pino Iturrieta, a member of the National Academy of Venezuelan History, who has written extensively on what he calls the cult of Bolivar in Venezuela.

Critics of the president say the events for Manuela Saenz are intended to whip up nationalist sentiment ahead of September's legislative elections. But the dozens of supporters turning out to pay their respects to the urn strongly disagreed.

One young student, Silvester Montillo, explained his reasons for supporting the effort to celebrate Manuela Saenz.

"Some people have criticised the government for spending money on this," he said.

"But they don't understand what is stands for. It doesn't matter to us whether there are traces of her DNA in the urn or not. What's important is that Manuela Saenz represents the history of Venezuela and the history of all Latin America.

"She was part of the push for independence to build a better country and a more equal society."

Sacrifices ignored

Monday is the 199th anniversary of the signing of the act of independence in Venezuela.

Image caption Critics say Hugo Chavez is using the "cult of Bolivar" as a support

Mr Chavez and his special guest, Ecuadorean President, Rafael Correa, took part in a ceremony in Caracas as Manuela's "remains" were placed to rest next to the man she loved.

There will be references to the great sacrifices made by women in the independence battles across the Americas, and talk about how such sacrifices have long been played down by Western historians.

Both statements are undoubtedly true.

But, as is so often the way in an increasingly polarised Venezuela, one side will agree with the implicit connection being made to the present day socialist revolution.

The other will accuse the government of manipulating the memory of its independence heroes for political gain.

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