Fall 2011

Dead Commodities

The trouble with Simón

Godofredo Pereira

My God, my God… my Christ, our Christ, while I was praying in silence watching those bones, I thought of you! … How much I wanted and would have liked for you to arrive and order, as you did to Lazarus: rise Simón, this is not the time to die![1]
—Hugo Chávez

Recent years have seen an increase in mediatized exhumations, mostly of mass graves within the context of war crimes and genocide claims, but also of well-known political figures such as Simón Bolívar or Nicolae Ceausescu. Former Chilean President Salvador Allende has recently been exhumed to ascertain whether he was killed or committed suicide[2] and apparently the same fate awaits the body of the deceased Polish president Lech Kaczynski to find out if the remains in the coffin are actually his.[3]

We can perhaps trace this recent rediscovery of the dead to the development of new technologies within the context of forensic anthropology that allow us to look deeper into bones, particularly advances in molecular biology, DNA analysis, and toxicological procedures.[4] However, this raises questions about the status of the dead in contemporary societies. We are used to thinking of death as the end of living, the final confirmation of a life whose biography is summed up in the obituary. But the recent proliferation of politically motivated exhumations seems to indicate otherwise, suggesting that death is hardly an end. What then do we make of this growing trend, of this desire to make the dead speak once more, to make them once again participants in the public sphere? And how should we frame the role of forensic sciences within these processes?

On 15 July 2010, proceedings for the exhumation of the remains of Simón Bolívar were initiated. The order came directly from the president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez Frias, and constituted a new step in the longstanding controversy over the cause of “El Libertador’s” death. The most recent inadvertent intervention in this debate had come from Paul G. Auwaerter, a doctor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Auwaerter suggested that there was evidence to indicate that the thesis so far assumed to be correct—that Bolívar had died in 1830 of “a pulmonary catarrh that degenerated into a tuberculosis phthisis”—wasn’t in fact the most likely. Arsenic poisoning, he argued, would be a far more likely determination: “I have to say that tuberculosis is not an unreasonable explanation for his death. But, at the end of the day, there are a lot of features of this illness that argue against tuberculosis. If the body were ever to be exhumed, there would be a lot of things to look at.”[5] These declarations comported with the theory promoted by Chávez, namely that Bolívar had been assassinated by the Colombian oligarchy, an assertion that has helped generate some degree of public support for Venezuela’s continuous political battles with Colombia.

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