By FRANK BAJAK, Associated Press
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The towering, white mausoleum in downtown Caracas is for many Venezuelans a lot like Hugo Chavez, only in architectural terms: disproportionately larger-than-life, flamboyant and self-important.
And no, the grand tomb was not built for Venezuela's socialist president, who has grappled with his own mortality in his recent battle with cancer and is running for re-election.
It will cradle the remains of South American independence leader Simon Bolivar, who Chavez daily, rapturously and exhaustively exalts as the spiritual father of his own self-styled revolution.
The 160-foot (50-meter) mausoleum is to be inaugurated in the coming days, though it is not quite finished.
Its construction has been delayed, shrouded in secrecy and alternately hailed as fit for a hero of Bolivar's historical grandeur and criticized as an exaggerated reflection of Chavez's own ego and alleged desire to be seen as a reincarnation of the independence hero.
Its solemn black granite-floored interior is ready, but the surrounding plaza is not. Workers have been toiling day and night in recent weeks, laying patio tiles, wiring lamps, landscaping and molding concrete steps.
Chavez proposed the shrine, devoted exclusively to "The Liberator," two years ago when he decided he needed to know whether Venezuela's main founding father was poisoned.
Historians have generally thought that Bolivar, who rallied revolutionaries who won independence from Spain for what would become Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru, succumbed to tuberculosis in 1830 at age 47.
But Chavez said he suspected otherwise. So he ordered Bolivar's tomb opened to great fanfare and convened a team of international scientists to study the remains. The initial verdict came on Bolivar's last birthday anniversary: No evidence of foul play.
By then, government officials had already decided it was high time to move Bolivar's bones from the adjacent National Pantheon, where his remains have been kept since 1876 along with those of more than 100 fellow heroes and heroines of the nation, which at Chavez's urging was renamed the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
Chavez on Tuesday unveiled a new, photograph-like portrait of Bolivar, produced by researchers based on their studies of his remains. Chavez presented the image of Bolivar's face during an event at the presidential palace marking the 229th anniversary of his birth.
As for the mausoleum, Chavez said a few final details remain to be finished.
Its completion was initially promised for December 2011, then for May, the delays mocked by Chavez's detractors as typical of his 13-year-old administration.
Critics have also decried the lack of transparency.
Governments typically solicit proposals from renowned architects for such projects, opening them to an international field.
Not this one.
"In this case he gave it to friends, although it's not quite clear to me to whom exactly," said Oscar Tenreiro, a prominent Caracas architect who disapproves of the mausoleum.
No one has publicly identified the architect, though the person in charge of the project is Francisco Sesto, a Spanish-born architect named "Minister of State for the Transformation of Greater Caracas" by Chavez in late 2010.
Chavez created the job after an opposition candidate was elected mayor of Caracas; Sesto is a former culture minister whose job includes overseeing housing construction in the capital.
Chavez interrupted his televised speech on Tuesday to let Sesto make a televised appearance outside the mausoleum. "We're ready to turn over this mausoleum now," Sesto said.
Sesto did not respond to repeated requests for an interview through his spokeswoman.
In a public discussion of the project in early June, Sesto said it cost $140 million and was built because "we have always had the sense that Bolivar needed a mausoleum worthy of his grandeur."
"There was a lot of criticism that his remains were not in a dignified state" in the Pantheon, he added, noting that those who designed the mausoleum "heard a lot of ideas, including those of the president."
He did not say what exactly Chavez suggested, and defended the austere contemporary style, adding that natural light entering the roof would render "a sensitive and magical appearance" to Bolivar's pedestal-elevated sarcophagus.
In a blog entry entitled "Arrogance," Tenreiro remarked on the high quality of the construction and imported materials, including for the exterior white Spanish ceramic tiles and "weathering" steel that oxidizes to orange without losing strength.
"One appreciates the enormous mass, limpid and seductive in itself but gigantic and absurd, out of context, possessive of the same sin as the political system from which it originates."
Tenreiro expressed concern that the mausoleum's sloping southern facade, which connects it with the Pantheon, will become a water slide in heavy rains, potentially flooding the smaller, neoclassical former church.
A member of the governing board of Venezuela's College of Architects, Mitchele Vidal, did not like that the Pantheon, its back wall removed, was "converted into a hallway for entering the mausoleum."
Other critics have likened the sloping wall to that of a skate park, prompting Sesto to post on his blog a series of world-renowned edifices that also sport a slope.
Vidal called the mausoleum an "unnecessary" expenditure given the need in the very neighborhood it sits for investment in housing and better health care. From the top of the monument, where workers say a persistent flame will burn, one looks down to the east on a squalid collection of tin-roofed hovels.
But others believe Venezuelans deserve a towering monument.
"I don't think it's exaggerated at all," said Isis Berroteran, a 47-year-old housewife from the west-central town of Cagua as she admired it from her car. "The Pantheon, although spectacular, had become pretty small as the city grew."
A foreman whose workers were painting pipes inside the mausoleum's shell on Sunday, Jose Freytes, said he was initially skeptical of the monument but came to appreciate it as it took form.
Other countries, including the United States, have built imposing monuments to their founders. Why not Venezuela? After all, Bolivar helped liberate many lands.
"The essence of the idea is to elevate the name of Bolivar internationally. That's what it's about," said Freytes. "I think the president is doing the right thing."
Elias Pino, a historian and leading expert on Bolivar, considers the mausoleum Chavez's way of deepening his own identification in people's minds with the national hero.
"The political intent is that President Hugo Chavez be proclaimed the agent of Bolivar's will and interpreter of the gospel of Bolivar," he said.
"This monument will tie together both figures," he said, "and will not just be the mausoleum of Bolivar but also the entrance of President Chavez into the pantheon of patriots."
At public events, Chavez has sometimes raised a sword that belonged to Bolivar. On Tuesday, the president held up two old pistols that he said belonged to Bolivar and his lover Manuela Saenz, and had been donated to the government by a wealthy businessman who bought them at an auction in New York.
"They aren't for me, of course," Chavez said. "He had them and decided to donate them to the republic."
Chavez listened as Yanuacelis Cruz, an expert on the team that has examined Bolivar's bones, said further tests are being carried out to determine whether Bolivar had histoplasmosis, a fungal illness with symptoms similar to those of tuberculosis.
Chavez's rival in the presidential race, Henrique Capriles, said during a speech on Tuesday that the best way to honor Bolivar would be "solving Venezuelans' problems."
Capriles also said in a message on Twitter that regardless of what Chavez says, "the legacy of our Liberator Simon Bolivar belongs to all of us and will never belong to a certain political party."
Associated Press writers Jorge Rueda, Fabiola Sanchez and Ian James contributed to this report.
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