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."