Hugo Chavez's final resting site draws mixed reviews in Venezuela

The Miami HeraldMarch 11, 2013 

On a hilltop, high above the Venezuelan capital, rises a 113-year-old structure called Cuartel de la Montaña or Mountain Barracks.

On top of the old red and white building that resembles a castle stands a giant sign showing the number 4 next to the letter F.

The reference is to February 4, the date in 1992 when then Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez helped lead a failed military coup against then President Carlos Andrés Pérez.

Chávez used the old fort, which overlooks the Miraflores presidential palace, to direct coup operations. And it was there that he delivered a now famous speech — broadcast live on national television — ordering his troops to surrender. The speech made Chávez famous in Venezuela and helped launch the movement that eventually brought him to power.

Chávez’s old hideout is in the news again.

It will be his final resting place, where Chávez’s embalmed body eventually will be placed on public display inside a glass casket in a mausoleum that will be built inside the old Mountain Barracks.

Chávez’s successor, acting President Nicolás Maduro, told the nation last week that after people finish filing past the late Venezuelan leader’s casket at the Military Academy the embalming process will begin.

Once it’s completed, and the mausoleum is ready, Chávez’s body will be taken to the 4F barracks and displayed permanently.

“That is the perfect site to place the body because the barracks meant so much to commander Chávez,” said Lidia Jiménez, a resident of the working class hillside barrio where the 4F fort is located. “This is where the rebellion he directed failed, but it helped launch his revolution that led to his becoming president. So it’s only fitting that he comes here to be remembered forever.”

Jiménez was interviewed Saturday as she awaited a bus near the entrance to the 4F barracks in the 23 de Enero barrio, one of many working class neighborhoods that cover hillsides around Caracas resembling the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

Her comments were echoed by several 23 de Enero residents.

“It’s a great idea,” said José Villegas, another 23 de Enero resident who also was waiting for the bus near where Jiménez stood. “This is where the Chávez movement took off and led him to the presidency.”

Villegas and Jiménez stood a few feet away from the barracks entrance, a metal barricade arm that was raised to let vehicles or pedestrians inside the parking lot and courtyard in front of the old fort.

Soldiers standing guard at the entrance said they had orders not to allow any media representatives inside.

There was no visible evidence of any preparations for the transfer of Chávez’s remains to the site.

It stands in a strategic place. From the fort you can see most of Caracas below in the valley. That’s probably why Chávez chose it as his command post and hideout during the 1992 rebellion.

Another reason was the fact that 23 de Enero is one of the most militant barrios in Caracas, where leftist leaders and community activists had mustered the support of many residents. It eventually became one of the most pro-Chávez redoubts in the country.

The name of the barrio, 23 de Enero, commemorates the date on Jan. 23, 1958 when Venezuelan dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez was overthrown. The area had once been called Dos de Diciembre, the Dec. 2, 1952 date when a military junta installed Pérez Jiménez as president.

While many of those interviewed near the old barracks expressed support for Maduro’s plan to exhibit an embalmed Chávez there, a few did not.

“I do not agree with the decision to display Chávez,” said Alfonso Alagare, a 23 de Enero resident interviewed while sipped coffee at a newsstand about a mile from the 4F barracks. “He should be buried so he can rest in peace, the peace he never had because he was always struggling.”

Alagare did not say where Chávez should be buried. But many of Chávez’s supporters have called for their leader to be buried in the National Pantheon, where Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolivar is buried.

Whether to bury Chávez or display his embalmed body permanently appears to have caused a rift among Venezuelan government officials.

On Friday, the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, publicly insisted on burying Chávez at the National Pantheon, a statement that ran counter to Maduro’s plan to display the embalmed body at the 4F barracks.

While soldiers did not allow media visits to the barracks, people who have toured the site say it’s a military museum. The visitors recalled seeing weapons, uniforms and other military equipment from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Built under the government of President Cipriano Castro, the facility opened in 1910 serving initially as Venezuela’s first military academy. In the 1940s, it became the defense ministry and in 1981, the site became a museum of military history.

After Chávez was first elected president in 1998, he turned the site into a revered shrine to recall the 1992 failed coup and the giant 4F sign was installed.

When the coup failed, Chávez was arrested and jailed but in 1994 he was freed. He then launched his political movement that culminated in his first election as president in 1998. He took office in January 1999.

Maduro said last week that the 4F Barracks will be known as the Museum of the Revolution to commemorate Chávez’s 14 years in power.

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