Cuartel de la Montaña: A Monument to an Unknown Legacy

0

IMG-20140208-00200The first question the tour guide asked was easy. “To pay homage to Chávez’s legacy,” was the resounding answer he got from the 50 or so visitors when he asked why we were all there that day.

The next question he asked was met with complete silence.

This was a Saturday afternoon, and I was being ushered about the Cuartel de la Montaña, the former military museum and 1992 coup command center that has served as the eternal resting place for Hugo Chávez Frías since he passed away – or rather, “was sown” – one year ago today.

A tropicalized fusion of medieval fortress and temple architecture, the Cuartel is perched atop a little hill a stone’s throw away from Miraflores Palace. A cream-and-auburn crown that contrasts with the the gray and rundown housing project that surrounds it: the equally mythical 23 de Enero.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Since it opened to the public a little a year ago, it has become a place of pilgrimage for bereaved chavistas and foreign dignitaries alike; part sanctuary, part national monument, part military theme park and history lesson, the Cuartel epitomizes the blend of personality cult and authoritarian pageantry that Hugo Chávez finessed into his own personal brand of leadership.

As an experience, a Cuartel visit tends toward the North Korean side of the equation. The gallery exhibits, the biographical details discussed and the language are all carefully curated to fit within an epic narrative of the Revolutionary savior.

The February 4th, 1992 coup attempt, for example, is referred to as “The civilian military rebellion against Puntofijsmo and Day of National Dignity. Chávez’s death becomes “the day the Supreme Commander joined the souls of Guaicaipuro, Miranda, Bolívar, Martí, Rodríguez, Zamora and Che Guevara.” The electoral timeline display makes no mention of the 2007 constitutional referéndum, which Chávez lost – but whose provisions he implemented anyway.    

As a Saturday afternoon destination, the Cuartel de la Montaña is a lovely, even idyllic place. It’s quietly refreshed by the Caracas breeze, and privileged with a majestic view of the city below, with Miraflores Presidential Palace a particularly prominent fixture within the line of sight.

Access to the Cuartel is equally pleasant, since a roomy, air-conditioned bus will pick you up from El Silencio subway station, take you up the mountain and deliver you to the eternal flame at the front gates, free of charge. Entry to the Cuartel is free as well, as is the obligatory guided tour. Grounds are kept impeccable, and the cheerful staff of militia members and ministry of tourism employees are almost exceedingly polite.

The mood among our tour group, which was made up of mostly men, peppered with a few families and two Nicaraguan tourists, was a mix of curiosity, respect, awe, and celebration. The pastoral tone of our tour guide, who bestowed upon us the main teachings of Chávez and bits of Bolivarian wisdom, was a far cry from the rhetorical virulence and hostility that was so prominent a part of the Chávez I remember.

As we walked through the waving flags of CELAC member nations (the U.S. and Canada have no presence in the Cuartel) we learned that the concepts of North and South America are imperialist constructs devised to promote exclusion, and not, as we had previously been led to believe, geographical descriptions. We were given a stern talking-to with regards to the correct usage of the term Patria, the buzzword for homeland that Chávez frequently invoked as a rallying cry and consolation in the face of shortages, since the expression had recently become the butt of jokes, and it was up to us to promote its vindication. We stopped before the iconic picture of Chávez in the rain – Reuters photo credit omitted, of course – while our guide explained how this was the ultimate act of sacrifice, since the President gave a 45 minute speech to his people while knowing full well that his health was in jeopardy.

Approaching the mausoleum was a haunting experience. In a single file, we were allowed to shuffle before an imposing marble crypt flanked by four motionless presidential honor guards, and briefly loom over the remains of a man, now a God, who held an entire country in his personal thrall for 14 years.

We were rushed along the rest of the exhibit because the Ambassador to Guyana was soon to arrive on a private visit.

Back outside, our guide wrapped up the tour with a call to reflection, circling back again to the question that had stumped the group an hour earlier.

“We all agree that we are here to celebrate Chávez’ legacy,” the guide helpfully reminded us. “So now that you’ve been on the tour, can someone please tell me what that legacy is, and how we can all strive to fulfill it?”

The answer, once again, was silence.

1 COMMENT

  1. Marvelous post. Thanks, Emiliana. Could you actually ask questions? I suppose few would dare to, less they be considered critical.

    • Yes, we were actually encouraged to ask questions, our tour guide was very eager to share his wealth of information. Oddly enough, I ended up asking the most questions, mostly out of sheer and genuine curiosity. But I stopped asking once the answers became intolerably objectionable (the “Chavez-under-the-rain-sacrifice story, for example, begged a follow-up query in the vein of “so if he KNEW he was sick, why did he lie to everyone and run for office?”).

      • It is not surprising you would be the one asking most of the questions. You grew up in an environment that encouraged analytical thinking and curiosity and this event, although weird and alienating, can be fascinating. They went there probably moved by a more religious motivation and not one of theological inquiries but from the very gut – political beliefs as the new opium -.

        It still would have been interesting to ask that question in a naive way, without saying “lie”:

        “Camarada, pero hay algo que no entiendo (scratch your hair very obsentively) –
        si Chávez sabía que estaba enfermo y que estar bajo la lluvia era un sacrificio y que se podría morir por ello, por qué le dijo al pueblo venezolano de manera clara que ya estaba sano?”

        Hm, I suppose he would have become angry at you anyway and it would have been a little bit risky.

        • And he kept the line that he had been healthy until the end – he made a explicit reference to it in his final cadena: “if I had known this I wouldn’t have run for President again”, not quoting his exact words but the idea he expressed.

  2. The legacy of Chavez is his cult, which can and will be used for any purpose whatsoever by those he blessed with disciplehood.

  3. “Obligatiory” guided tour….what the heck? I haven’t been in the pantheon for many years, but is there an obligatory guided tour there as well, to see Simon Bolivar’s grave? Not even Napoleon’s in Paris! If this is not indoctrination i don’t know what it is.

    Emiliana, did anybody mention when the building was built and by who, and what it was before all this Disney wonderland?

  4. I’m always fazed by the pretentious name ( Cuartel de la Montana) they ve now invented for the place which is an old military building going back to 1930’s and always known plainly as ‘La Planicie’ ( The Plateau) , for years it was the site of the Military Academy , of the Ministry of Defense and then of the Military Museum . Not sure if it ever served as an army barrack. Wonder why the regime is always so theatrically pompous and corning in naming things ??

    • on the pompous … when the guide said that the Ambassador to Guyana was soon to arrive on a private visit, I wondered it that’s a fancy chestnut they roll out on every public tour, changing actors from the CELAC, to enhance the importance of the place. Today, the ambassador to Guyana. Tomorrow, the minister of popular power from Ecuador, etc.

  5. Venezuela is the result of North Korea mating with Disneyland apparently. This mausoleum is both grotesque and funny in equal mesure.

  6. Emiliana: Stellar writing. Great shots and POVs — love the slide show. Thank you for inviting us on your eye-popping journey through theme-park kitsch. I don’t suppose your exceedingly courteous guide mentioned that, after the failure of the 1992 coup, which Chávez instigated, he hid in the Military Museum, now 4F, where in panic mode he soiled his underwear.

    • His soiled underwear is under glass for all to see in the men’s bathroom. Emiliana, as Syd says, wonderful article/slide show. La Capilla Santo Hugo Chavez was especially illuminating….

  7. I see a lot of wasted space from the photos above, Couldn’t they, like, take half of that space, ya know, somewhere to the right of his tomb, and turn it into a brand new Mercal? Tens of thousands of people could climb the mountain and stand in line for hours on end just to have the honor of viewing empty store shelves. After they’re done standing in the baking sun for a couple of hours, plunk down a few thousand Bolivars for some dried milk, they could then wander on over and view ole what’s-his-name…..

    • Aw..Thanks for the kind words, Juan.
      Although I did speak to my companions on the bus ( the Nicaraguans), who proudly admitted this was their third trip to the Cuartel, most of my fellow tour-members were either too wrapped-up in contemplative spells or (especially the families) simply kept to themselves. There was very little socializing throughout. I must, however, clarify that this was in no way antagonistic, but rather a consequence of the somber mood. Only one tour member, towards the end, began to ardently rally for “exterminating the oligarchs, finishing them once and for all (while he made the universal sign for throat-slitting), but his menacing discourse was met with disapproving looks from the rest of the group, and our careful tour-guide quickly changed the subject.

      • Oh that’s priceless. A whole other story.
        Is there any chance you can take a pocket voice recorder with you next time? You do intend to match the Nicaraguans in their pilgrimages, do you not?

  8. Last week or the week before, when the opposition said the we shouldn’t celebrate carnival in respect for those fallen during the protests, apparently Maduro said that why not because we didn’t cancel carnival last year as a sign of respect for Chavez’s death. Well, last year carnival was before March 5th ……… does this mean that Chavez actually passes away earlier than reported?

    • Yes, Chavez passed away earlier than reported. See Casto Ocando’s tweet today and the source. I was told 8:30pm December 30th but possibly earlier like December 28th. He was embalmed.

    • Nope. In fact, nobody asked any questions at all. Like I said, the whole experience was SO extraordinarily pleasant that, for a brief microsecond, and I DO mean a FRACTION of a SECOND, I actually gave chavismo a worthwhile shot.

  9. Some legacy! Economic ruin, idiotic recycling of communism with disastrous results, subjugation to Cuba, collapse of the legal system, endemic corruption and robo, 4x murder rate, stirring class and race hatred to a flame, destruction of PDVSA, and now murder of the opposition trying to prevent the country’s collapse. The only smart thing Chavez did was to die before the shit hit the fan.

    • The capilla is outside of the fortress, close to the entrance gate, but nonetheless a prominent part of the visit (it is where the bus drops you off). It is maintained by a 23 de Enero collective. The slideshow in this post shows a photo of a sign that reads “Dios con nosotros, ¿Quién contra nosotros?”. That is the inside of the chapel, an altar surrounded by many handwritten letters and hand-sculpted figures that devotees leave around.

  10. 1. Did you see Maduro’s bed on the tour? He says he sleeps with his commandante presidente regularly.

    2. Do they still have the desk Chavez hid under during his coup attempt?

    2. There is an overwhelming military presence at the Cuartel de la Montaña. Did Chavez have any notable accomplishments as a soldier? He was never in a war and probably was frightened of it. In fact, Chavez never led a successful military battle. Chavez corrupted the army and subjugated the Venezuelan military to Cuban advisers. I knew the Venezuelan army before Chavez and it had high standards of honor. Now it is run by rich narco-generals who set new records of military dishonor.

    4. Can they please just bury Chavez for a few decades and then review his record to see if he deserves any lionization? Maduro can still worship Chavez but don’t force it on the whole country.

    5. Has Maduro thought of planning a monument to himself after his death?

    • Maduro? Monument? How about pumping him up with formaldehyde, find his old, hardly used, workmans uniform, dress em up, then belt him into the drivers seat of an old bus, and engineer said bus on its focal point with the front teetering on an the edge of a cliff near the Cuartel de la Montana?

    • That’s kinda the point of freedom of conscious, anybody who still desires to worship Chavez has the right to do so as long as they don’t force it upon anybody else; the desire to subjugate people’s will is one of the things we discuss is wrong with this regime. To put it neatly I’ll quote one of the signs I saw in the last marcha I was in:
      “Mi lucha es por la democracia, jamás en contra del que piensa diferente a mi”

      • The problem with the worshipping of that wax doll is that they’re paying tribute to a murderer, a traitor and a thief, they want to make him appear as a good person, when the last 20-so years are proof of the contrary.
        If chavismo wants to survive as a political movement, they better start looking for someone else to worship to take off the brand of “murderer-worshippers”.

        • The problem here is that if you want to have a proper well -oiled democracy people are going to have to come to terms with one simple fact: there is no place for cult and worship in politics, simple as that. Everybody’s got a hero, but when the time comes to actually sit down and get to work you can’t expect only good results if your trying to imitate someone like a child. Politics, like any other discipline requires logic and reasoning, the ability to make the hard decisions when the time comes; not hide behind some far away ideal and insist your right until you get your way.

  11. I lost my beans when I read (in the slideshow) the thing about “el pueblo se juramenta ante la Asamblea Nacional”.

  12. The only legacy that murderer will have will be the payloader that demolishes that sickening place.
    Now that I got that out of my gut, gotta say that that mausoleum is yet another proof of the squandering of the resources of Venezuela in useless stuff.

  13. Brilliant post Emiliana, a worthy follow up to your post from one year ago (the one about people waiting in line to see Chavez’ body).

    I do not know if anyone has brought up this in the comments yet, but I imagine a standard PSF retort to this would be that US presidents also get their “Presidential Libraries” and try to raise a false a equivalence. Agreeing in that US Presidential Libraries are for the most part overly sympathetic to the world view of the corresponding president, you would not see the GWB or LBJ libraries talking about the “Great victories” in Iraq or Vietnam and trying to rewrite history in such a disgusting manner. The amount of spin and cult of personality seen here -plus the friggin’ Mausoleum!- puts this Cuartel on a completely different category.

  14. Great post. I just think the guys is not deserving of even a post. At least when this is all over newer generations can go to that museum and realize how messed things were.

  15. Excellent Emiliana! As usual. Reminds me step by step, exactly of the same same mausoleum cum tomb visit in Hanoi. Of what’s his name? At least chiabe is not a pale yellowish mummy you have to forcefully watch in the obligatory tour. They are all cut by the same tijera de piquitos

  16. If you think of all the fatherless children , of all the abandoned women , of all those who have felt left behind by a world that moves too fast for them , that no one truly loves or pays attention to , of that throng of maimed creatures that marginality creates and then realize that almost by happenstance they were able to find a man, purportedly tall strong boisterous , funny and fatherly that filled all those voids in their lives , who joked with them , giving them a fake sense of being intimately cared for , of being important , of being part of something warm and grand, then you begin to understand what Chavez meant to them . It was more than those cheap or free goodies he lavishly distributed to improve their lives. he gave them hope and a sense of belonging and a mimicry of dignity they had never known before , He was the supreme snake charmer , the most mesmerizing wizard of Oz who sattisfied all their raging emotional needs !! At the same time he was mendacious , a trickster ,a buffoon, a megalomaniac , a drama queen , so full of himself, of his grandiose delusions that he probably never saw the destruction he was causing the country !! Now we must deal with his ruinous legacy , with the hatreds he sparked and fed , with the detritus of his failed dreams , with those malefic clowns he bequeathet his bag of tricks to.. The power of his savage fantasy met the power of rational political thought and vanquished it. It is a temple to his seductive fantasies that the so called Cuartel de la Montana has been converted to. !!

  17. Emiliana,

    Excelente artículo. Tengo un amigo expat que está interesado en ir y creo lo acompañaré. ¿Cuál es la mejor manera de llegar? (Carro, metro (He escuchado que hay un transporte especial desde el Silencio y quizá eso llame menos la atención que ir en un carro hasta allá))

  18. Just theoretically,

    If we get rid of PSUV, and the revolution and all the bullshit, how do you get rid of this?
    Do you think you can demolish or change the cuartel?Do you think the cult of personality will live on forever like Che’s? Inspiring murderous fervor,violence,sectarism and hatred for all who are not revolutionary.

    Why is everybody taking communism so lightly? The USSR is long gone,justice never came to all the dictators who made people suffer and die for the revolutions that were supposed to change the very human nature and the world to a Utopia. We still teach those ideas in schools,there are plenty of guerillas around, the youth of venezuela is doomed to follow the “patria o muerte” mentality, embracing ignorance and depreciation of the most basic human rights: freedom of speech,thought,life. We know the path to take is unity,respect and freedom, but when this “ideology” comes and seeks to destroy everything we believe in and change the very concept of those values,the concept of words themselves to suit their meaning….It becomes more than just ideology,it transforms into a curse.

Leave a Reply