The 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.
Since it opened to the public a little over 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 distorted 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 — “Pero tenemos Patria!”
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.
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