There are times when that Latin American literary genre known as “magical realism” plays out before our eyes as sinister reality. Such appears to be the case with news this week from a Caracas cemetery.
Back in 1929 the Venezuelan Rómulo Gallegos published a novel that seized the imagination of his own country and of the continent. Doña Bárbara told, in bold relief, the story of civilization versus barbarism (hence the name of the central figure) as a young lawyer battles to secure his rights and impose some order in a landscape full of passion and injustice.
So loved was the book and its author that Venezuelans elected Gallegos president in a surprisingly honest election in 1947, only to see him deposed by a military coup in November 1948. After a decade in exile, Gallegos returned to Caracas, where he was showered with literary honors. He died in 1969, and was buried in a small tomb alongside his wife, who had passed away almost 20 years before.
On Wednesday, Gallegos’s granddaughter Theotiste Gallegos (named for her grandmother), reported on her Facebook page that the grave had been desecrated, and then some: not only was the marble face of the monument stolen, so were the bones of Gallegos and his wife, most probably for use in the voodoo-like ceremonies of the Santería cult.
(Grave robbing for this purpose is fairly common in Venezuela, and may have reached as far north as Connecticut, as reported in The Daily Beast last year.)
Or, maybe, this desecration never happened at all. At least, that’s the line from the government of widely despised President Nicolás Maduro.
Theotiste Gallegos then posted photographs of the desecrated grave, including the excavation by the bone thieves, which looks like a crude mineshaft reaching down to the caskets.
“Today I feel the deepest of sorrows,” Theotiste wrote. “I have to inform you that the grave of my grandfather, the president of the Republic of Venezuela and distinguished author Don Rómulo Gallegos, has been profaned.
“They took the marble that covered it; they took him and my grandmother Teotiste,” she wrote. “They stole my history and part of the history of every Venezuelan, because for every one of the citizens of this country, Rómulo Gallegos was family, he was our Venezuelan writer who accompanied us through the years with Doña Bárbara… So I ask you, I beg all my friends on social media, spread this news: They have desecrated our dignity, they have stolen our decency—from all Venezuelans. Because if anybody was of the people, that was Don Rómulo Gallegos.”
The embattled government of President Nicolás Maduro, who succeeded the late populist caudillo Hugo Chávez, taking the country into a dark pit of despair, hyperinflation, rampant shortages, and ever-increasing repression, could hardly have failed to read between the lines in this message.
And if by some chance Maduro’s people did miss the point, all they had to do was scroll down Theotiste Gallegos’s Facebook page to another post with a big black and white picture of Maduro and the single word, Renuncia!, resign. “Let’s all share this!” she wrote.
So within hours, Minister of Culture Freddy Ñañez went to the scene on orders from Maduro, and tweeted a photograph of himself and others standing around the grave to “confirm” that there was no desecration at all!
“We categorically repudiate this kind of vandalism” (which hadn’t happened, he said), “as well as the political use that people of the right wing irresponsibly make of it.”
Ñañez said the authorities would be asked to conduct a thorough investigation.
Judging from the photograph tweeted by the minister, however, that may be hard to do. The headstones are, quite clearly, set in fresh cement.