By Daniel Wallis
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's Hugo Chavez unveiled a 3D image of South America's 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar on Tuesday, based on bones the president ordered exhumed two years ago to test his theory that Bolivar was murdered.
In a ceremony to mark the 229th anniversary of Bolivar's birth, senior government officials and military commanders clapped as Chavez and a group of school children unveiled the new image, which was based on scans of Bolivar's skull.
The socialist leader reveres Bolivar - he renamed the country the "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela" - and has wrapped his leftist "revolution" in the imagery and language of the region's battle to break free of colonial power Spain.
"He was a true giant of the human cause, the human battle ... this is his face," Chavez said, sitting below two giant prints of a life-like depiction of a distinguished-looking Bolivar boasting a gold-braided uniform and prominent sideburns.
"Now we know with precision and receive with infinite intensity the luminous presence of this gaze, this living face."
The president, who is seeking a new six-year term in an October 7 election, also tweeted a link to the image from a mobile phone on his @chavezcandanga account: http://t.co/TGzhfSCj
Chavez, in his fight against the "Yankee imperialism" of the United States, repeatedly invokes Bolivar, who is second only to Jesus as a figure of reverence in parts of South America.
Chavez normally gives televised speeches in front of large paintings of Bolivar, a brilliant Venezuelan soldier and military tactician who freed much of South America from centuries of Spanish rule. Chavez ordered a striking new mausoleum built for Bolivar's remains, which will be finished soon.
On Tuesday, he also held aloft two ornate antique pistols for the cameras, saying they had belonged to his hero.
'FIGHT FOR THE FATHERLAND'
Venezuela's opposition accuses the president of cynically seeking to boost his popularity by linking himself to Bolivar, and says he is really an autocrat who carefully avoids quoting some of Bolivar's words on freedom and rights.
Chavez denies it and cites Bolivar as the inspiration for his leftist policies. He has long suggested Bolivar was poisoned by enemies in Colombia, rejecting the more common version cited by historians that he died of tuberculosis there in 1830.
Two years ago, amid unusual scenes of a military honor guard in white biohazard suits and face masks exhuming the remains during a pre-dawn ceremony at the National Pantheon, the president assigned a team to investigate Bolivar's death.
A year ago, it reported back that "the Liberator" may have died of accidental poisoning - probably as a result of taking toxic medicines that were widely used at the time. They did not rule out tuberculosis.
After the scientist heading the 3D image project explained on Tuesday how it had been created using multiple scans and the latest forensic facial reconstruction methods, Chavez said Venezuelans were jubilant to see Bolivar's "real face" at last.
"And not just in Venezuela, but in all the countries of Latin America, the Caribbean and further afield," he said.
"I believe Bolivar is born again every day in every one of us, in these people, in these children ... in the fight for the fatherland which never ends."
A few blocks away from the Miraflores presidential palace, a crowd of red-clad Chavez supporters cheered and sang happy birthday as two giant canvases bearing the picture were unfurled on the face of a grand theater.
Adulation of Bolivar transcends both sides of Venezuela's polarized pre-vote politics. Chavez's election rival, state governor Henrique Capriles, began Tuesday by tweeting a string of inspirational Bolivar quotes from his @hcapriles account.
A local genealogist caused a small stir last weekend by suggesting Capriles was a distant relative of the independence hero - prompting derision from Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly and a pugnacious Chavez ally.
"Talent is not inherited. Neither is patriotism, nor love for one's neighbor," Cabello told a news conference.
(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago; Editing by Bill Trott)