Florida man sues Venezuela over Simon Bolivar's hair, letters

MIAMI Tue Oct 16, 2012 5:49pm EDT

MIAMI (Reuters) - A Florida man has filed a lawsuit against Venezuela's government demanding the return of artifacts that once belonged to Simon Bolivar, including a lock of the 19th-century independence hero's hair.

The lawsuit, filed in a Miami federal court, alleges the Venezuelan government borrowed the items from Ricardo Devengoechea five years ago but has repeatedly ignored his requests to give them back.

Allegedly among the items were Bolivar's hair - which was used by Venezuelan officials to verify the authenticity of his remains in Venezuela - documents and letters, some written by Bolivar, and epaulets from one of Napoleon Bonaparte's uniforms.

In the complaint filed on Monday, Devengoechea was described as a descendant of a founding family of Colombia. He said Bolivar gave the items to his great-great-grandfather.

Devengoechea said he loaned them to Venezuela when he was approached by government officials in 2007 after President Hugo Chavez ordered an investigation into how Bolivar died.

The items were "taken by the Venezuelan government under the guise of a cooperative investigation with Ricardo Devengoechea into Venezuela's history," the complaint says.

A spokeswoman at the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

Bolivar, a Venezuelan soldier and military tactician who helped free much of South America from Spanish rule, is revered by Chavez. He had Bolivar's bones exhumed for tests in 2010, ordered a new mausoleum built for them, then this year unveiled a 3D image of his face, based on scans of Bolivar's skull.

According to a court document, Devengoechea said Venezuela sent a private jet to Florida to pick him up and transport the artifacts to the South American country. He said he spent nearly a month in Venezuela as a guest of Chavez's government.

Last year, after learning the government had completed its probe into Bolivar's death and burial, he met with officials from Venezuela's Consulate in Miami to make arrangements for the return of the artifacts or a possible sale to the Venezuelan government, the complaint said.

However, following a decision by Chavez earlier this year to close the Miami consulate, Devengoechea said subsequent phone calls and written requests to the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington have gone unanswered.

(Reporting by Kevin Gray; Editing by Eric Beech)

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