Latin America’s Go-To Hero
18/04/2013 9 comentarios
Can you name an American founder whose name is shouted in streets, whose legacy inspires fanatical worship, whose image is used to bolster ideals not his own, whose mantle is claimed by both left and right? There is no Washington party, no Jeffersonian republic. No one runs for president in Madison’s name. In Latin America, as Venezuelan election on Sunday reminded us, the question is easy, and the answer is Simón Bolívar. The past is very present in Latin America. Although Bolívar rode 75.000 miles to win the freedom of what are now 6 nations, his vision for a unified continent was never realized. In time, he was shunted to ignominy; a rigid racial hierarchy replaced Spain’s haughty overlords; vast, powerful union he imagined spun into riot of bickering caudillos; and although (with a higher moral instinct than Washington or Jefferson) he ended slavery more than a half-century before the Emancipation Proclamation, his dream vanished like a fickle specter. But his revolution grinds on. (Marie Arana – NYTimes – 18/04/2013)
Time has a way of tweaking history. In the United States, the anticolonial Tea Party was appropriated by those who wanted to turn back the clock. In Venezuela, Bolívar was retrofitted by late Hugo Chávez into “Bolivarianismo,” a mix of anti-capitalism and free-handout socialism that has crippled the nation, the opposite of what Bolívar had in mind. Chávez wasn’t the first Venezuelan leader to assume Bolívar’s mantle: José Antonio Páez did so in 1842 when his own presidency was faltering. The old general had the bones of Bolívar, onetime nemesis, exhumed in Colombia and brought to Caracas with fanfare, then proceeded to bask in (as one of Bolívar’s adjutants called it) “the magic of his prestige.” Later, Guzmán Blanco, who embodied everything Bolívar despised, corruption, pomposity, Freemasonry and anticlericalism, exhumed Bolívar again, installed him in the National Pantheon, and presided bombastically over the centenary of his birth. The strongman went on to rule for a total of 18 years in 1870s and 1880s. In 1998, Chávez, “Comandante”, rode Bolívar’s name to presidency with his Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement. With the Liberator’s portrait behind him and followers in the street shouting “Viva, Bolívar !!!”, he rewrote the Constitution and renamed the country Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. He called it a revolution. Chávez proceeded to shape a federation of nations named the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, or ALBA. He had Castro’s support; indeed, with Cuban agents streaming into Venezuela and oil pouring out to Havana, some quipped that Venezuela had become a colony of Cuba. Between 2004 and 2009, others joined: Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador. ALBA pledged to fight poverty and “humiliation” of those ruled “by the terrible power structure of Anglo-Saxons”. For a third time, Bolívar’s bones were exhumed, this time in a macabre freak show in which Chávez spoke to them, urging them to rise and rule again.
But Bolívar died poor, while Chávez died rich. Bolívar insisted on the power of courts and the freedom of the press; Chávez respected neither. At the end of his life, Bolívar was called a militarist conservative; today, a militarist chavista is a liberal. Indeed, the only goal Chávez and Bolívar seemed to share was a strong Latin America. But while Bolívar craved greatness “for liberty and glory,” Hugo Chávez wanted a mighty fist against the United States. Bolívar would have approved of the egalitarian impulse, the campaign against poverty, the Latin pride. But it is a leap to assume he would have embraced Marxism; Marx himself once called Simón Bolívar “that dastardly, most miserable and meanest of blackguards.” In death, Hugo Chávez approximated Bolívar more than he did in life. Venerated as “the Christ of America,” his colossal image flapping from Caracas skyscrapers, his red shirts ubiquitous on streets, El Comandante is finally as exalted as his hero. His “chosen son,” Nicolás Maduro, who eked out a surprisingly narrow victory over Henrique Capriles Radonski, scrambled to bask in the magic of Chávez’s prestige and “genes of glorious liberators.” Ironically, as Mr. Capriles’s campaign was quick to point out, it is he who has Simón Bolívar’s blood in his veins. (He is descended from Bolívar’s father’s illegitimate son) Liberator ended up on both sides of this ballot. This struggle over memory plays out elsewhere in South America. Otherwise dignified Peruvian matrons argue volubly over Simón Bolívar’s legacy. Bolivians summon his name when they talk about their country’s maritime rights claim against Chile. Ecuadoreans bristle over his opinions of Quiteños. We don’t know how far Maduro will take the “Bolivarian” legacy, but it’s a sure bet he’ll want Chávez’s version of the Liberator on his side.