Latin America’s Go-To Hero

Simón BolívarCan 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. 


Acerca de ignaciocovelo
Consultor Internacional

9 Responses to Latin America’s Go-To Hero

  1. Professor Uziel Nogueira says: A common academic mistake by American scholars, Ms Marie Arana among them, is to use the expression Latin America loosely. The majority of countries in the Western Hemisphere were colonized by Spain except Brazil, colonized by Portugal and speaking Portuguese not Spanish. Brazil is the largest country in the region, its GDP represents 60% of the region’s total and only member of BRICS. From a geopolitical and economic standpoint, Brazil is the most important country in the Western Hemisphere. Mexico, the second economy, is highly dependent of the US, unable to eliminate poverty/illegal immigration and without an independent foreign policy. Regarding Simon Bolivar, The Liberator has good press in the Spanish speaking South American countries. His name is not even mentioned in Brazilian history school textbooks. From a cultural and political standpoint of Brazil, the Liberator has no historical significance whatsoever. Simon Bolivar may inspire fanatical worship among Hugo Chavez followers and his name is shouted in the street of Caracas but not in the streets of Brasilia. In Brazil, the only mention of Simon Bolivar is the Carioca Carnaval. In 2006, a famous samba school called Vila Izabel won the parade competition with The Liberator as its main topic of tribute. In that year, the samba school received the largest ever financial contribution from the government of Hugo Chavez.

  2. nemecl: Good point. South America without Brazil is a useless figment of imagination. My knowledge is very limited but Mr. Bolivar, apparently, had absolutely nothing to do with Brazilian independence. My South American friends understood Portuguese somewhat but the that does not mean that all South Americans followed the same paths. Not even the Spanish speaking ones. To add the controversial figure of Mr. Chavez into it is to confuse most of us, New York Times readers, even more.

  3. getserious: I trust you meant Latin American, not the Western Hemisphere when you state: From a geopolitical and economic standpoint, Brazil is the most important country in the Western Hemisphere. Because, I would think that the US and probably Canada rank before Brazil.

  4. P Robison: “Most important country in the Western Hemisphere.” That seems a bit of a stretch since I think Canada and the U.S. share the hemisphere as well…

  5. Professor Uziel Nogueira says: getserious, my geographical mistake about the Western Hemisphere. Canada and particularly the US play in the major leagues. Brazil plays in the minor league of nations.

  6. Nancy: I’m curious as to why so many of the replies to this useful comment see Canada as more important than Brazil? The size of Canada, its influence and its economy pale by comparison to Brazil’s.

  7. As an elementary school principal, Leonidas Nikas is used to seeing children play, laugh and dream about the future. But recently he has seen something altogether different, something he thought was impossible in Greece: children picking through school trash cans for food; needy youngsters asking playmates for leftovers; and an 11-year-old boy, Pantelis Petrakis, bent over with hunger pains. “He had eaten almost nothing at home,” Mr. Nikas said, sitting in his cramped school office near the port of Piraeus, a working-class suburb of Athens, as the sound of a jump rope skittered across the playground. He confronted Pantelis’s parents, who were ashamed and embarrassed but admitted that they had not been able to find work for months. Their savings were gone, and they were living on rations of pasta and ketchup.

    “Not in my wildest dreams would I expect to see the situation we are in,” Mr. Nikas said. “We have reached a point where children in Greece are coming to school hungry. Today, families have difficulties not only of employment, but of survival.”

    The Greek economy is in free fall, having shrunk by 20 percent in the past five years. The unemployment rate is more than 27 percent, the highest in Europe, and 6 of 10 job seekers say they have not worked in more than a year. Those dry statistics are reshaping the lives of Greek families with children, more of whom are arriving at schools hungry or underfed, even malnourished, according to private groups and the government itself. Last year, an estimated 10 percent of Greek elementary and middle school students suffered from what public health professionals call “food insecurity,” meaning they faced hunger or the risk of it, said Dr. Athena Linos, a professor at the University of Athens Medical School who also heads a food assistance program at Prolepsis, a nongovernmental public health group that has studied the situation. “When it comes to food insecurity, Greece has now fallen to the level of some African countries,” she said (…..)

  8. Professor Uziel Nogueira says: Latin America has decades of experience of poverty, children going hungry and economic reforms sponsored by the IMF-World Bank going nowhere. The fundamental reason is not different from Greece. That is, a small ruling elite making wrong decisions on the economy while stealing taxpayers money without any restrain. The HUGE difference between Greece and Latin America is the fact of Greece belonging to a rich men’s club, led by Germany. Greece’s political elite misled the people believing that just being member of the EU would solve deep seated economic and social problems of decades. Nothing was said about the costs to be paid to be a member of a rich men’s club. The falsified economic data to join the common currency resulted in a terminal debt crisis that plunged the population back to misery. Poverty and children going hungry are not caused the mean Germans or the troika. It is caused by Greece’s political elite that betrayed its people as the Latin elite has been betraying their people since colonial times.


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