Pobre Bolívar, Tan Lejos de Dios, Tan Cerca de Chávez
by Charles Lemos, Sat Jul 17, 2010 at 11:04:59 AM EDT
The above was the scene late on Thursday in Caracas at the tomb of Simón Bolívar whose earthly remains were disturbed so as to indulge a fantasy of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. Bolívar died in 1830 in Santa Marta on the Colombian coast. He died there on his way into exile. The cause of his death was believed to be tuberculosis but Chávez seems to think that he was murdered. His remains were exhumed with Chávez narrating a play-by-play on Venezuelan television to test a theory that will prove nothing.
I don't want to get into a long detailed history of the breakup of La Gran Colombia, the ill-fated union of Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador that dissolved bitterly in 1830 with each country going its separate way. From afar these countries may seem similar but they are not and in 1830 they were vastly more different than they are today. The saying goes that the Venezuela was a barracks, Ecuador a monastery and Colombia a university. It's a remarkably accurate assessment. Venezuela would be ruled by caudillos, strongmen, well into the second half of the 20th century, Ecuador would become a theocracy under Gabriel Garcia Moreno (who was actually killed by a distant relative of mine but that's another story though I am proud that my family has seen a number of radicals for 250 years) and Colombia consumed in an eternal debate between conservatism and liberalism, between protectionism and free trade, between clericalism and anti-clericalism and the other great debates of the 19th century.
I've long ago stopped to trying to understand the mind of Hugo Chávez but this is beyond the pale. It's macabre and frankly Bolívar deserves better. Mind you, I'm no fan of Simón Bolívar. He's not a political hero of mine. He was a bloody dictator who was rightfully sent packing into exile. My heroes of the Colombian independence movement are Francisco Paula de Santander, Antonio Nariño, Francisco José de Caldas, Policarpa Salavarrieta, and the Ecuadorian-born José Antonio de Sucre who in truth was the military genius behind the battles that eventually liberated South America.
Suffice it to say that Bolívar's proposal for a chief executive was one that ruled for life and who then got to pick his successor. In his defense, it was another day and age and typical for someone of his social standing. Bolívar argued for the enlightened despot. That model worked fairly well in Paraguay where under José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia and his successor Carlos Antonio López that landlocked country would become the wealthiest and most egalitarian country in the South America by 1850. But Paraguay under Rodríguez de Francia may have been efficiently managed but it also was a one-man state with El Supremo as he was known even deciding marriages.
An enlightened despot would not have worked well in Colombia because we are a country of regions crisscrossed by three jungle covered mountain ranges that rise to over 18,000 feet. To travel from Bogotá to Cali, a distance of 200 miles, took three weeks during the dry season and three months during the wet season. Colombia required a federal system that devolved power to its nine regions that then included Panamá. Santander proposed this while Bolívar sought to implant a centralized regime in Bogotá. When, in 1828, a constitutional convention rejected amendments to the constitution that Bolívar had proposed, Bolívar assumed dictatorial powers in a coup d'état. What followed next was a period of extreme oppression and rebellion throughout the country. In 1830, having survived an assassination attempt, in declining health and with uprisings occurring in various parts of Gran Colombia, Bolívar resigned all his political positions and sulked towards exile but never reaching it. So despised was he in his native Venezuela that it would take 12 years before his family was allowed to bring his body back to Caracas.
Even as a military leader, he wasn't that great. His enduring trait was that he was persistent. The wars of independence in South America were very different from the one fought here. The terrain is much harsher and frankly whole swaths of the continent were wholly indifferent to the idea of independence. Indian peasants had nothing to gain, in fact, their lives in much of the continent probably suffered having lost the protection of the King. The crillo aristocracy in Perú was opposed to independence and Perú would remain a royalist haven until 1824, 14 years after the struggles had first begun in Buenos Aires, Bogotá and Cartagena. Bolívar would succeed by sheer force of will finally beginning his grand campaigns in 1818. Even so it would be another eight years before Spanish rule ended in the Andes. But these successes were preceded by horrific and costly failures in 1811-12 and in 1814.
I've never quite understood why Chávez worships Bolívar so. It's not like Bolívar was some sort of social egalitarian. He was very much a contradiction. On the one hand, Bolívar spoke often of abolishing slavery saying that it was "madness that a revolution for liberty should try to maintain slavery" and yet when in power he chose not to abolish it in Gran Colombia (he did abolished in Bolivia where there were few slaves to begin with). On the other hand, he ended the onerous custom of Indian tribute, essentially debt peonage, that had been a part of the Spanish colonial system. Nonetheless, Bolívar referred to Indians as if they were children and he their father. And Bolívar was a free trader as well as an admirer of Adam Smith and John Locke. Squaring this with Chávez is beyond my pay grade. I can only assume that Chávez sees in Bolívar what he wants to see in Bolívar. It's bizarre because historically in Colombia, Bolívar is the hero of conservatives who want a strong central state that emphasizes order. Those of us who fought for liberalism revere Santander.
Chávez, I suspect, worships Bolívar because Bolívar was a pan-nationalist who wanted a United States of South America to counter balance the United States of North America. And Chávez is, no doubt, the primer mover of one the pan-Latin movements on the continent. And of course, Bolívar was born in Caracas and is only one of two leaders of the independence movement born in what is present day Venezuela. The other being Francisco Miranda, who was more of an intellectual figure than a soldier.
Still as the British historian John Lynch has written Bolívar’s notions of democracy, sovereignty, even equality, are not models or ideas to be put into practice in the 21st century. They belong to another day and time. Even in his anti-imperialism is questionable. James Dunkerley, another British historian, has pointed out that Bolívar’s hostility to colonial powers is restricted to Spain. His view of Britain’s government and the British Empire is much more generous then again he lived in Jamaica for a time as a guest of King George III.
Bolívar was certainly embittered by his end. His most oft-quote remark is
‘I have ruled for 20 years and from these I have gained only a few certainties: America is ungovernable, for us; Those who serve a revolution plough the sea; The only thing one can do in America is emigrate; This country will fall inevitably into the hands of the unbridled masses and then pass almost imperceptibly into the hands of petty tyrants, of all colours and races; Once we have been devoured by every crime and extinguished by utter ferocity, the Europeans will not even regard us as worth conquering; If it were possible for any part of the world to revert to primitive chaos, it would be America in its final hour.'
Whatever my own thoughts on Simón Bolívar's political philosophy or his legacy, he still deserves better than to be dug up to satisfy a whim of Chávez's. The political point is to pin Bolívar's murder on Francisco Paula de Santander, the founder of the Colombian nation, and thus in the crazed mind that is Chávez's set a historical basis for the enmity that now reigns between Colombia and Venezuela. I can hear him ranting now "see what these bloody Colombians have been doing to Venezuelans for 180 years, they killed El Libertador."
This is a sideshow of a sideshow and it is despicable that Chávez would use Bolívar in this fashion. Granted, I view Chávez as an authoritarian despot who wants to be president for life and pick his successor so in that sense he is just like Bolívar. Then again, Alvaro Uribe isn't any better. He, too, has tyrannical impulses. The cause of freedom in the northern Andes is taking a severe beating lately with the rise of two systems that have a façade of democracy masking a hegemonic control by two political parties, a Marxist Cuban-modeled one in Venezuela and a neoliberal a la Pinochet one albeit with civilian control in Colombia, that control political power using the levers of the state to advance the narrow political aims of their respective parties. It's all rather depressing.