Bolivarianism and the (Re-)Birth of Hemispheric Politics

Over the last year or so, something new has happened in Latin America. For the first time since the heyday of Fidelista aggitation in the 1960s and early 70s, politics is now occurring on a hemispheric basis. Decisions taken in one country have consequences throughout the region; leaders increasingly find themselves operating on a Latin America-wide context.

Needless to say, I’m not much given to acknowledging Chavez’s ‘achievements’ – but on this one, well, there’s no getting around it: the re-birth of politics on a Latin American basis is clearly down to the decisions he’s taken.

Evo Morales, more than any leader in recent hemispheric memory, owes his election to decisions taken by foreigners: now Bolivia’s energy policy is made in a pétit committé with Fidel and Chavez. Lula, more than any other Brazilian leader in recent memory, finds himself caught managing a hemispheric crisis: now his poll numbers hinge on Evo’s decisions. Peruvians and Mexicans, more than at any time in the past, find themselves in an internationalized election campaign: these days, the attack ads they see on TV take aim at a foreign head of state.

Chavez is at the root of this regionalization of political life – which more and more configures a genuinely hemispheric political sphere.

Maybe those of you who are a bit older find all this a bit less strange. Me? I was born in 1975, so I’ve only read about the last period of real hemispheric politics from history books. It feels very new to me – this sense that the rules of the game in Latin American politics are changing before our eyes, that the politics of any one country are no longer understandable without reference to what is happening in the rest of the region, in a process that tends to reconfigure Latin American politics more and more into a transnational game.

And here, for the first time, I start to get a sense of what Chavez means by Bolivarianism.

In purely domestic terms, the tag makes very little sense: Bolivar, the classic 19th century liberal, had a political vision that shares almost nothing with Chavez’s grab-bag statism. For a long time, my sense had been that Chavez had simply co-opted the Libertador’s name to exploit Venezuelans’ deep-seated emotional link with his figure. But as we see Chavez’s vision of a hemisphere-wide politics increasingly turn into a reality, we get a sense of what he actually means by bolivarianism: a disruptive transnational politics.

It’s easy to see that his is a kind of impoverished Bolivarianism – one stripped of Bolivar’s obsessive concern with establishing a formal legal basis for authority in the nascent Latin American state, one that’s actually opposed to the enlightenment tradition of reverence for republican virtue that permeates Bolivar’s thought. From Daniel O’Leary and Antonio José de Sucre we’ve passed into the hands of José Vicente Rangel and Ramiro Helmeyer. In Chavez’s hands, Bolivarianism keeps its hemispheric ambition and its disruptive radicalism, but loses the liberal-republican heart of Bolivar’s vision. As an ideology, it’s a bit of an arroz-con-pollo sin pollo.

But in terms of internationalizing the political life of the hemisphere, you gotta hand it to him.