The Opposite of Bolivarianism

For some reason, nobody celebrates his birthday

On S-Bol’s not-so-happy 229th, I’d like to make a rather obvious but not-often-enough-stated point that came to mind reading AUP’s eye-opening Godos, Insurgentes y Visionarios: if Hugo Chávez has a legitimate claim to being the reincarnation of an independence era figure, that figure sure isn’t Bolívar.

Because, let’s be clear, the First Republic was a rebellion of the criollo upper class, by the criollo upper class and for the criollo upper class against its peninsular masters. The  catastrophic little experiment caused huge dislocations that made life even more miserable than it had been for poorer, politically dormant Venezuelans: people of color who had accumulated 300 years of excellent reasons to hate the guts of the tiny white elite Bolívar epitomized.

Soon, a charismatic rabble rouser with a gift for gaining the fanalitical loyalty of lower class men brutalized by the ruling class was rampaging through Venezuela’s hinterland in a mad dash to crush any element of elite culture he came in contact with, under the none-too-subtle slogan of “death to the whites, the conservatives, and those who know how to read!”

His name was José Tomás Boves.

In his disdain for institutions, his deeply personal style of leadership and his willingness to leverage rank, class-based hatreds for political gain, Boves is the obvious forerunner to Chávez.

As Uslar Pietri never tires of pointing out, it was Juan Vicente González who mordantly called Boves “the first chieftain of Venezuelan democracy”: the first guy who got it into his head that regular people, and not just the white criollo elite, should be involved in politics. Boves foreshadows Chávez down to his nominal allegiance to a political system he had no grasp of, and whose viability he spent his whole career undermining – Spanish Monarchy, for the former, “Bolivarianism” for the latter.

Remembered mostly as a war criminal – since, of course, his story was written by the victors – Boves has been mostly (though not entirely) scrubbed out of the chavista narrative of independence. It could hardly be otherwise: to include him would force chavismo to acknowledge that Bolívar’s first enemy wasn’t really Spanish power; it was a gambit to include black and brown Venezuelans in the affairs of state. To really look at the Boves legacy is, inevitably, to confront the virulent (though entirely commonplace for the time) racism at the core of Bolívar’s worldview.

By the middle of 1814, the rag-tag horde on horseback that Boves called an army had taken over most of the country, leading to probably the craziest and least talked-about episode of the independence era: the complete evacuation of Caracas, ordered to prevent what was sure to be a ghastly, indiscriminate massacre.

And then, just six months later, Boves died in battle in December 1814, setting up one of those imponderable historic What-Ifs? What if the guy had crushed the criollos? How would the Spanish Empire have digested an all-powerful caudillo nominally (but not really) loyal to the king? What would’ve happened to the rest of the Spanish American rebellions? Would you have a Spanish passport in your backpocket today?

Boves, alas, did not survive long enough to make that beautiful dream come true. What did survive, though, was the leadership system he pioneered: personality-driven, anarchic, resentment-fuelled and fundamentally anti-modern, Boves was the archetypical Latin American caudillo, the guy who started it all.

In a more honest world, it would be his face that stares back at us from our bank notes.

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  1. Excellent post, Quico.

    Two things jump out:
    “To really look at the Boves legacy is, inevitably, to confront the virulent (though entirely commonplace for the time) racism at the core of Bolívar’s worldview.”

    Please, say more!

    “Boves, alas, did not survive long enough to make that beautiful dream (having a Spanish passport) come true.”

    Esa va a traer cola!

    • say more?

      I’m going on John Lynch’s excellent Biography – – the way he puts it, Bolívar was constantly preoccupied by the race question throughout his career, and obsessed with the looming threat of race war.

      This is why he advocated a powerful, appointed presidency-for-life in the Constitution of Bolivia – it was the only way he could think to keep the indians from gaining executive power in a place where they had such a clear numerical advantage. It’s also clear in that amazing final declaration from December 1830,

      Ud. sabe que yo he mandado veinte años, y de ellos no he sacado más que unos pocos resultados ciertos: 1°, la América es ingobernable para nosotros; 2°, el que sirve una revolución ara en el mar; 3°, la única cosa que se puede hacer en América es emigrar; 4°, este país caerá infaliblemente en manos de la multitud desenfrenada para después pasar a tiranuelos casi imperceptibles de todos colores y razas; 5°, devorados por todos los crímenes y extinguidos por la ferocidad, los europeos no se dignarán conquistarnos; 6°, si fuera posible que una parte del mundo volviera al caos primitivo, éste sería el último período de la América.

      This automatic association of barbarism, “primitive chaos”, criminality and ferocity with non-whites was partially a reaction to the insanity of Boves’s campaign of 1813-1814, but mostly down to just the normal intellectual climate of the times – white people just took it for granted that they were naturally superior to mestizos and blacks until probably 100 years after Bolívar died. He wasn’t exceptionally racist, he just never questioned the racial common sense of the early 19th century…

    • Excellent article! Just one question: do you write only in English? If so, why? I would very much like to share this article to friends who are only fluent in Spanish.

      Once more, good job. It would be very helpful and revealing if someone could gather these and other truths about Bolivar and our independence.


      Francisco Rodríguez Drumond.

  2. Had he lived, Boves would’ve kicked Morillo out, and Venezuela would’ve ended up the same– except even less civilized, and even more completely burned to the ground. It’d have been interesting to see how things would have played out between a Haiti-like Venezuela and a more institution-leaning New Granada, though.

    Btw, our bills should have the face of El Tirano Aguirre.

  3. Oh- another counter-factual thought: could Boves and Manuel Piar have become allies at one point? las malas lenguas dicen que Bolivar had Piar shot because he thought he fomenting discontent among the pardos in the patriot ranks…

    • True, Bolívar sent Piar to the firing squad for trup up charges of “treason”. Another dark episode; but you should add that Piar was also given the choice to submit to Bolívar’s command on multiple occasions and be spared. Not that it changes anything, but for a blog committed to realpolitik Bolívar’s choice was that of Sophie’s!

  4. Quico, nice post; but it should be added that nothing good would’ve ever come out of Boves and his hordes. Sorry, I sound like Harold Bloom and his Jeremiads in this!
    My great ants used to tell horror stories about the Huida a Oriente they had heard from their grand parents. I find it difficult to gauge how much of them were “embellished” by XIXth century liberal re-writings of our history; but that was indeed a humiliation that criollos could not quite forget. Perhaps it was a cruel realisation of an in-the-flesh dialectic, the fact that the colonial castes were bound to disappear, and the fueros re-written by the well known practice of assimilation (or marriage, if you prefer).

  5. Interesting post, Quico, thank you!

    I am, however having trouble reconciling the following passage:
    “It could hardly be otherwise: to include him would force chavismo to acknowledge that Bolívar’s first enemy wasn’t really Spanish power so much as it was a gambit to include black and brown Venezuelans in the affairs of state. To really look at the Boves legacy is, inevitably, to confront the virulent (though entirely commonplace for the time) racism at the core of Bolívar’s worldview.”

    While Chavismo has consistently stated it is Anti Imperialist, it has also preached inclusion of “el pueblo” (which we must understand to be all non whites) in government, as opposed to the “whitey 4th Republic” palabras mas o palabras menos, that thouroughly discriminated (Chavistas dixit) against non whites.

    So it would seem that Boves DOES have a place in Chavismo’s narrative and not, as you state, needing to be hidden, unless I have missed something……..

  6. Quico: well written, many thanks.
    On your beautiful dream (having a Spanish passport) …. I’m reminded of the contrary in the words of that also historic personality, the one who inspired la reina pepiada: “Extraño las arepas y las caraotas negras”. Even in her whirlwind tour of European capitals, all she wanted to do was ‘echarse en un chinchorro.’ So there. .

  7. Benedict Anderson covers Bolivar’s race issues in his chapter on Creole Pioneers in Imagined Communities. In fact he mentions that “far from seeking to ‘induct the lower classes into political life,’ one key factor initially spurring the drive for independence from Madrid, in cases such as Venezuela, Mexico and Peru, was the fear of ‘lower-class’ political mobilizations: to wit, Indian or Negro-slave uprisings,” people of color formed the majority of the population. This fear heightened with Toussaint L’Ouverture’s successful insurrection of black slaves that in 1804 produced the independent republic of Haiti. Peor todavia and intensifying la cosa, Spain in 1789 called for more humane slave laws in the colonies, however the Spanish Caribbean resisted the law on the grounds that “slaves were prone to vice and independence, and were essential to the economy.” According to Anderson Bolivar called a Negro revolt “a thousand times worse than a Spanish invasion.” Then Spain decided to completely deprive the colonies of peninsular military backup in case of an lower class uprising as a result of the mainland Napoleonic invasions starting as early as 1808.
    Race was an issue…

  8. To his credit, Bolivar almost solved the “criollo problem” (as Carrera Damas has put it): that is, the need to convince the non-white masses -mostly the mestizos- that the Republic was theirs and that the oppressors were the Spaniards (who gave rights and status to said mestizos, as well as the Natives and free Africans) and not the criollos. And that’s why he upheld a number of policies regarding race, but was ultimately baffled by the disobedience of anyone but the military (and then some…).

    Did someone like Boves reach power? Yes: his name is Jose Antonio Paez (and all the other off-white caudillos who came up since). But since he became a proto-bourgeois (as Boves might have been wont to become) he dismissed the race problem, bringing up class issues (which motivated all the mid-XIXth Century wars against him). That is why the left hates him, just as much as they hate Betancourt.

    Who celebrates race-warfare as class-warfare? Not only Chavez, but the whole of Marxist historiography (who transformed Zamora in a post-hoc not-too-violent historical-materialist Boves, or in a foquista Emiliano Zapata… And even popular thought among some radical chavistas (; Jose Roberto Duque’s and (today’s post deals with all this, check it out)… But they cannot fathom that Boves could become a real ruler: to their mind he was a proto anarchist, never a politician… We will never know.

    As for Uslar, and the followers of criollo Positivism, what did Boves mean? That the war of independence was a civil war, a class war and a racial war (true, up to a point) and that the blacks, natives, and mestizos were unable to behave in a civilised manner and be liberals or republicans: they needed a strongman (be it rough, like Gomez, or tender, like Medina). Democracy, in Venezuela, meant chaos for the Positivistas, and that’s why we were told to need a large influx of foreign whites. Ah, and that Venezuela wasn’t ready for democracy, which was -alas- a lovely way of life in other places.

    • GT,
      “That is why the left hates him, just as much as they hate Betancourt.”

      Does the left hates him for going from a class warrior to a bourgeois? Or because he was a bourgeois that used class struggle for political gain? What’s the connection to Betancourt?

      Great comment, btw, thank you for the links too. And Quico, great post.

      • Bolívar? he was no bourgeois! He was a Mantuano, and a landowner with a vast inherited fortune, that would be hard to call a “bourgeois”. Particularly when our proto-bourgeoisie barely starts to appear towards the late XIXth century.

    • That’s right (and he did not mean it as a good thing)….

      I believe that the real issue why Boves is sidelined by official Chavista historiography (or from Chavez’ speeches) is that bringing his “hordes” up as social and political vanguard, would also bring up the fact that without Paez there’s not way the Republicans would have succeeded. Paez brings Bolivar’s deeds down.

  9. Los Venezolanos siempre han tenido mucha “labia=capacidad conversasional y vacia”, que ahora es traducida en algo que es una rabia incontrolada ! La Historia de la 4ta. Republica es: Ni Carlos Andres, ni Andres Velasquez, ni Caldera, hicieron lo que tenian que hacer, y lo ha hecho Chavez sea para bien o para mal ! CONTROL MILITAR de el poder, para el presente y el futuro, en caso de un Chavez ! La Commonwealth Inglesa, usa a Inglaterra, para tomar control de Canada u otro, si el pais entra en algun problema Politico, a traves de el Gobernador General ! ——————Con los Militares de Chavez, como que todos se han dado por vencidos ! Vencidos en mente, moral, y espiritu !

  10. quoting Francisco Toro’s excellent synthesis …
    >>….made life even more miserable than it had been for poorer, politically dormant Venezuelans: people of color who had accumulated 300 years of excellent reasons to hate the guts of the tiny white elite Bolívar epitomized.
    Today’s vzlan red elite could welcome Syria’s Assad into our country, and
    show us all how truly more miserable life can be for the red’s opposition 🙁
    [back to the future?]

  11. El pueblo were not only the pardos — it was also the large numbers of poor whites, isleños and recent Spanish immigrants (like Boves) that the criollo elite treated like crap (and called ‘blancos de orilla’, which to me sounds a lot like ‘wetback.’). Those guys were the initial nucleus of royalist resistance against the ‘escualido’ Republican project (along with a few rich Spanish merchant families that later switched sides and became the ‘godos’ of the Paez era.) These people, the pulperos of colonial Venezuela, even when born abroad, had much more in common with the pardos and blacks and Indians than the patriot oligarchy.

    In the end, the Amos de Valle, as a class, were obliterated by the people they oppressed for hundreds of years. It’s a miracle, or proof of Bolivar’s political skill, that the social revolution eventually came under the flag of the Republic, but not entirely according to their wishes. The resulting country, as history would soon show, couldn’t fit in the mold of Bolivar’s Colombian dream (the ancient New Granadan elite and the emerging, multi-racial Venezuelan military caste couldn’t get along too well, I bet. That’s also likely why they kept sending Venezuelan armies to liberate unknown countries further down south, to avoid trouble in Bogota.)

    And in a manner not unlike that of the German invaders at the end of the Roman Empire, the top echelons of the llanero hordes filled empty criollo elite spots, married the surviving daughters of the aristocracy, and tried to replicate as best they could the culture they had luster after for centuries amid the smoldering ruins. Kinda like Diosdado Cabello and the boli-bourgeois. So there we are, history comes full circle.

    Once the Chavista project collapses or matures into something else and there’s a chance to rewrite the schoolbooks, we should claim them all– Bolivar, Paez, Boves, the cripto-royalist Jose Maria Vargas, who acted as Venezuela’s first president…

    There are many interesting characters that highlight the complexity of those times; my favorite is Narciso Lopez (a Venezuelan royalist from a rich merchant family who fled to Cuba after Carabobo, became a hero in the Carlist wars in Spain, and then became a U.S.-based filibuster trying to free Cuba from Spain. He was the first guy to fly the current Cuban flag; the spot is still marked in New Orleans.)

  12. The real mystery for me is the Chavista hate towards Paez in contrast to their love towards Boves/Zamora (I think it was Zamora’s retinue that used to say “death to whites and to those that read and write” but maybe Boves too(?)). Boves and Paez are so similar… Is it that Paez’ personal admiration of Western culture (high art, philosophy,science etc.) is to Chavistas an unforgivable rejection of non-white ethnocentrism? Or is it that Paez’ actions contributed to the splitting of Venezuela and Colombia? Ah, but there is no love lost between these two nations and everybody knows it…I suspect in the end the Chavista rejection of Paez boils down to a rejection of Western culture as a product of Europeans and criollos, not just a rejection of the white ethnicities but of their culture per-se. Deep down, the Chavista myth mongers look at Paez’ operatic antics and well, they can’t stand the feeling of ridicule welling up.

  13. Coño FT, descubriste libros de historia?

    El Padre Jose Ambrosio Llamozas, capellán de Boves, relata, en carta de relación al rey Fernando VII fechada 31 de julio de 1815:

    “La conducta observada por Boves fue consiguiente con a sus palabras: continuamente recordaba a sus tropas en publico la declaración de guerra a muerte a los blancos hecha en el Guayabal: siempre les repetía que los bienes de estos eran de los pardos. En sus cálculos militares y en su clase de gobierno este sistema formaba una parte muy principal. En los Llanos, decía el, no debe quedar un blanco, por dos razones: la primera por tener destinado aquel territorio para los pardos y la segunda para asegurar su retirada en caso de una derrota pues no se fiaba de los blancos cuya compañia le desagrado siempre.”

    Juan Bosch, en su libro Bolivar y la Guerra Social, argumenta “Boves odiaba a los blancos tanto como el más sufrido de los esclavos negros”

    Boves, y no Bolívar, ha sido descrito como el primer caudillo de Venezuela por varios autores. Su fuerza hegemonica en los Llanos, en el periodo de “guerra a muerte”, estaba fundamentada en una explotación exitosa del odio y resentimiento que los pardos, mestizos, indios, negros y esclavos sentían por la clase mantuana dominante. Ese odio fue el que lo llevo a convertirse en el mas temido guerrero realista, aun cuando poco le importaba defender los intereses de la corona, si esta circunstancia no ofreciese un entorno en el cual saciar su espíritu vengativo.

    Las Lanzas Coloradas de AUP nos provee un relato extraordinario que puede fácilmente extrapolarse a la realidad venezolana actual. El sentimiento que mueve a los chavistas es el mismo que compartian los esclavos erase una vez hace casi 200 años, y su caudillo, cual Boves, es el vehículo que conduce a saldar este resentimiento y odio visceral por el status quo. De la misma forma, las luchas intestinas de la oposición actual con la clase mantuana de aquella época, nos recuerdan que los de este lado tampoco hemos cambiado mucho.

    Se debe exponer el paralelismo entre Boves y sus llaneros y Chavez y sus chavistas.

    Otro libro de AUP que tambien dibuja a la perfeccion al Chavez y su forma de mando es Oficios de Difuntos. Y para rematar de entender a la oposicion, la sociedad de complices, seudo caudillos y politicuchos arribistas que venden hasta a su madre por una parcelita de poder, Un Retrato en la Geografía y Estacion de Máscaras, ambas de AUP.

  14. Hey! Demagogic Mythmaking (even in nominally “serious” politics) isn’t about historical accuracy. It’s not about respect for actual historical figures. At all. It’s about taking the myths created by bad historiography and taking power through them. Blame the historians who made Bolivar a superhero of the ordinary Venezuelan, and blame the people who took this myth uncritically. Blame our official education.

    Accuracy and a little rigor in the discipline of History, as well as a more nuanced teaching of same should prevent the apparition of mythmakers, as well as the incredibly silly situation we all know about.


    Take a look at Obama’s new Ad. Why can the ” Hay un Camino” campaign can deliver something simple and to the point as this ad.

    Looks easy but it is really hard right?

  16. I talked with some of the people who worked on “Taita Boves” and told me that it was the madness of the last decade what led them to do a movie about the madness of Chávez and how little things have changed.

    Remember, though, that at the end of the movie Boves is killed by both: royalists and patriots, due how destructive he was.

  17. Very interesting Quico. Now, there are two problems with history:
    1) who writes it? 2) we try to interpret history with our own current values.

    The war that really mixed everybody in Venezuela was the Federation war, not the Independence.

  18. Disculpen, ¿alguno de ustedes sabe de un buen sitio con todos los discursos de Bolivar en español? He buscado en google, pero los resultados son muy decepcionantes


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