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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