Why Always Bolívar?

The bolivarian myth has always been about securing the legitimacy of rulers who would be on thin ice without it.

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A woman walks past a mural of Venezuelan Liberator Simon Bolivar in San Antonio, in the border state of Tachira, Venezuela, on February 25, 2014. Angry Venezuelan students geared up to stage a fresh rally on Tuesday, the latest in three weeks of anti-government protests that have left at least 14 people dead. AFP PHOTO / LUIS ROBAYOLUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images

From birth, Venezuelans are surrounded by semi-mythical military heroes from history. They are on our bills, they’re in our public squares. They’re the people our schools, states, mountains, electric dams, parks and universities are named after.

But one figure towers above them all: Simón Bolívar.

Heroes fill a deep psychological need. They have attributes and qualities we, as regular human beings, don’t have. We expect them to solve problems we can’t deal with ourselves. In ancient mythology, Heracles and Achilles were heroes with godly lineages and superhuman capabilities. In Venezuela; Bolívar is idolized as a historical and cultural hero because of his fight for independence – liberating six nations is no small feat – and his revolutionary ideas,, both in content and in form.

 
Bolivar died in Colombia, despised in his homeland. In Venezuela, church bells rang to celebrate the despot’s demise.

It has become so intense that to be against Bolívar is to be against your country.

Yet contrary to what we have been taught, Venezuela wasn’t created by Bolívar. It was created despite of him.

In his speeches and many public appearances, he was unequivocal: the Spanish speaking north of South America needed to stick together. Bolívar founded Colombia – the original Colombia, the one later generations would dub “Gran Colombia” to differentiate it from the rump version that survives today. Bolívar’s Colombia would encompass what is today Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Panama. He was its dictator from 1821 to his death in 1830. In his dreams, it would eventually extend South, confederating all the Spanish speaking peoples of South America.

But Bolívar’s Colombia was never stable. It floundered under the pressure of dozens of tiny local insurrections, micro-revolutions such as La Cosiata, the first movement for us to start the process to become República de Venezuela and separate from what the Spanish called Nueva Granada, and from Ecuador. Bolívar fought hard to avoid this, but he was too busy with Bolivia’s constitution.

Bolivar died in Colombia, despised in his homeland. In Venezuela, church bells rang to celebrate the despot’s demise.

A few decades later, Venezuelan rulers started to think again, seeing Bolívar’s potential as a founding father for the nation. Guzmán Blanco, a military dictator who ruled Venezuela three times in the late 19th century, pioneered the cult of Bolívar as a mechanism of nationbuilding. Guzman Blanco realized he could legitimize his government not by winning the affection of the people, but by pledging to continue Bolivar’s legacy. While in office, he hammered home the need for a unitary nation-state, built around the same nationalistic ideals. He dressed his program up in bolivarian garb, but of course those ideals were his ideals, not Bolívar’s. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar.

In fact, the bolivarian myth has always been about securing the legitimacy of rulers who would be on thin ice without it. Its apex was reached in 1882, during Guzman Blanco’s second presidential term, a.k.a “El Quinquenio”. His goal was to establish Bolívar as the national savior who sacrificed for Venezuela in times of crisis, in order to save us from chaos, and by chaos he meant dissent on how best to rule our territory. Since then, Bolívar has our Founding Father. Alongside Bolívar, they extolled the heroes of the liberal party, and quietly shunted aside the godos (conservatives) such as Jose Antonio Páez, Rafael Urdaneta or Santiago Mariño.

Guzman Blanco also used Negra Matea, the slave wetnurse who raised Bolivar. By then she was 103 years old, and considered a kind of walking historical relic. He invited her to the ceremony when they moved the remains of Bolivar to the National Pantheon. See? Manipulative showmanship leveraging the Libertador’s remains for partisan purposes is nothing new.

Another Guzman Blanco step to consolidate the myth of Bolívar was to establish “bolivar” as the national currency in 1879. This was, however, an exceptional political move to consolidate our economy. As you can see, the goal was to preserve order and unity around the same national and patriotic values, and to delegitimize dissent. Nihil sub sole novum.

Following Guzman Blanco’s steps, a few years later Juan Vicente Gómez, another military autocrat, made a mantra of Bolívar’s plea for “the cessation of party strife”. The arbitrary use of Bolivar’s discoiurse, decontextualized and manipulated for political purposes, became one of the mainstays of Venezuelan political life. By then the myth was taking on a life of its own. It was beginning to lodge in Venezuelans’ collective psyche: Bolivar was a hero who died for us, and it was our mission to preserve this land. Anyone fighting the leader risked his legacy.

Following Gómez’s death, Eleazar López Contreras, also a military man, created the Bolivarian Society of Venezuela. However, one of his most important actions to continue growing Bolivar’s myth was to name July 24th as the Venezuelan Labor Day. For a time, celebrating May 1st as Labor Day was considered unpatriotic, and nobody wants to be called unpatriotic in a country ruled traditionally by military.

The Bolívar myth is rooted in the conviction that a strong ruler is what keeps us safe and united. That’s probably the reason some of us are always looking for and justifying dictatorship: we need a father to tell us what to do and someone who will scold us when we’ve gone astray.

The Bolivar Myth continued as state policy throughout the 20th century. In 1992 another military organized a coup d’etat that meant hundreds of deaths used Bolívar’s name and legacy to cover his actions. The rest is (very recent) history.

As President, Hugo Chávez took the Bolívar Myth to unimagined new extremes. He renamed the country the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela”. Today, more than decade and a half later, Chávez is long dead, yet there’s no institution with “Bolivarian” as an adjective that works for the people as a whole rather than the interests of the governing clique. Same as it ever was.

This deep longing for a father figure at the center of the Bolívar Myth reveals our collective childhood. It’s really children who pine desperately for a dad, because they don’t have the tools to deal with their issues themselves.

Or maybe we have accepted Bolivar’s myth because it has been the only thing that makes us feel connected within the heterogeneous society that we are, and we fear that without a unifying myth the centrifugal forces would overwhelm the nation, sending it scattering in every direction.

What’s for certain is that a more politically mature country would not hang on to the Bolívar myth with the kind of panicked desperation Venezuelans have consistently exhibited for the last 150 years.

 

39 COMMENTS

  1. Amo a esta mujer.

    Es lo mejor que se ha escrito en la historia de este blog.

    Era justo desmitificar en unas pocas lineas al mas grande malandro de la historia americana.

  2. Excellent article describing the need and power of unifying narratives for the good nation building, and the bad, de-legitimizing dissent.

    the regime’s machine in in overload churning and spinning messages of an anti patriotic AN who is not playing ball in helping solve the crisis.

    Never mid the crises has been manufactured by both lack of skills and on purpose by the “revolution bolivariana”! Also, chavista layers have been added to the bolivar myth, in a way that deconstructing it and working towards alternative narratives and identity constructs also touches on Chavez at this time.

    That and also that the derecha is “mala”!

    Hard to instill values of personal responsibility, merit and development, when everyone need to portrait him/herself as a socialist and a leftist or else…

  3. Food for thought: Bolivar was not originally a military. He was a civilian who took arms to fight for what he considered his people.

  4. Kudos! Awesome article, just a little mistake: “Guzmán Blanco, a military dictator who ruled Venezuela three times in the late 20th century” I think you meant late 19th century

  5. Great article! In my opinion, Bolivar is used as a symbol to unify all Venezuelans because of our social – and somehow racial — divide. It’s a way to maintain harmony between the modern day “mantuanos” and “pardos” (and every kind of social category since we are a country). In my opinion, Bolivar and his independence war is just a rebellion of the white creoles against the peninsular white elite. Some sort of class struggle; mantuanos against blancos peninsulares so they could have their power and rights and be the new elite of the Spanish countries.

  6. In politics, as in war, truth is the first casualty.

    But, every nation and culture is built upon its myths. If you tear down the myth of Bolivar, you will eventually be forced to invent another “hero” to replace him. If I were in charge of Venezuelan education, I would bring Bolivar down a notch or two, and raise up the the importance of several of the other revolutionary leaders, to create a pantheon of founding fathers, rather than a single towering figure. The reason for this being to combat the culture’s gravitational attraction to caudillos.

  7. OK…I am a bit surprised so many Venezuelans – including someone like Manuel Caballero- say Guzmán sort of initiated the Bolivar cult. That is not quite it.

    In reality the personality cult around that character was started by no one else than…Simón Bolívar.
    Henri La Fayette Villaume Ducoudray Holstein wrote about it and so did Gustavus Mathias Hippisley. There were others. The funny thing is that people try to dismiss their accounts because “they fell out of favour with Bolívar”…and then those people think it is better to believe those who were always Bolívar followers.
    It is like trying to say we should believe rather what Diosdado Cabello says about Chávez than what Olavarria said in 1999, much less someone like anyone who didn’t like Chávez ever.

    One can even see the personality cult by reading about the whole ceremonies established by Bolívar’s friends to promote the cult and diminish the importance of other people. Bolivia someone?

    Many Venezuelans believe Alexander Humboldt was a friend of Bolívar. In reality Humboldt wrote to Bolívar, who admired him, out of necessity. In reality Humboldt expressed to one of his friends how worried he was about the Bolivar cult. There are letters of that. That was when Bolívar was alive.

    And here it comes: once Bolivar died, it was Antonio José Páez (yes, that one) who actually re-initiated the Bolívar cult.
    Páez did it when the price of coffee in the world markets plummeted during the forties of the XIX century and protests started to appear.

    He ordered to bring Bolívar’s skeleton from Colombia. He reverted a legislation that was in place to PREVENT again the Bolívar cult. He spent money to bring statues of Bolívar made in Europe.
    He ordered the cult to Bolívar in every Plaza Mayor (now boringly called Bolívar). He even wanted Caracas to be renamed Bolívar. And he did it all in order to try to become The Prophet of Bolivar, like Guzmán did.

    By the way: most Bolívar statues we see abroad were placed there because Venezuelan embassies have preferred to spend money in that to perpetuate the Bolívar cult…and then they say: “look, how Bolívar is admired everywhere!” It has been a self-fulfilling prophesy.

    I hope you can take a look at just this example of personality cult from 1842:

    https://books.google.be/books?id=njcUAAAAYAAJ&pg=RA1-PA3&dq=restos+libertador+paez+1842+congreso+venezuela&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi01dyT5afLAhVCGg4KHYmOAhUQ6AEIHjAA#v=onepage&q=restos%20libertador%20paez%201842%20congreso%20venezuela&f=false

  8. We should picture the Venezuela in which the Cult of Bolivar was born ….our war of independence was extremely long cruel and destructive , ours was a war to the death , almost a third of the population perished , the country which was never prosperous to begin with was totally devastated , left in utter ruin , the wealthy better educated class almost dissapeared . What was left was a very poor archipielago of separated regions , each headed by their own outsize caudillo personalities and their ‘montoneras’ , with very little trade or contact with each other , there were no roads , traveling was difficult with all the large rivers jungles, rugged mountain ranges , malaria infected swamps, deserted sprawls of territory in the way , civilization or what passed for it was concentrated in thin strip of rather small backward towns spread along the coast ………we were not a country , except in name and in the imagination of some dreamers , even the spaniards had never bothered to create an adminsitrative infrastructure to hold the different isolated pieces together. Most people from the Andes never met orientales or viceversa , there was no army , no real unified educational system ………So how could you keep this ramshackle excuse of a country together,……….with a shared dream of magnificent feats woven together by the memory of certain extraordinary heroes , it was thank to this cult of these marvelous heroes ( who by all accounts where real romantic heroes even to far off historians ) that the country maintained the fantasy of a common identity .

    The country in time developed a sense of unity that was more real , more bound by the material links of a unified social and economic life . this had to wait for Gomez who using the newly discovered oil resources and some really admirable ministers and professional men begun the founding of a functioning state. The job was continued and advanced for decades , often at a very slow pace, zig zag fashion. This was the real feat for creating the country , Roman Cardenas the founder of Venezuelas national finances and builder of the transandina which connected the andes to Caracas. or Gabaldon who took on the fight against those tropical illnesses that decimated Venezuelas country side , those were the true heroes , but they were civilians , didnt involve themselves in politics , they just carried out a job…….

    I recently read some books on the early years of the US , and how when independence was finally achieved in Yorktown , what resulted was 13 independent states each concerned inwardly with their own regional interests and a tiny ineffectual broke central government headed by a very admired George Washington …….There was no sense of national unity except for the shared reverence for Gnral Washington and the memory of the revolutionary war . A few men : Adams , Hamilton , Madison thought that the 13 former colonies should become a unified country , the idea was unpopular , most people felt their fealty was to their home state not to any United States . It took General Washington and the manouvers and intrigues of these extraordinary men several years to call for the drafting and adoption of a Constitution which when adopted founded the United States .

    Just as in the beginning all that held those 13 colonies together was their common reverence for Washington and the revolutionary struggle until they became a true country , Venezuela which started as a totally destroyed shamble of isolated regions also remained an erzats country thru its cult of Bolivar and the war of independence ……The US was better placed by its historical roots and prosperous civilized circumstances to become a true great nation ………Venezuela lacked the men and the resources to achieve that …………except very gradually and even now we are not there yet ………the Bolivar cult helped us remain a nation when everything was pulling as apart ……..lets not judge it too harshly but see it with historical perspective….

    • Spot on r.e. the birth of the U.S.

      The attitude of most folks at the time was “we just won a long, hard, costly war against the mother country because they imposed taxes on us and pushed us around, and now we’re going to form an entity that will…impose taxes on us and push us around?!”

      Don’t let the pretty marble statues fool you. There was plenty of political rivalry, factionalism, distrust, and even outright hatred among our founders.

      The one guy everyone knew they could trust?

      Washington.

      The warrior hero who wouldn’t be king…and didn’t want to be president either, not the 1st time he was elected, nor the 2nd.

      He finally, simply refused to stand for re-election after his 2nd term. The day after John Adam’s inauguration to succeed him as President, Adams wrote to his wife: “He seemed to enjoy a triumph over me. Methought I heard him say, ‘Ay, I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which of us will be happiest!”

      We don’t really think about it very much here in gringolandia, but it really is staggering to think just how differently things would have turned out had it not been for one person who, however imperfect, was able to hold the trust of virtually everyone of his time.

      Leaders like that don’t come around very often (sure would love it if one could show up for us about now)…

      Great book on the subject: The Indispensable Man (Flexner)

      • Do notice that most of the founding fathers were from the slave holding plantation elites of the South ( Washington, Jefferson, Madison ) , that one was middle class (Adams) another a succesful self made business men ( Franklin ) , and only one of modest origins ( Hamilton) who also made himself prosperous thru sheer talent.

        • Yes, sadly Washington was indeed a slaveholder.

          Nonetheless it was still an amazing thing for a revered and powerful man of that time to hand over the reins of state power willingly, and even with a smile. In fact King George is reported to have said “If that is true, then Washington is the greatest man in the world.”

          Best to look at our “heroes” as neither angels nor demons…

          • Not usually known is that Washington was always deeply bothered by slavery , and that upon his death his will freed all of his slaves , same as Bolivar did in life ……Jefferson always wanted to but he was always on the verge of bankrupcy and felt he couldnt afford to …!!

  9. Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Modern World gave a deeply unflattering treatment of Simon Bolivar that’s quite funny.

  10. Many thanks to Ms. Monica Correa for this extraordinary article. I born in Caracas, but both of my parents were inmigrants. Legal inmigrants. Arrived from Europe. In the 50’s and the 60’s. I was born in the 70’s, so many things that I now remember are from the “Good Old Times” of CAP’s “Great Vzla”. I felt absorbed by all these rethorical stuff about Bolivar on my school years. I remember visiting Carabobo’s Camp, SB houses in Caracas and San Mateo, the Bolivarian Museum, SB’s grave at the National Pantheon and, of course using the bolivar as a currency. So many SB births, deaths, and many national holidays from Independence battles and so on. But as I remember that days, I can remember what I feel about them. And honestly, I didn’t feel nothing. Now you can call me anything you wish. But that’s exactly how I felt. I never believed in the idea that SB was the greatest venezuelan ever. I never admire him, indeed. It was extremely difficult to handle in school, high school and finally, I was at rest at the university. But many, many people stopped talking to me when I expressed my ideas and feelings about SB, way before 1992. I admire Francisco de Miranda. And Andrés Bello. But no SB. When 1992 arrived, the fact that someone could justify a coup based on the “bolivarian ideals” was something that I couldn’t believe. And 6 years after that, that asshole was elected president. I struggle with his dictatorship some years, but my family and I finally left Vzla and moved back to Europe. I think that the basic fact beneath my indiference about SB relies on the education I received at home. My parents always taught me to respect the people, alive or dead, but not to admire them. To show respect for their achievements, but not a religious cult for them. These ideas have been very helpful for me. I also teach the same ideas to my daughters, and so far, they fight for what they want to achieve in life. And, most important, both of my daughters always are skeptical about politicians, or anyone. To change the mental link between an average vzlan and SB could be the greatest task of the 21st Century. If you in Vzla need to hang to SB’s cult just to keep Vzla united, then, everybody is mentally located before the 17th century. I think there are very good reasons to remove the SB’s cult, and there are much better reasons to keep Vzla united without such Big Brother watching over vzla’s population minds. Basically, because the facts have shown how useless that cult is.

    • Marx based his account on Gustavus Mathias Hippisley mostly. Read him directly and Henri La Fayette Villaume Ducoudray and you will get quite an interesting picture of Bolivar

    • When Paez had his rift with the Bogota authorities and was taking total control of Venezuela he was fearful of Bolivar coming to Venezuela to impose Bogotas writ so he publicly ordered his sodiers to inmmediately take Bolivar prisioner should he dare touch Venezuelan soil . Bolivar paid no heed to the warning and arrived in Venezuela a few months later with a small retinue . People who were with Paez in Caracas main square when he was informed of the news have written that at that moment Paez face turned pale and he had a sudden biological accident which visilbly soiled his pants.

      I wonder if Paez was such a great and valiant Caudillo ( which he was) and Bolivar ( as depicted by Marx) was such a sleazy coward how we can explain Paez very visceral response.!! Perhaps something he ate that morning ….. or perhaps there was something very wrong about Marxs description of Bolivar….

      • The discussion about who was defecating because of fear seems to me rather pointless and based on silly gossiping. Did Chávez do it when he surrendered out of fear back in 1992? I don’t know. It is better to judge by what we know for sure. What Marx wrote was based on rather neutral observers who were in Venezuela for quite some time. We also know know who was much more often in the actual battle between Bolivar
        and Paez. We know what level of protection Bolivar had, among others, thanks to the thousands of top mercenaries coming from Europe who were, together with Paez’s forces – and many others – responsible for the defeats of the Spanish forces.

        • I shall always be thankful for Kepler pointing us to Doucrays Holsteins biography of Bolivar , not because of its purported accuracy (He was far from a neutral observer , he made clear from his own text that he was deeply resentful of the fact that he had not been appointed to a higher military rank by Bolivar and the ‘Caraquins’ despite the excellence of his European experiences) but because of the way he made a thumb nail sketch comparison of the character traits of the Caraquins , the Granadins and people from the Caribbean Coast of Colombia ……..

          Although I have my own prejudices about his description of Venezuelan women as of ‘easy virtue’ , I do appreciate his other characterizations of Caraquins as essentially pretentious , not overly honest , quick witted, and xenophobic in their refusal to recognize the superior leadership talents of Europeans like Messr Ducray himself …….

          I have read quite a bit about the war of independence , including both authors who were hagiographic and extremely critical in their treatment of Bolivar and dont think it quite credible that he could command the loyalty and respect of quite so many brave and proud men if he had been a conspicuous physical coward …the anecdote about Paez response to the news of Bolivars arrival at Puerto Cabello is simply illustrative of the kind of feeling he could inspire in men who were not known as in any way cowardly …..

          People who rise in the annals of history have a way of attracting both the most affected and extravagant praise and the most malicious and false of scurrilous gossip , we should be cautious not to fall to easily to either of these misrepresentations of historical personalities .

  11. Here’s the Colombian take, from Bolívar soy yo:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTl5ZF3pBPY

    Great movie. An actor who portrays Bolívar in a popular telenovela goes mad, fluctuating between sanity and a madness in which he believes himself to be his character.

    Key line from a later scene: “Mi nombre ha sido utilizado para ponerle nombres a colegios mediocres, a hospitales que no sirven y a constituciones que no se aplican…”

  12. Lo que al pueblo se le debe enseñar, no es que “el héroe patrio era malo porque tiene una característica que a ellos les enseñaron a odiar”, lo quie al pueblo se le debe enseñar es que esa característica NO es algo que deba odiarse, si no que es así que vive la gente civilizada.

  13. You may think I’m not qualified to talk about this because, well…I’m not Venezuelan, I’m Lebanese, but I’ll speak my mind anyway.
    I think the reason Chávez so much promoted him (and Maduro does the same now) is that they all believe in the unity of Latin America.
    Yes, Bolívar was against Venezuela being an independent country BECAUSE he was for the northern countries of South America being united and strong to be able to face the enmity of the United States. A divided Latin continent would easily become a “backyard” of the USA, unlike if it was a united “Gran Colombia”.
    That is why Chávez is promoting Latin unity through organizations like ALBA, to fulfill the dream of Bolívar. On the basis that Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, etc are originally one country.
    Is the same as the belief of the Lebanese thinker Antoun Saadeh (whom I strongly believe he got his ideas from Bolívar bc he lived in Latin America for some time) that Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Jordan are one country originally, as well as Arab gulf countries being one country and Northern African Arab countries like Algeria Morocco etc being another one country on their own.
    Arabs (Latinos as well) need unity. Borders between my country and Syria and Palestine etc are created by French and British colonialism. That’s what colonialism wants : divide and conquer.
    Peace.

    • Thx Mielikki,

      If you notice, we’re less concerned with Bolívar himself and more concerned with the way the memory of Bolívar has been used to bolster authoritarian government for 140 years now.

    • “That is why Chávez is promoting Latin unity through organizations like ALBA, to fulfill the dream of Bolívar. On the basis that Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, etc are originally one country.”

      Actually, shiabbe was promoting such organizations because he thought he could get away with the world with the stuff he got away with in Venezuela.

      You see, one of his traits was, that because of his megalomania he never acknowledged the fact that other people than those who worshipped him could have the right to exist, so whenever he lost an election, he stripped that seat of all its power and resources to redirect them to a newly created parallel structure which he filled with people under his command. The alba was just a platform to buy political support from other countries at the expense of Venezuela.

      The dead man only believed in the “people’s will” when things went his way, and fanatically refused to accept any contradiction, he was a bloody tyrant who pluged Venezuela in its worst crisis “for political reasons”, as almost everything he did that damaged the country in one or other way was done as a calculated movement to concentrate more power for himself.

      If any person was anti-bolivarian and anti-venezuelan, the supreme example of that would be chavez himself, which Bolívar would have ordered to be executed right away if he met him.

      • Chavez was above all things a narcicist who loved not plain folk (as he histrionically pretended to ) but their love of himself , so in a way his love of his followers (baptized by him as ‘el pueblo’) was one way of loving himself .

        Of course his love of grandiosity fed on being able to see himself as a messianic hero and of course heroes need to have a demonized enemy whom to fight and loathe , in his case the US and its civilization and any one who refused to grant him the adoration he demanded !!

  14. El desprecio a Bolívar no es más que una moda. Es un nuevo ” prejuicio ilustrado”. Venezuela podría ser un país bastante decente con o sin el “culto” a Bolívar, y dicho “culto” en sí mismo no explica nada sobre la realidad actual ni tiene tanta influencia en la realidad como algunos dicen ni es definitorio de nuestro carácter nacional. Las explicaciones son más sencillas y de otro nivel. Yo en lo personal nunca he conectado con el mito. De hecho nunca sentí que se me obligara a formar parte de ningún culto, simplemente se me señalaron algunas lecturas cuando era niño y ya está. Esas lecturas no me han restado nada en mi vida.Bolívar no era perfecto, y no siempre tenía razón ni fue justo. Toda su vida terminó en un fracaso. Sin embargo no me cuesta nada ver y admitir que él el era un gran hombre, un hombre excepcional, así como Andrés Bello, Simón Rodríguez, Miranda o Sucre. La influencia de su pensamiento en nuestra historia ha sido inversamente proporcional a la importancia que se le ha dado a su figura. Por eso no lo juzgo. La historia la escriben los vencedores y Bolívar no lo fue.

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