Where History Loves to Kick your Butt to the End of the World

Have you ever thought about how many talented, engaged Venezuelans have died abroad, in exile? How about a quick look at this list?

If you want to keep the Spirit of Dabucurí alive and meditate a bit further on homemade, well-rooted curses, here’s one for you: think how many of the people who gave Venezuela’s history its shape went on to die outside its borders.

Let’s start right back in the War of Independence. A period of violence extreme enough to make 2017 look like the good old days. The famous guys who fell within the blurred boundaries of what was then Venezuela were nearly all soldiers. Asturian warlord José Tomás Boves got a spear through his belly at Urica (Anzoátegui), in 1814, months before his enemy José Félix Ribas got his head fried in Tucupido (Guárico).

They were the exceptions. For the most part, the protagonists of the gesta independentista met their Creator far, far from our shores: Spain (Francisco de Miranda), France (Rafael Urdaneta), Colombia (Juan Germán Roscio, José Antonio Anzoátegui, Antonio José de Sucre, Simón Bolívar).

Those were the military men. How about the civilians? Think of the two men traditionally linked to El Libertador’s education: many years after the years of blood, Andrés Bello died in Chile, and Simón Rodríguez in Perú. Want some other civilian leaders who tried to build a civilized nation from the ashes of war but never returned from exile? José María Vargas died in New York, Pedro Gual in Guayaquil, and Manuel Felipe Tovar in Paris.

Many years after the years of blood, Andrés Bello died in Chile, and Simón Rodríguez in Perú.

Now let’s take a look at the strongmen who fought each other during the chronic state of civil war between 1830 and 1899. The three most important followed the same path: José Antonio Páez died in New York, Antonio Guzmán Blanco in Paris, and Juan Crisóstomo Falcón in Fort-de-France (Martinique). Plenty of 20th century leaders met a similar fate: Cipriano Castro died in Puerto Rico, after his former vice president Juan Vicente Gómez forbade him to return to Venezuela; Rómulo Betancourt passed away in New York, in voluntary exile; Marcos Pérez Jiménez died in Spain, where he lived almost all the time after being ousted in 1958; and Raúl Leoni also died in New York City, where he was receiving medical treatment.

Jaime Lusinchi returned to die in his homeland after many years abroad, but Carlos Andrés Pérez couldn’t; precisely because of the man who tried to kill him during an attempted putsch in 1992. And here that circle of vengeance closes, suggesting an open ending: if we trust the version told by those epitomes of truth that answer to the names of Nicolás Maduro and Ernesto Villegas, Hugo Chávez barely made it before dying here, supposedly in the Military Hospital in Caracas.

Are we facing some curse, like the one of Tutankhamun’s tomb or the 1978 Superman movie?

Well, certainly not all historical figures in Venezuela died in a foreign land, but the former list includes indeed a big deal of the most influential individuals. A who’s who.

You can say it’s been a predictable risk to politicians and caudillos, but leaving this world while looking at a landscape afar from the Ávila or the Arauca Vibrador has also been the fate of many of our greatest minds.

We kid ourselves that ours is the first generation to face exile: exile is as criollo and timeless as the arepa con requesón.

Pianist Teresa Carreño took her last breath in New York, in 1917, where she lived since she was 11 years old. The exquisite poet and diplomat José Antonio Ramos Sucre took his own life in 1930, tired of insomnia and gothic depression, in Geneva, where he was the Venezuelan consul. Writer Teresa de la Parra, who was born in Paris, spent her childhood and part of her youth in Venezuela, and left to Europe in 1923; she stayed there and died, from TB, in Madrid in 1936.  

Writer, diplomat and duelist Rufino Blanco Fombona went back to Venezuela when General Gómez died, but he didn’t get the treatment he thought he deserved after so many years of writing against the dictator from abroad, so he managed to be appointed ambassador in Montevideo – in 1944, during a trip to Buenos Aires, he died there. My paisano José Rafael Pocaterra managed to return from forced exile as well, but ended up dying in 1955 where I live, Montreal, where he had a house with his Canadian wife.

The list of talented Venezuelans that follow the destiny of remote defunction also has OPEC creator Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo (cancer, Washington DC, 1979), scientist Humberto Fernández Morán (who died in 1999 where he went to live, Stockholm, when his jefe Pérez Jiménez lost the coroto), art genius Jesús Soto (who passed away in 2005 in Paris, where he was based since the 50s) and guitar genius Alirio Díaz (last year, in Rome, where he lived for years).

It seems to happen in the rest of Latin America as well. In fact, some of the continent’s literary heroes have said goodbye from places that are not those their books told so much about: Borges in Switzerland, García Márquez and Mutis in Mexico, Cabrera Infante in England. However, the worse dictators of our era died in bed and among the people they once ruled over: Pinochet in Chile, Fidel in La Habana, Videla in Buenos Aires, “Baby Doc” Duvalier in Port-au-Prince.

Are we facing some curse, like the one of Tutankhamun’s tomb or the 1978 Superman movie?

We kid ourselves that ours is the first generation to face exile: exile is as criollo and timeless as the arepa con requesón.  

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that throughout our republican history, Venezuela’s been a hostile land to many notable writers, musicians and artists.

Our country can also be cruel to those who have known power and have lost it. Those who attempted great things but came to their twilight amid disappointment, haunted by the ghosts of those titans of late frustration and defeat: Miranda (“bochinche, bochinche”) and Bolívar (“he arado en el mar”).

Or to those who thought they would have power forever, and ended up ruined, buried without ceremony among strangers, while back in the country they once felt like property of their own – their names are only spat out in hatred, if they are remembered at all.