Why Always Bolívar?
Originally published on March 4th 2016 on Caracas Chronicles.
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.
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.