Here, in Venezuela, he is everywhere: on posters, walls, bridges, mobile phones and insurance companies. And it is not Hugo Chávez, the ailing president, but Simon Bolivar, El Libertador, The Liberator.
Ever since Hugo Chávez emerged as a political leader in 1992 (read http://lab.org.uk/blog-on-venezuela-(1)) he has made Bolivar his inspiration and his flag. However, Chávez is not the first president to do that. In past administrations, visitors were not allowed to enter Bolivarian museums with shorts or badly dressed. The main square in Caracas is Plaza Bolivar and, as Luis, one of my hosts told me, “History as taught here starts in 1783, the year Bolivar was born”, as if nothing happened before. Unless it is mentioned to link it to El Libertador, the history of the indigenous peoples is hardly taught.
Simon Bolivar is almost an obsession for the Chávez government. And, despite the fact that he died of tuberculosis in 1830, when he died, he was pretty much a hated figure. Despite the fact that he liberated 3 countries – Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia and consolidated the freedom of another, Peru, by the time he went into a self-imposed exile in Santa Marta, Colombia, he was reviled because he had proclaimed himself dictator in 1828, after the Venezuelan congress failed to write a democratic constitution. He resigned e few month before his death because of increasing dissent among the very people who had elevated him to the status of political myth.
Bolivar’s ostracism did not last and in ten years after his death, President José Antonio Páez rescued his memory because, after all, Bolivar had given his country an identity as a nation. The cult has continued.
Hugo Chávez has ensured that Simon Bolivar became the centre of the life and ideology of Venezuela’s political process. During his time in office, the two houses where Bolivar lived in the centre of Caracas have been opened and his belongings are exhibited with almost religious devotion.
Chávez has said that Bolivar’s anti-imperialist ideals are still valid, despite the fact that he has been dead for more than 180 years. I asked José Luis González, a chavista political analyst, if he didn’t think that Bolivar’s ideas were somehow anachronistic in the 21st Century. He rejects this idea. For him, what the Chávez government has done is to update Bolivar’s liberal credentials to the new realities. For him, US imperialism has not changed. And, of course, to institutionalise Bolivar’s image, Venezuela is today República Bolivariana de Venezuela.
Chávez’s obsession with Bolivar made him exhume the hero’s body in July 2010 to investigate the reasons of his death. He refuses to accept that he died of natural causes. Although initial findings suggested that he had been poisoned with arsenic, in 2011 an international team of forensic experts concluded that there were no valid reasons to doubt that he died of tuberculosis.
Not all Venezuelans buy the Bolivar myth. Luis’ mother reckons that the history of one of the houses used by Bolivar is an invention of Chávez, despite the fact that, historically speaking, he lived in that house, on and off, for 30 years.
Simon Bolivar is as sacred as oil in Venezuela. A new library has just been opened in one of his houses, with material by and on Bolivar. The main square, Plaza Bolivar, has been refurbished. Groups of old people seat under a marquee watching videos of Bolivar’s live. Street vendors sell DVDs with badly produced slide shows of Bolivar’s life. Bridges, walls and streets have slogans and often badly-drawn paintings of El Libertador.
In a set of cheap mobile phones handed over by the government to poor pensioners, there is a map of South America with a figure of Bolivar on his horse, and an insurance company claims that it insures people “the Bolivarian way”, whatever that means.
Bolivar is god and, for many, Chavez is his representative on earth. Amen.