José Tadeo Monagas
José Antonio Páez
I was born in a Venezuela economists used to call "Venezuela saudita", a third world country awashed in petrodollars. It was a democracy, even if it was a highly dysfunctional one. Some areas looked like other poor areas of America, some little places like Africa and others like Europe and all this in a distinctly tropical and subtropical nature. Back then and well into the years of increasing economic decline in the late eighties I used to think that even if Venezuela was very corrupt, dangerously dependent on oil and going towards a crisis, we were inmune to the worst ills of Latin American countries: military dictatorships and civil wars.
|South America in the late seventies (in red: military regimes either in full form as in Argentina, Uruguay or Chile or in some sort of military "transition" as in Peru and Brazil):|
Still, I did not realise to what extend Venezuelans always had been prisoners of our long-standing infatuation with the military. I did not know how we were bound to repeat history because of the general ignorance Venezuelans have of it.
I always knew the Bolívar cult was over the top, but it was something I found rather kitsch and nothing more. I appreciated the good things Bolívar did or was supposed to have done and I thought the cult was something that did not really hurt, like some non-extremist religion. Every visitor to Venezuela has seen it: the omnipresent cult to Simón Bolívar, a Venezuelan who played a key role in the Independence war in South America. The highest peak, the largest state, the main avenues and squares in every city or town, countless institutions, the main airport and the currency are some of the many things called after him. Bolívar's name is everywhere. The admiration for Bolívar is not only in Venezuela, but in Venezuela the name is so often used that it can get confusing.
There was a hat called "Bolívar" in Europe in the XIX century, a hat liberals would wear. Bolívar was definitely admired everywhere in the Americas and Europe and the many places - towns, streets, squares - called after him are a proof of this. People saw not just his opposition against the Spanish imperialism, but against slavery, against oppression of the Native Americans. It helped a lot that Bolívar died still in his forties.
Still, the cult for Bolívar's has been above all a Venezuelan disease. Bolívar rejected the title of a king, but he wanted to be president for life. He declared he only aspired to have the title "Liberator of Venezuela", as if Venezuela's independence would have been inconceivable without him. I won't get into the dark parts of Bolívar's role here, but will go more into the instrumentalization of his memory and that of the other military of his time in Venezuela's history*.
Once the country became independent, the military who fought in the wars claimed special rights for themselves, as "próceres", as the ones who had fought with the "Libertador". One of our first presidents, who was not a military, physician Vargas, had to resign after much pressure from the military demanding more power. Most of Venezuela's heads of states after that and until 1958 were military or the puppets of military.
Almost every single president since the Independence declared himself a "Bolivarian", whatever that would mean for the time. As historian Manual Caballero said in his "Por qué no soy Bolivariano" (Why I am not a Bolivarian), caudillo Monagas declared himself a "revolutionary", promoted special rights for the military (something the current president has done as well in indirect ways), claimed to revive the Gran Colombia and placed many relatives on top positions in the government, just as our current president. And he was thrown out of the presidential palace in 1858 by people shouting "Death to the thieves". Several dictators were particularly active in cultivating the Bolívar cult but two used this new religion with particular zeal: Guzmán Blanco and Juan Vicente Gómez. Bolívar became some sort of demi-God and anyone associating himself with Bolívar became protected by this divinity.
Gómez in 1934
History books everywhere the world, specially in schools, tend to glorify the national past or at least a part of it. Still, those in Venezuela have been particularly focused on the Independence time. It hasn't helped that many of them were written mostly by people who were anything but professional historians. It did not help that Venezuelans for many reasons always tended to have an abysmal knowledge of history.
Humboldt was on a related topic when he wrote:
"Native Americans kept their language, their national dress and their national character...[but] through the introduction of christianity and other circumstances I analyse elsewhere, historical and religious heritage progressively became lost. On the other side the settler of European origin looks down upon anything that refers to the dominated nations. He sees himself in the middle between the ancient history of the motherland and the one of his birth country and he is as indifferent to one as to the other; in a climate where the small difference between seasons makes the passing of the years almost unnoticeable he only thinks about enjoying the present and he seldom looks back at the past".
"Der Eingeborene hat seine Sprache, seine Tracht und seinen Volkscharakter behalten..durch die Einführung des Christentums und andere Umstände, die ich anderswo auseinander gesetzt, sind die geschichtlichen und religiösen Ueberlieferungen allmählich untergegangen. Andererseits sieht der Ansiedler von europäischer Abkunft verächtlich auf alles herab, was sich auf die unterworfenen Völker bezieht. Er sieht sich in die Mitte gestellt zwischen die frühere Geschichte des Mutterlandes und die seines Geburtslandes, und die eine ist ihm so gleichgültig wie die andere; in einem Klima, wo bei dem geringen Unterschied der Jahreszeiten der Ablauf der Jahre fast unmerklich wird, überläßt er sich ganz dem Genusses der Gegenwart und wirft selten einen Blick in Vergangene Zeiten."
The native American, the European and the African slave all merged into the average Venezuelan of today, but we still show either a complete disdain for history or love for one part of it, the part we identify ourselves most with. You will find most Venezuelans with some education know Bolivar's birthday and death anniversary and they can quote Bolívar for this or that. Most of them would not know in what century the Europeans arrived in Venezuela or what reactionary tendencies Bolívar had. They would not know a lot of very basic stuff about world history and Venezuela's link to it all.
That is how Chávez can say now all Indians were socialists and equal and most of his followers believe it (see this video in Spanish from from 4:00 or before) or that we are mostly a native American and African-American nation (the European part supposedly being mostly that of the opposition, see my posts on genetics). That is also why some very racist right wingers paint European conquistadores in such rosy terms and still use the term "indio" as an insult, probably not even knowing most of us are both of European and native American origin, if not also sub-Saharan.
It is in that framework that Venezuelans have evolved. As the economic situation of a nation highly addicted to petrodollars deteriorated in the eighties and nineties, a group of military pretending to defend some nebulous Bolívar heritage prepared the bloody coups of 1992.
Hugo Chávez has taken the Bolívar cult to new heights. He needs to do that. He single-handedly renamed Venezuela in 1999 by adding the "Bolivarian" adjective, even if the approved constitutional draft had taken away that proposal of his. His movement is naming the most spurious organizations or events "Bolivarianos". Never mind their image of what Bolívar thought at any given time is rather distorted.
Now take a look at these maps. In the first one you see Venezuela's states. The largest state , in cyan, is called Bolívar. The states in red have been called after military honchos from the times of the Independence movement.
The following map shows Venezuela's municipalities. Municipalities in cyan are called Bolívar or Simón Bolívar. Municipalities in dark blue are called Libertador (referring, of course, to Bolívar). Those in red are called after military who fought in the Independence war. The ones in yellow are called after other military. Here you can see how things are in Colombia: although our neighbours also have some areas called after military, the ratio is lower. The same goes with other countries I am aware of. As you may suspect, we have some issues with the military. We have the Bolívar syndrome.
Worth reading if you speak Spanish: Por qué no soy bolivariano: ISBN 10: 9803541994
Also worth reading is what Karl Marx, the heroe of virtually every communist, wrote about Bolívar. Although the truth is probably in the middle, you have to read Marx's view on the Venezuelan figure here.