Sunday, 24 July 2011

Bolívar: One of the most damaging personality cults on Earth

Today is a holiday in Venezuela. It is the day our first national caudillo, Simón Bolívar, was born in 1783. Mind: Bolívar had some good ideas - none of them original - and some very bad ones. After he miserably failed as a military to defend Puerto Cabello, an easy job Miranda had given him, after he betrayed Miranda and delivered him to the Spaniards to save his own skin, he managed to lead military troops for some time. He got rid of people who could become a competition to him, like Piar. He also got Venezuela into incredible debts with Britain in order to get enough mercenaries and weapons to further his cause. In the end, Venezuelan troops led the liberation of several lands and Bolívar was acclaimed as "the Liberator", as if hundreds of thousands of others hadn't done more for the same thing - paying with their lives in very violent ways. 

Bolívar did not have much money to pay mercenaries and national military men, so he gave them land and power and in that way Venezuela became the most militarily obsessed country in South America. It did not fight anymore with other countries in Latin America (it couldn't have done it), but its military just dedicated themselves to be declared some sort of superior caste...the inheritors of "The Liberator".

Venezuelan military decided to promote the cult to Bolívar. Pseudo-historians decided to transform Bolívar into a demi-God. This helped them in their careers, specially as the military were strengthened by this. Now there is no Venezuelan with political ambitions who would dare have a more critical view of Bolívar, the caudillo who wanted to rule for life. This has done a lot of damage to the country: every new generation of military and politicos claim to be the "prophets" of this new Bolívar religion.

What would have happened had Bolívar not been born? Nothing, really. We would have got our independence at the same time, a little bit later or a little bit earlier. We would have probably let Bolivia and Peru be liberated from within or by Argentine and Chilean forces. We would have got less debts with the Britons. We wouldn't have had to lose so many lives. We would not have a third of all muninipios called after some military strongman. Other than that, things would have been probably more or less the same.

Today Chávez felt the need to come over to Venezuela for the usual rites of worship. Here you see some of his very kitsch tweets on Bolívar today:

"I talk to you Venezue,My People:Let's make Bolívar live now and forever in us, in our ideas, our behavior each day"
"Let'sSingWIthPabloNedura:Everything has your name, father, in our home, everything that is ours comes from your life, your inheritance is our daily bread"
"Sunday 24 July, bless you, day of God we declare you, day of Fatherland, day of Subleme Birth, let's sing to Simón Bolívar the Eternal"


  1. I completely agree with you, but how can we get rid of this disease?

    I wonder if there has been a country in a similar position that has succesfully broken this " kind" of personality cult.

  2. Good question and I think the answer is hard. I haven't found such a weird personality cult anywhere. The closest I have found is in Turkey with Atatürk, but quite honestly: I think Bolívar created more chaos and produced less in his lifetime.

    What can we do? It depends at which stage. Right now the military caste would see to it that anyone trying to organise a campaign to the dimystification of the character be prosecuted or the like. Even when Chávez is gone and the alternative forces come to power, the military and closest groups will try to do anything to prevent that happening. They know they would lose power if people were to treat our historical figures in a more normal way, specially Bolívar.

    One thing we need to do is for some respected intelectuals to speak out about history. Another is to teach better world history, to let Venezuelans see what happened in such places as Mexico or in Southern South America.
    Right now we have only one year of world history and in most schools they don't even get to the XIX period because so many lessons are missed (teacher doesn't go, etc).

    Venezuelans know when Bolívar was born and when he died but half of them cannot tell you in what century we got our independence or when part of our ancestors, Europeans, first arrived in Venezuela.
    History of Colonial times is limited to talking very briefly about the Conquista, Encomienda (in a paragraph) and the caste system (without mentioning it was more supported by the whites in South America than by the central government) plus a sentence or two about the Guipuzcoana.

    They don't say anything about how Bolívar enabled the military to take over Venezuela, about the debts for weapons, about the use of Bolívar as a Religion-ersatz by every caudillo who wanted to get more power.

    A new government would need to promote the discussion about these topics in class, without forcing it as Chavismo has forced its views. Above all it needs to promote real debate.

    We can try to do something in our circles.
    I have tried to put more information in Wikipedia about those things people know so little about regarding our history. I know some people have read those bits.

    Changing this mindset is going to take a lot. But we need to.

  3. Wow, that painting of Chavez on the horse behind Bolivar. I guess it has to be real, but wow. That is the cheesiest work of "art" I have ever seen. I saved a copy to my hard drive.

  4. Michael, it is real.
    Mind: the sky's the limit when it comes to Chavismo's capacity for cheesiness. A friend of mine said she had to interpret for an international commission going to some slums and there she saw an official poster of Chávez with a halo. That was many years ago, I suppose now it would look like bad omen. She didn't take a picture because she thought she could get into trouble there.


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