Why Does Chavez Love Simon Bolivar?

By Federico Delgado

Simon Jose Antonio de la Santisima Trinidad Bolivar y Palacios, 1783-1830: South American Independence thinker; military strategist for Nueva Granada's campaign against the Spanish Crown; architect statesman for an entire continent. It was this role that saw him attempt to found a failed nation that encompassed modern-day Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Bolivia and parts of Peru, then advocate and celebrate the creation of many of those individual nations (even writing Bolivia's first Constitution).

He is a historical figure that weighs heavily on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. That much has been obvious since 1999, when he pushed through a new Constitution soon after taking office; a preamble which declares Bolivar the nation's inspiration for being. The first couple of articles even establish that the Republic of Venezuela will thereafter become the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

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Still, that did little to forewarn and later console the many who have watched in shock as President Chavez's fixation has become borderline necrophilic. Back in mid-July, he ordered the Libertador's remains exhumed, and most recently he proceeded to unearth the remains of his sisters. No word yet on any new discoveries about Bolivar's history but chances are good this will end up suscitating tales, one way or another, of nefarious oligarch-cum-yanqui conspiracies (or, if findings are sufficiently banal, then just conveniently forgotten].

Moving past the morbidity, however, it is a shame to let the opportunity that these grave-digging episodes present for a more revealing, and more figurative, exercise in historical exploration go to waste. There is one question in particular, considering the Libertador's modern day reinvention as a beacon of anti-Americanism, that deserves to be brought up before any new historical spin is introduced.

What did Simon Bolivar make of the United States over a career that spanned the administrations of James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams and (just barely) Andrew Jackson?

There is certainly evidence that, like President Chavez, he felt a considerable amount of antagonism toward the United States. His most virulent aspersions are arguably found in separate letters from 1829 addressed to friends that had inquired about his thoughts on the state of the Americas. In one he predicted the "United States was destined by Providence to plague [the continent] with miseries in the name of Freedom." In the other he put forth that it "would be better for South America to adopt the Koran rather than the United States' form of government."

That last remark echoed a common criticism of his: that the form of government in the United States was downright noxious as inspiration to the burgeoning Nueva Granada nations. In 1825 he advised Colombian Independence leader Francisco de Paula Santander to avoid any government resembling that of the "American hucksters." He then made it clear he detested "that lot to such a degree that I would not want it said that a Colombian did anything the same way they do." The fact that same year he had only grudgingly invited an delegation from the United States to the Congress of Panama, an international conference for newly independent states he organized, certainly bears the sentiment out (in the end, the delegation never arrived, and the conference was disastrous by his own admission).

Where did this animosity come from? The single most aggravating episode might have occurred in 1818 when two private U.S.-flag frigates were detained with a cargo of weapons destined for sale to Spanish forces. His note to U.S. Special Envoy Baptiste Irvine following the incident evidenced furious indignation; little did it matter the merchant ships were under no command of the neutral U.S. government.

But his antagonism likely developed over the years as he tried to square his own nation-building experiences with those of the only successful and stable independent republic of the New World at the time. It is not that surprising, therefore, that his speeches and writings also suggest a bit of rivalrous covetousness towards the United States, even admiration.

In his Jamaican Letter of 1815, for example, Bolivar argued that as long as his "countrymen [did] not acquire the abilities and political virtues that distinguish our brothers from the North, wholly popular systems, far from working to our advantage, will I greatly fear, bring about our downfall." During the presentation of his Constitution for Bolivia, in 1826, he carefully noted that the bi-cameral system of the U.S. was not only unsuitable for South American nations but bound to lock itself into perpetual conflict. He suggested a tri-cameral system, instead, all the while making sure he called attention to how much more sensible it was than the one the United States had adopted.

His most telling episode, however, came later that year when he received a series of gifts on behalf of George Washington's family from General Marquis de Lafayette. As his thank you letter to Lafayette evidences, Bolivar was effusive over the gesture. He heaped praise on Washington, calling him the first son of the New World, and a triumphant proponent of the "American cause." The gifts were a painting of the U.S. Founding Father, some of his original writings, a compiled history of North America, and a few strands of Washington's hair.

So which, then, was the true Simon Bolivar - the one infatuated by the memory, and capillary memento, of George Washington, or the one who seemingly abhorred everything involving the United States? The answer, anti-climatic as it might be, is neither and both. He was a great but conflicted, and complex, man. He left a wondrous but ultimately unresolved legacy behind.

Considering the turbulent history of post-Independence South America his memory and work are best honored when embraced and studied thusly. But there is little evidence to suggest that will dissuade President Chavez from parading Bolivar's bones up and down in the service of a political project in the coming months.

Federico Delgado is a graduate of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and Vassar College. His undergraduate history thesis was on early bi-lateral relations between the United States and Nueva Granada.

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