Colombian Elites Fear Bolivaran Revolution

As a result of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe's decision to allow six U.S. military bases on his country's soil the propaganda war has heated up in the Andean region. When Uribe and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez slug it out rhetorically the two constantly employ historical references, in particular to the Great Liberator Simón Bolívar. Why is this Bolivarian rhetoric still so common and integral to politics in the Andean region?

As a
result of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe's decision to allow six U.S.
military bases on his country's soil the propaganda war has heated up in the
Andean region. In neighboring Venezuela, Hugo Chávez says Colombia is seeking
to destabilize the border and has hinted that war could be imminent.

When Uribe
and Chávez slug it out rhetorically the two constantly employ historical
references, in particular to the Great Liberator Simón Bolívar. A leader of the
independence struggle against Spain, Bolívar was a member of the Caracas
aristocracy and liberated Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador from imperial rule in
the early nineteenth century.

Why is
this Bolivarian rhetoric still so common and integral to politics in the Andean
region? To answer that question I wrote a piece for the Washington, D.C-based
Council on Hemispheric Affairs in March, 2008. I was prompted to write the
piece in response to the political crisis stemming from a Colombian military
raid on a FARC guerrilla encampment within Ecuadoran territory. For years the
Colombian government has been at war with the leftist FARC and is wont to
pursue its political enemy across its borders in Venezuela to the east and
Ecuador to the south.

Then as
now, Uribe's U.S.-assisted military brinksmanship resulted in a rhetorical
outburst from Chávez. In light of the current crisis and threat of war perhaps
it's instructive to revisit my original piece for the Council on Hemispheric
Affairs, followed by some up to date commentary:

A Close Call

"As last
week's diplomatic crisis between Venezuela and Colombia demonstrates, Chávez
has once again sought to appropriate historical symbols in an effort to score
political points. Employing explosive language, Chávez remarked ‘Some day
Colombia will be freed from the hand of the (U.S.) empire. We have to liberate

At its
peak, the political battle lines of the triangular confrontation embracing
Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador had been drawn. On the one side was Colombia,
a key U.S. ally headed by rightist Álvaro Uribe. On the other side was Chávez,
who seeks to turn Venezuela into a powerful regional player that may serve as a
counterweight to Washington's desire to project its authority. Ultimately,
Chávez seeks to plant his socialist economic agenda fused with a parliamentary
democratic political system throughout the region and to this end he has been
able to recruit key allies such as Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and, of course,

Bolívar and His Historical Legacy

When Chávez
employs the word ‘liberate,' he conjures up the epic struggles from South
America's stormy political past which gave the continent its present borders.
The Venezuelan leader clearly intends to make an association with Bolívar, a
Venezuelan native hero who liberated Colombia from the Spanish. Bolívar, the
‘Great Liberator' is revered by many as a great hero in the lands that he freed
from Spain.

A tactical
military genius, Bolívar was also a skilled politician who in 1819 adroitly
managed to briefly unify Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela and Panama into one large
nation state called the Republic of Gran Colombia. The Great Liberator believed
Venezuela would carry more prestige as part of a larger entity than it could
ever hope to acquire on its own. ‘Only a Venezuela united with New Granada
[Colombia] could form a nation that would inspire in others the proper
consideration due to her,' Bolívar once argued. Because of Bolívar's cult-like
status in the region, it's critical for Chávez to prove that he is on the right
side of history, and that he, and no one else, has inherited the true mantle of
the Great Liberator.

The Standoff

The recent
crisis involving a Colombian military incursion into Ecuador is politically
tailor-made for Chávez, and the Venezuelan leader has wasted little time in
seeking to exploit it. The diplomatic tit-for-tat was set into motion on March
1st when, in flagrant disregard for Ecuadoran sovereignty, the Colombian
government ordered an attack of a FARC guerilla camp site in Ecuador, a mile
from the Colombian border. For years, the Marxist FARC has been locked in a
protracted struggle with successive Colombian governments in Bogotá.

From a
military and strategic standpoint, Uribe has some reason to be pleased:
seventeen rebels were killed in the raid, as well as Raúl Reyes, the FARC's
second in command. Though there's no evidence that the U.S. helped to plan the
attack, the Southern Command in Miami might have played a role by providing
intelligence to the Colombian military.

For years,
the U.S. has provided billions of dollars in military aid to the Colombian government
which has been at war not only with left wing guerrillas but also with other
progressive forces such as indigenous peoples, human rights workers, and labor
union activists. The Uribe government has been tainted by human rights abuses
and its association with right wing paramilitary death squads.

Uribe has been aggressively prosecuting the war almost from the onset of his
presidential term, he has now succeeded in escalating the conflict beyond its
borders. Predictably, Ecuador immediately recalled its ambassador to Colombia
and ordered troops to deploy to the border. Predictably, Chávez backed up
Ecuador by similarly recalling its ambassador to Colombia and massing troops on
its western border. Uribe then hit back against Chávez, accusing him of
supporting the FARC guerrilla insurgency and encouraging terrorism.

Employing Bolívar as a Rhetorical Tool

it has always been somewhat unlikely that the border dispute would result in
actual military hostilities, it appeared to be very risky (at least for part of
the time). For a while, Chávez appeared intent on stepping up his non-stop
public relations blitz against President Uribe. For the Venezuelan leader, part
of his future efforts are likely to hinge on appropriating historical symbols
such as Bolívar and casting the Colombian regime as enemies of the Great
Liberator and his legacy. Bolívar, Chávez has said, was a socialist like
himself; was stridently opposed to the United States, and, also like himself,
was determined to build a classless society. What's more, the Venezuelan leader
argues, Bolívar's dream of uniting Latin America represented a threat to
oligarchs and imperialists, thus awakening the ire of the United States.

Chávez has
no doubt taken some historical liberties and embellished his causal
intellectual ties to Bolívar. The Liberator never talked about class struggle
per se, though he did refer to the need to abolish slavery. The Liberator also
issued decrees for the establishment of schools (for boys as well as girls),
deplored the misery of indigenous peoples, and ordered the conservation of
forest resources.

Bolívar was perhaps most forward looking when he spoke of the necessity of
integrating Latin America. It was Bolívar, early on, who understood that the
region had no future unless it confronted both Europe and the U.S. as a unified
bloc. The United States, Bolívar once famously declared, seemed ‘destined by
providence to plague America with misery on behalf of freedom.'

Chávez has
said that he will not rest until Venezuela is liberated from the ‘imperialist
and anti-Boliviaran threat.' He frequently draws comparisons between Bolívar's
struggle against the Spanish Empire and his own political confrontation with
the United States (which Chávez habitually refers to as "The Empire").
Employing his usual penchant for making over self-serving historical
connections, however far-fetched they may be, Chávez recently warned Colombian
‘oligarchs' not to tangle with Venezuela. ‘Don't even think about it,' he said,
or ‘you would run into the soldiers of Bolívar.'

Bolívar's Cult of Personality in Venezuela

Given the
prominence that Chávez has attached to Bolívar in his public speeches, it's not
surprising that books about the Great Liberator are briskly selling in Caracas.
In Venezuela, Bolívar is revered as a God-like figure and his popularity
continues to soar. Indeed, a popular religion based on the fertility goddess of
María Lionza has appropriated Bolívar as one of its central ritual figures. The
faith is based on indigenous, black, African, and Catholic roots, and priests
hold ceremonies in which the spirit of the Liberator is channeled through a
medium who coughs when Bolívar is present, since Venezuela's most distinguished
native son had a debilitating case of tuberculosis. Meanwhile, religious altars
of the faithful generally feature a portrait of Bolívar.

currency, main squares, and universities bear the Liberator's name. His sayings
are taught in schools, broadcast on the radio and emblazoned on government
buildings. Chávez almost reverentially has referred to his political movement
as a ‘Bolivarian Revolution.' Chávez has renamed his country the Bolivarian
Republic of Venezuela and has reportedly left a chair empty at meetings to
honor the Liberator.

supporters, or Chavistas, have dubbed the areas they politically control as
‘liberated zones of the Bolivarian Republic,' and adorn offices and homes with
portraits of the Liberator. Chávez has promoted so-called Bolivarian Circles,
local grassroots groups at the local or barrio level, which lobby the
government for important grass-root resources.

Chávez champions Bolívar's idea of a unified South America, and echoes the
Liberator's words during his televised speeches. Chávez also likes to appear on
television with a portrait of Bolívar near at hand. Riding along Caracas
highways, one may see repeated instances of murals juxtaposing portraits of
Chávez and Bolívar.

Caracas, a key historic landmark is Bolívar's house as a youth. Located along
downtown streets crowded with informal vendors, the house is often full of
visiting school children. In conjunction with the author's next book,
Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (to be released April 1
with Palgrave-Macmillan), a visit is paid to the museum, and its director,
Mercedes García, is interviewed.

to her, Chávez's chronically lengthy speeches awakened an interest in the Liberator.
The volume of people visiting the museum has been increasing, and at the time I
visited, 3,500 individuals were showing up every week. In particular, there was
great curiosity amongst the military, and soldiers from all over the county
were paying visits to the museum.

War of Words Between Chávez and Uribe: It's All
About Bolívar

however has sought to question Chávez's almost exclusive appropriation of
Bolívar as a political icon. ‘The truth, President Chávez, is that if you are
pursuing an expansionist project in this continent, Colombia has no place for
that project,' Uribe remarked. ‘One cannot set fire to the continent, as you
are doing, speaking one day against Spain, the next against the United States;
abusing Mexico one day and Peru the next, and the day after that, Bolivia,'
Uribe continued. ‘One cannot abuse a whole continent, or set it on fire as you
do, by speaking of imperialism, when you, based on your own ambitions, are
looking to set up an empire.'

Seeking to
rip down Chávez's historical narrative, Uribe said ‘We cannot abuse history, we
cannot stain the memory of our heroes, by disfiguring them in popular
demagoguery, in misleading the people. We cannot mislead the people by
misinterpreting the legacy of the Liberator Bolívar. Bolívar was an
integrationist, but not an expansionist.'

Uribe continued, brought independence to South American nations, ‘but he did
not bring them [newly independent countries] a new era of subjection.' Turning
up the rhetoric, Uribe added, ‘Bolívar did not spend his time trying to remove
European domination from the Americans, only to impose his own terms with the
power at his disposal-as you wish to do-on the people of Venezuela and on the
people of Colombia.'

Sparing no
opportunity to exploit his favorite subject, Chávez has accused Uribe of being
a spokesperson of the ‘anti-Bolivarian oligarchy.' The Colombian oligarchy,
Chávez remarked, ‘Doesn't want peace and believes it can mess around with us.
Neither the Colombian oligarchy nor any other oligarchy can mess with us.
Venezuela needs to be respected.' In one of his typical bombastic flourishes,
Chávez added that when Uribe accused him of carrying out Bolivarian
expansionism in South America, the Colombian politician was talking like the
U.S. President. Underneath Uribe's mask, Chávez said, lurked President Bush.

Colombian Elite: Fearful of Bolivarian

diplomatic ripostes are not surprising, given the fortress mentality now
prevalent within the Colombian elite. Within a rising tide of left social
movements and progressive-minded regimes that have flourished throughout the
region, Colombia remains a bastion of conservatism and reaction. What's worse,
many ordinary Colombians are beginning to gain inspiration from Chávez and his
so-called Bolivarian Revolution, thus adding to the Colombian elite's sense of political

In several
Colombian provincial states, Bolívar has again been politicized. Recently,
Colombians formed Bolivarian Circles similar to those common in Venezuela. In
Barranquilla, a Colombian port, barrio and social activists, union organizers
and some members from the Polo Democrático left opposition have united to form
the Corriente Bolivariana Colombiana (Colombian Bolivarian Current), a
political organization that claims almost 5,000 members and fields candidates
in local elections.

A worrying
consideration for the Colombian elite is that Chávez may have an ideological
impact not only upon ordinary Colombians, but also those Colombians living in
Venezuela. For years, Colombian immigrants have fled the war in their country,
fleeing across the border and seeking greater economic opportunity.
Unfortunately for the Colombian elite, many émigrés have returned to Colombia
and helped to organize Bolivarian movements at home.

Manduca, a Bolivarian organizer and candidate in Atlántico state on the
Caribbean coast, has remarked, ‘This is a social movement against poverty in
Colombia. Venezuela's revolution can help change things here through solidarity
and cooperation across the frontier.' Meanwhile the Movimiento Bolivariano de
Colombia S A (sin armas)-the Bolivarian Movement of Colombia (without arms)-is
presenting an electoral challenge to right wing politicians who control
politics along the Colombian frontier in Santander state.

Containing the Bolivarian Revolution

Ever since
Chávez was elected in 1998, the Colombian media establishment has been
implacably opposed to the Venezuelan leader and commonly refers to Chávez as a
dictator or caudillo. Venezuelan commentator Gabriel Bustamante believes that
Colombian journalists ‘don't know, and don't want to know, anything positive'
about political and social changes in his country. ‘Revolutions threaten their
privileges, so there is a need to create Chávezphobia -an excessive and
irrational fear about Chávez and even Bolívar to try to stop Colombians being
influenced,' he said.

would seem to be a fair degree of truth in what Bustamante says. The newspaper
El Tiempo, a bastion of elite sentiment in Bogotá, has editorialized that
‘Caudillos like Chávez have historically impeded the consolidation of liberal
democracy in Latin America.' Rafael Nieto, a columnist at the Colombian
magazine Semana, worries that ‘Polo Democrático leaders going to Caracas and
Bolivarian officials in Bogotá could become a daily occurrence.'

elite opinion, the Uribe government has acted to limit Chávez's political
influence within Colombia. Before diplomatic relations wound up in tatters,
Uribe was careful in handling Chávez when the latter visited Colombia. Uribe
forced the Venezuelan president to meet him at an isolated hacienda rather than
allow his presidential motorcade to travel through the capital.

more, a meeting with opposition Polo Democrático leaders had to be conducted
after midnight, in private at the Venezuelan Embassy. When Chávez asked to
visit Bolívar's historic hacienda in central Bogotá, the authorities (who were
afraid that the Venezuelan leader would come into contact with ordinary
Colombians) denied his request. Meanwhile, Colombia's intelligence services
cracked down on the Corriente Bolivariana Colombiana, raiding a political
meeting of the group on the coast. Armed Forces Commander Freddy Padilla
commented that ‘Bolivarian circles are spreading all over Latin America, and
particularly here in Colombia we want to prevent this from happening.'

Santander: Chávez's Great Historical Villain

this climate of escalating political tensions, Chávez has whipped up a furor by
making skillful use of his own historical narrative. He has referred to the
‘Colombian oligarchy' as the most rancid and criminal elite group in Latin
America. The oligarchy, Chávez says, descends from a despicable historical
figure named Francisco Paula de Santander. For Chávez, Santander, Bolívar's
Vice President, is a great historical villain.

It was
Santander, Chávez charges, who was most responsible for bringing down South
American unity and dashing any hope that the Bolivarian independence struggle
might lead to real political change. By 1825, Bolívar's influence on the
countries that he had liberated was on the wane. Returning to Bogotá from his
military campaigns, the Liberator resumed his duties as president of Colombia
but found that he had little political support from government officials and
the local citizenry.

In 1827 he
pushed for a new Colombian constitution that would have increased the power of
the president. But a constitutional convention in 1828 rebuffed Bolívar and
rejected any change to the constitution. It was a stunning reversal for him.
Egged on by his supporters however, he struck back by assuming dictatorial
powers. Predictably, such a move did not go over well amongst Colombia's
political elite.

uprisings broke out in opposition to Bolivarian rule, and in 1828 a group of
conspirators in Bogotá, tiring of his dictatorship, broke into the presidential
palace intent on murdering him. It was Santander, Chávez claims, who was the
intellectual author of the plot to kill Bolívar and thus sabotage the Great
Liberator's political project.

Bolívar survived the infamous ‘Black September Night' attempt against his life,
Colombia's continued opposition to his united Latin America dream disillusioned
him. Dispirited and disheartened, the Great Liberator resigned as president. By
now sick with tuberculosis, Bolívar departed Bogotá for the Caribbean coast.

Colombia was already in shambles: Venezuela had left the Republic as had
Ecuador and the new nations Bolívar helped to found were wracked by violence
and internal dissension. Bolívar died on the way to Cartagena on December 17,
1830, at the age of 47. Bolívar asked to be buried in his home city of Caracas,
but he had so many political enemies that his family feared for the safety of
his remains. In 1842, his body was finally taken home.

Seeking to
take advantage of Bolívar's tragic death and political eclipse, Chávez has
remarked, in yet another questionable historical leap, that Uribe is a
spokesperson for the ‘Santanderean' and ‘anti-Bolivarian' oligarchy. Uribe
responded in turn that the Venezuelan president was manipulating history and
that Santander "gave us the example of adherence to the law. The truth,
President Chávez, is that we cannot make a mockery of the law, as you do,
trying to abuse General Santander, and exchange the rule of law for personal

Bolívar's Death: Chávez Suspects Foul Play

Taking his
picturesque concept of history to yet greater political heights, Chávez is now
intent on proving that Bolívar was poisoned by corrupt oligarchs and did not
succumb to tuberculosis. The Venezuelan leader asserts that in Bolívar's day,
tuberculosis was not lethal enough to cause death in a few scant weeks. As
evidence to support his version of the medical arts, Chávez points to one of
Bolívar's letters in which the Liberator discusses his future plans. Bolívar
wrote the letter shortly before his own death.

‘Some say
he [Bolívar] was very ill and knew he was going to die, and he wanted to die by
the side of the sea and he died happy, and Colombia was happy and Venezuela was
happy,' Chávez said in a long speech. ‘How the oligarchs fooled us, the ones
here, the ones there. How the historians who falsified history fooled us.'

Venezuelan leader recently convened a high commission, led by his vice
president and composed of nine cabinet ministers and the attorney general.
Their mission: exhume Bolívar's remains, which lie in a sarcophagus at the
National Pantheon in downtown Caracas, and conduct scientific tests to confirm
Chávez's contention-that diabolical assassins murdered Bolívar. ‘This
commission has been created because the executive considers it to be of great
historical and cultural value to clarify important doubts regarding the death
of the Liberator,' Venezuela's official Gazette said.

Chávez's most stalwart supporters say their leader may have gone too far this
time. ‘This doesn't make any sense,' said Alberto Mueller Rojas, a retired
general who works as a presidential adviser on international affairs and
military matters. ‘Why should I care? Bolívar died. If they killed him, they
killed him. If he died of tuberculosis, he died of tuberculosis. In this day
and age, this doesn't have any significance.'

In his
historical novel, The General in His Labyrinth, the legendary Colombian writer
Gabriel García Márquez portrayed Bolívar as a man of the people opposed by a
reactionary oligarchy. However, neither García Márquez nor any serious
historian has suggested that the Liberator was poisoned. John Lynch, a Bolívar
biographer, points out that as the Liberator lay dying he was watched over by a
‘qualified and conscientious' French doctor whose medical bulletins were later published
in Caracas. Lynch has accused Chávez of "a modern perversion" of the mythical
cult of Bolívar.

unlikely that Chávez will ever be able to prove his historical hypothesis by
exhuming Bolívar's tomb, but at least he will have succeeded in scoring more
points in the never-ending propaganda war against Uribe. As the frail
diplomatic engagement continues in the upcoming weeks, and Ecuador, Colombia
and Venezuela try to tame their simmering wrath, it won't be surprising if we
hear yet more Bolivarian rhetoric coming from adjunct professor Chávez. Almost
two hundred years after his death, Bolívar is still the central and defining
figure in the lands that he formerly liberated, a region still wracked by
chronic political instability, poverty, and glaring social inequalities."

back on my article written a little more than a year ago it is striking how
little politics has changed in the Andean region. Indeed, Chávez continues to
employ Bolivarian symbols and his government has sought to pass an education
bill based on "the Bolivarian doctrine": a term used by the Venezuelan
President to describe his socialist political movement. The measure has
generated considerable controversy with some protesters claiming that the bill
will open the door to socialist indoctrination in schools. In the international
arena meanwhile, Chávez has said that the U.S. seeks to fracture Bolivarian
unity by installing its bases in Colombia and Soto Cano in Honduras [for more
on the U.S. airbase at Soto Cano, see my previous columns].

never misses a chance to use Bolívar for political ends. In a column for the
state-run Bolivarian News Agency the Venezuelan President recently made
allusion to an early diplomatic encounter between Bolívar and the United
States. In 1817, American ships sought to supply arms to Spanish forces opposed
to Bolívar in Venezuela. When Bolívar captured the two ships Secretary of State
John Quincy Adams sent a Baltimore journalist with political ambitions named
John Baptiste Irving to negotiate with Bolívar.

In her
book Venezuela and the United States: From Monroe's Doctrine to Petroleum's
Empire, historian Judith Ewell writes that Irving was instructed to secure the
release of the ships and the handover of the vessels to their rightful owners.
Irving was also told to secure an indemnity for the lost cargo. Bolívar
received Irving graciously as he hoped that the diplomatic envoy would extend
U.S. political recognition to his movement.

diplomatic negotiations quickly deteriorated: Bolívar would not back down on
his position vis-a-vis the ships while Irving failed to provide the coveted recognition.
Bolívar grew disenchanted with the U.S., a power which in his view had failed
to provide adequate support for South American independence movements.
According to Ewell, Irving did not take Bolívar's dismissal of the shipping
issue lightly. For several months, the American fired angry notes back to Adams
which characterized Bolívar as a tyrant and a "Don Quixote with ambition." "The
wheels of his [Bolívar's] government," Irving wrote, "are clogged already with
imbecility." In 1819 Irving finally gave up his mission and returned to the

In his
column Chávez made reference to the Irving-Bolívar diplomatic spat, writing
that the U.S. has historically sought to head off Latin American unity. To this
day, Chávez says, Washington continues its geopolitical strategy in such
nations as Honduras and Colombia. A few days ago, during a summit of South
American nations held in Quito, Ecuador Chávez continued to hark on this theme.

has pursued a political alliance with Venezuela and recently the Rafael Correa
government refused to renew a lease for a U.S. military base located at the
port city of Manta. In Quito, Chávez was joined by Correa as well as the
deposed President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya. During the summit Chávez compared
Uribe to General Francisco de Paula Santander and remarked that in Ecuador
"Bolívar's sword is more alive than ever."

"Now I
understand why Bolívar got tied up with Manuela Sáenz," Chávez added. The
Venezuelan was making reference to Simón Bolívar's lover, a native of Quito. As
I note in my book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left which
came out just after I wrote my piece for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs,
Sáenz is a potent political symbol linking Venezuela to Ecuador.

"To this
day," I wrote in my book, "Ecuador and Venezuela still have the same flag
colors. Saenz belonged to the aristocracy and met the Liberator after the famed
Battle of Pichincha. She accompanied Bolivar on his military campaigns,
carrying out intelligence work, raising funds for independence forces, and
cheering on the troops. Saenz also demonstrated great valor on the battlefield,
seeing action during the Battle of Ayacucho…Saenz's love letters to Bolivar are
preserved in a Quito museum, along with some of her garments and an oil
painting showing her in her childhood."

In her
day, Sáenz remarkably rose to the rank of coronela or colonel. Like Chávez,
Correa is a politician who makes skillful use of historical symbols. Indeed,
Correa recently raised Sáenz's rank to generala or general in recognition of
the woman's efforts in the South American independence struggle.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution!
South America and the Rise of the New Left
(Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008)