Hugo Chavez presents Simon Bolivar

From his homeland in Venezuela to Bolivia, the country which bears
his name, Simon Bolivar is the towering figure in the Latin American
fight for independence from the Spanish Empire. Throughout history both
progressive and conservative forces have claimed his legacy.

By Stephen Martin - Socialist Review
Short URL

Book Review: Hugo Chavez presents Simon Bolivar - Verso, £7.99

From his homeland in Venezuela to Bolivia, the country which bears
his name, Simon Bolivar is the towering figure in the Latin American
fight for independence from the Spanish Empire. Throughout history both
progressive and conservative forces have claimed his legacy.

Today the government and movement led by Hugo Chavez has taken
up the mantle with the self proclaimed Bolivarian revolution looking to
Bolivar as its historical figurehead; claiming to continue and complete
the ideas set out by Simon Bolivar in the 19th century. Despite being a
figurehead in the wave of popular struggles sweeping the continent,
what Bolivar stood for is less well known, especially outside Latin
America. This collection of Bolivar's writings, in the Revolutions
series by Verso, aims to fill in some of that knowledge.

The fact that Hugo Chavez provides the introduction to this
collection highlights the significance that the legacy of Bolivar plays
in Venezuelan politics. Hugo Chavez sees himself as leading a political
movement that will fulfil Bolivar's dream of a united and independent
Latin America free from imperialism, with the US replacing the Spanish
as the imperial masters. The creation of the Bolivarian Alternative for
the Americas (ALBA) as an alternative to the US led Free Trade Area of
the Americas (FTAA) can be seen within this political framework. What
is less convincing in Chavez's introduction is an attempt to
reinterpret Bolivar's ideas to fit within Chavez's political aims.

These include the notion that Bolivar wanted to create a
multipolar global political system, something that wouldn't make sense
in the already multipolar 19th century world inhabited by Bolivar which
didn't resemble the world of today with the hegemonic domination of US
imperialism. Another example is his pondering of the political
direction of Bolivar in which he speculates that Bolivar himself was
moving towards adopting socialist politics. This analysis seems more an
attempt to fit Bolivar within Chavez's framework than an accurate
assessment of his politics.

The letters and speeches of Simon Bolivar fit within the
framework of 19th century Republican thought. At the time the world was
grappling with the legacy of the French Revolution and the ascent of
Napoleon as Emperor. Within this world Simon Bolivar was an important
figure that aimed to transform the Spanish colonies of South America
through a struggle for national liberation.

Not only was Bolivar a thinker who grappled with political
philosophy stretching from antiquity to that of European republicanism,
he was also a military leader who led his forces to victory against
Spain and its allies. This rightly places him as a figure of
inspiration in Latin America, as the continent finds itself in another
struggle against US imperialism; a US imperialism which is also the
legacy of Bolivar and his contemporaries' failure to create a united
and independent Latin America.

This collection of texts shows a political leader that wanted to
fight against the brutality, corruption and nepotism of the colonial
world which favoured hereditary privilege over ability. He espoused
many progressive policies from the emancipation of the slaves
(initially on the condition that they would fight in his army) to an
understanding that equality and justice are the basis of a political
programme. He also stressed the importance of education and was well
aware of the brutality and discrimination against the indigenous
inhabitants.

However, his politics were also contradictory. Whilst seeing
democracy as the ideal political system he thought that Latin America
was not ready for even the limited democracy that could be found in
Britain and the US at that time. He saw the democratic urgings of some
within the liberation movement as a recipe for anarchy, chaos and
eventual imperial subjugation. This is perhaps most clearly stated in
his "Address to the Constituent Congress in Bolivia" where he stated
his belief that the country needed to elect a president for life that
would act as a benevolent insurer against the tyranny of democracy. It
was these increasingly authoritarian politics and a growing suspicion
of his ambitions, with some accusing him of wanting to set himself up
as dictator, which would play a role in the eventual disunity of Latin
America and the break up of Gran Colombia into modern day Colombia and
Venezuela.

So whilst these important political documents provide a glimpse
of the figure of Bolivar, a figure who is rightly seen as an inspiring
figure within Latin America, they offer less in the way of a guidebook
for the political struggles of today. What we are seeing in Latin
America today, from Venezuela to Bolivia, is a wave of popular
liberation struggles that aim to take political power from the
traditional elite and put it into the hands of the people themselves.
This movement needs to have confidence that it is the people themselves
who have the power to reshape the world.