Venezuelan History is a Battleground: A Conversation with Pedro Calzadilla

A renowned historian talks about how the past shaped Venezuelan identity.
Pedro Calzadilla (Venezuelanalysis)

Pedro Calzadilla is professor of history at Venezuela’s Central University and a former Minister of Culture. He was recently appointed President of the Rómulo Gallegos Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, an institution that promotes Latin American and Caribbean culture. Calzadilla is the author of several books, including El siglo de la pólvora y otros escritos [The Century of Gunpowder and Other Writings]. In this interview, he discusses the formation of the Venezuelan identity; what he calls the “historia insurgente” [insurgent history] of the Bolivarian Revolution; and about the continuities and ruptures in Venezuelan history.

Historia insurgente is a concept that you see as integral to the Bolivarian Process. Can you tell us about this approach to history? 

Historia insurgente is not only a conception of history but also a historiographical and political project that brings together ideas, values, and practices linked to the Bolivarian Process.

Historia insurgente is not an academic position. It’s not a project that grew out of the ivory tower, in the cubicles of a university, or in research circles. Historia insurgente is a political practice that was born in the battle to transform our country. 

The Bolivarian Process is first and foremost a cultural revolution that aims to identify and recover the thread of popular struggles joining two figures 200 years apart: Simón Bolívar [Venezuela’s independence leader] and Hugo Chávez.

When our revolution identifies itself as Bolivarian, that involves a double movement: finding the roots for our project and also liberating Bolívar. 

Hugo Chávez stands in front of a painting of Simón Bolívar (Archives)

What does it mean to say that the Bolivarian Revolution is “liberating Bolívar”?

This may be somewhat controversial, but if you’re familiar with Venezuela’s history, it’s straightforward. Our political process liberated Bolívar from the chains of an oligarchical discourse and restored him as a symbol for the pueblo. Before Chávez, Bolívar had been in the possession of the elites. 

Chávez revised and rewrote history hand-in-hand with the pueblo. That’s why it’s not uncommon to accuse the Venezuelan process of rewriting history. To that, we say, why not? History is a battleground like any other, and we should not have doubts about revising a history that had been in the service of a few! We should be proud to reinterpret history!

This process of revising our past brought about a revolution in our conception of history. In a very public way, Chávez began to revisit and reinterpret the past, and shortly after, ordinary people began to take their first steps in their own rewriting of history. If Chávez could, they could too! 

In this process, the pueblo as the subject of history moved centerstage. Many groups began to recover the history of their forebears. They asked themselves why their African grandparents were not in the history books and why the Indigenous peoples that are also our forebears have been erased from the history books. 

That’s why, when we talk about historia insurgente, we are talking about a movement that defies academia and its stale historiography.

You were a history professor when Chávez came into power. Did his emergence mark a before and an after in your practice as a historian?

As a professor and as a researcher, I felt quite comfortable with my interpretation of history, but Chávez brought about a seachange: the movement made me question my schemes. Chávez’s interpretations of history and the important events that the Bolivarian Revolution brought about made us rethink our premises. 

Chávez resignified historical events that we took for granted. For instance, he took Ezequiel Zamora [19th-century revolutionary leader], who conventional historians had reduced to being a mere “caudillo,” and restored the revolutionary content to his project. 

The Bolivarian Revolution reinterpreted the whole 19th century. What had been seen as “100 years of chaos” became instead a century of struggles, and those people who changed the course of history with the Federal Wars [led by Ezequiel Zamora] weren’t considered destabilizers anymore, but a pueblo resisting the oligarchy. 

When Bolívar died in 1830, the oligarchy managed to control the situation. After 20 years of war, enslaved people remained enslaved, peons stayed peons, and huge inequities were the order of the day. With the Bolivarian Revolution, we began to understand that Zamora represented an attempt to revive the emancipatory project of the Venezuelan people.

Sometimes I get asked to explain the theoretical-methodological definition of historia insurgente. There are many interpretations, and they are all open to debate, but nobody could deny the following: it’s a form of history that challenges old and stale narratives.

El siglo de la pólvora y otros escritos by Pedro Calzadilla (Monte Ávila Editores)

In your book El siglo de la pólvora, you talk about identities as dynamic and dialectical constructions. Can you explain this idea in relation to Venezuelan identities?

Most people would agree that identities are not stable. They are not a given and are not rigid and immutable. Identities are a construction. Additionally, identities are typically linked to a class and its political project. The bourgeoisie here has a political project that formed an identity. 

Today, by contrast, there is a historical narrative in Venezuela that is linked to the collective political project of the working people and not to that of the bourgeoisie. This in itself generates a new identity. The way of being a Venezuelan has been reconfigured. Today the identity of the pueblo is in dialogue with a project that is committed to the democratization of life, and to justice and equality. 

It used to be that the elites defined the national identity. Today, much to their chagrin, that’s no longer the case. 

While the national identity that emerged during the Bolivarian Process is practically hegemonic, the identity defined by the old elites is still around. Can we talk about its historical roots?

Early on in the process of Independence [1810-13], most of the local elites joined in the project of breaking with colonial power, with a few exceptions who remained royalists. Because of this class configuration, the early independence struggle was defined by a rather conservative project: rupture with the colonial power while maintaining the prerogatives of the oligarchy. 

However, especially after 1816, the independence project became a revolutionary cause. Bolívar had traveled to Haiti, seeking support and refuge, and he met with the revolutionary leader Alexandre Pétion [1770-1818]. That’s when Bolívar understood that slavery had to be abolished: overcoming colonial power was no longer the only goal. 

This new conception generated big tensions within the elites, although they remained unified in pursuing independence. That’s how two historical projects emerged, one oligarchical, the other emancipatory.

By 1819, Bolívar was promoting the idea of a republic of equals and the integration of the Great Colombia [Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and more]. That project took root in the pueblo, but by 1830, with Bolívar’s death, the conservative elites took full control of the country with their project which involved maintaining slavery, a rigid stratification of society, and no redistribution of land.

Venezuela was born as a republic of enslavers and enslaved people, of rich and poor. The republic was born with its back turned to Bolívar.

Between 1830 and 1842 Bolívar was widely execrated. He appeared in neither the political discourses, nor the press, nor the chronicles. Of course, Bolívar didn’t disappear from the collective imaginary: he remained a popular symbol. 

However, in 1842, the elites carried out a cultural revolution of sorts: the remains of Bolívar were repatriated [from Colombia] and the oligarchy reconciled itself with a certain representation of Bolívar. José Antonio Páez, an important 19th-century president, and the elites invented a defanged Bolívar and made him their own. In a masterstroke, they turned a popular symbol into the symbol of an oligarchical republic. 

It would last through 1998, when Chávez came to power. 

If the elite interpretation of Bolívar was one that erased his emancipatory project, what is the Chavista interpretation of Bolívar?

There are different interpretations of Bolívar even within the Bolivarian Revolution, but they coincide in many respects. Bolívar embodies the content of our political process and is the “space” where the Venezuelan pueblo comes together. That’s why we say: Bolívar, the heart of the people [Bolívar, corazón del pueblo]. 

Bolívar is a kind of gravitational pole for the Venezuelan pueblo. This has real-world implications. For us, Bolívar is not an oligarch, nor a man aspiring to personal power. He is not a god but a historical figure, who emerged from a certain context. He gave up his position, wealth and power, for the emancipation of the people. 

Bolívar also embodies a geopolitical vision. In Bolívar’s view, Venezuela would not fully exist until was united with Nuestra América, to use José Martí’s term [for continental unity and self-determination]. To be fully free from the yoke of imperialism – for our independence to be substantive and long-lasting – requires the union of Nuestra América

That’s why we say: ¡Alerta, alerta, alerta que camina, la espada de Bolívar por América Latina! [Be alert, be alert, be alert, the sword of Bolívar is alive in Latin America]. The integration of our continent is what we dream of, but it’s the worst nightmare for the elites. 

Let’s talk about the continuities and ruptures in Venezuelan history.

History is open to interpretations, it is dialectical and one cannot force it into a preestablished schema. History is made of ruptures and continuities. It’s undeniable that the force of the past is felt in the present, and societies have characteristics that remain over time, but there are times when an eruption brings about real change. 

When we think about history from our perspective, we can easily identify an important rupture that occurred with Chávez coming to power, with the popular classes making themselves heard and becoming the protagonists. All this brought about a cultural revolution. At the same time, however, there is much that connects us to the past.

It is also true that sometimes the mutations seem weaker than the forces of continuity. Those who highlight continuities with the 4th Republic [1958-1998] are partly right. Still, there have been profound processes of transformation over the past two decades. Some say that in a revolution more happens in a day than in 100 years of stability. I think that is true and we have been witnesses to it here.

That’s why we should not see history as static: there is a double movement in society and a rich reading of history cannot favor one of its directions to the exclusion of the other. Our role as historians is to understand history and its complexities in order to be able to act, create, and live in the present.

Finally, can you give us a couple of examples of ruptures and continuities in Venezuela’s history?

One of the continuities is the colonized mentality. Much of the Venezuelan pueblo is today, as it was 200 years ago, a prisoner of a system of ideas and values that were born with colonialism. How does that express itself? Through cultural, political, and historical references that come from outside and even values left over from colonial times. Decolonization is still a pending task!

When we talk about ruptures, I would say that the most important one is the emergence of popular protagonism in the Bolivarian Revolution. Never in history had there been a time when the people could deliberate on issues with both local and national impact. I’m talking about democracy in a fuller sense, democracy that goes way beyond choosing a representative or a president. I’m talking about protagonistic participation!