He was leader of Peru, and “President of Colombia.” The entire country of Bolivia is named in his honor.
Born on July 24, 1783, he was serendipitously raised in an age of revolutions, and was one of the key leaders in the struggle for independence from Spain, which he would help to spread throughout Latin America.
Just as George Washington has been honored and remembered for his leadership during the cause of independence in the United States by naming streets, cities, counties, states, and even the nation’s capital after him; posterity has likewise honored Simón Bolívar by using his name on a vast collection of landmarks throughout the Americas.
But genuine commemorations are not the same as adopting an image for political purposes.
Perhaps no one has misappropriated the iconic image of Simón Bolívar more blatantly or extensively as Hugo Chavez (who ironically hails from Bolivar’s own homeland in Venezuela) .
Since first being elected in 1999, Chavez has leaned on the popular image of the nation’s (and region’s) Libertador as a way to shore up his own controversial and destructive agenda.
Chavez named his ideological “Bolivarian revolution” after Bolívar, and renamed Venezuela’s currency the “Bolívar Fuerte.” He is known to sit with a prominent painting of Bolivar in the background, even had the country of Venezuela itself renamed, to “The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” In 2010, Chavez went so far as to have Bolívar’s remains exhumed, publicized the event personally, and placed his government’s seal on the disturbed remains of the country’s liberator before reburying him.
But perhaps plagiarizing Bolívar’s character has also been intended as a way to preemptively inoculate himself from Simon Bolivar’s own contrasting ideology, which rests on a foundation which contrasts harshly, and fundamentally with Chavismo.
Hugo Chavez has explicitly declared himself a Marxist, and has drawn upon Marxism for his touted his failed “Socialism of the 21st Century.” That Karl Marx himself disparaged both Simón Bolívar’s personal character, and his historical legacy, reveals the level of hypocrisy Chavez has assumed for political gain by adopting Bolívar’s image.
The legacy of Bolívar, which Marx so disparaged, was built upon an ideological foundation of of liberalism, free trade, rule of law (rather than man), and freedom of thought. Bolivar was an enthusiast of the intellectual legacy of the Enlightenment, and is known to have read Hume, Montesquieu, Voltaire, biographies of George Washington, and other works covering natural rights, and the tyranny of unnatural governments.
Simon Bolivar was a staunch believer of the cause for independence in the United States. He admired George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, among other founding fathers, having sent his nephew to the University of Virginia which was founded by Thomas Jefferson. Bolivar even even briefly passed through Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and other cities, before leaving from Charleston to return to Venezuela in 1806.
Perhaps discerning voters in Venezuela should look to Bolívar’s own words of caution when weighing Chavez’s ability to emulate their iconic liberating hero. Bolívar was a student of history, and warned that citizens should, “flee from the country where a single man holds all the power: It is a country of slaves.”
Hugo Chavez is now serving his fourth term as president, having altered the constitution to allow himself to continue running in perpetuity. In one of his many insightful observations recorded for posterity, Bolívar anticipated ambitious hoping to become leaders of the country he freed, and noted that, “the continuation of authority in one individual has frequently been the undoing of democratic governments.”
Chavez has spearheaded the nationalization of Venezuela’s oil industry, and restricted trade. Bolívar read Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations,” and railed against a Spanish government which restricted trade, and heavily regulated the industry throughout their colonies in the Americas.
Chavez has also worked closely with ideologically extreme nations, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Bolivar worked with European nations to solicit support for independence, and the freedom of Latin Americans, and fought against a tyrannical Spanish government for the sake of liberation of Americans.
While there is an obvious political expediency behind the expropriation of the legacy of the Libertador of South America for a populist regime looking to drum up emotional support, Simón Bolívar once noted of Napoleon Bonaparte in France, that, “since [he] has become a king, his glory to me seems like the brilliancy of hell.”
One can’t help but imagine that he would have chosen similar words to describe Chavez.