Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Odd Hero

While the transformative social movement of Latin America is referred to by many as the Bolivarian revolution,according to Edwin Williamsons’ History of Latin America, its namesake Simon Bolivar was not necessarily interested in the kind of “peoples struggle” which characterizes the political forms seen today. It is true that Simon Bolivar fought a great “war to the death” against the great occupying power of early nineteenth century Spain and that it is this same anti-imperialist spirit which animates today’s revolution, but that is as far as the analogy holds. In every other way Bolivar seems an unlikely symbolic hero.
His effort was sustained and encountered many setbacks. In his first attempt at revolt, a congress declared independence under his leadership in 1811. This new government did little to reach out to non-whites, slavery was retained, only property owners had a say and soon the “pardos” joined the royalists and ended the insurrection. Reaching Caracas with a rebel force for a second attempt in August 1813, he “declared a second republic and assumed the functions of a military dictator, “having become disenchanted with democratic assemblies.” Again the mass of blacks, Indians, and half-castes were disenfranchised, Spain was back in control two years later and Bolivar escaped for the second time.
Bolivar became convinced “that unqualified electoral democracy would lead to catastrophe in society” and he invited Great Britain to become a tutor and protector of the nations freed from Spain.
The third time was a charm and in1819 he again entered New Granada (Venezuela) and began a three-year campaign. Having learned from the past, he this time incorporated blacks, Indians and llaneros but his new constitution proposed a “strong executive president, a parliament of two chambers, one elected, one a hereditary senate and as a further check on the evils of unlimited democracy, a ‘moral power’ formed by an unelected body of notable citizens”. Fortunately the congress rejected both the hereditary senate and the ‘moral power’ but he revived these ideas again in 1826 for the constitution he devised for Bolivia. Here he proposed “a president who would serve for life and who would appoint his own successor”. Bolivar’s aim was, in his own words, to avoid elections “which are the greatest scourge of republics and produce only anarchy.” He died a disillusioned man, observing shortly before his death: “America is ungovernable. Those who have served the revolution have ploughed the sea”.

Fortunately the revolution of today, which bears his name, has abandoned Bolivar’s liberal- bourgeois philosophy and embraced the idea of endogenous development through a unique, regionally inspired socialism. Still, the peoples of Latin America and the movements they have formed are as firmly opposed to advances on their sovereignty and self-determination as was Simon Bolivar. It is just that today the empire has taken on the new form of neo-liberal capitalism. I am looking into other sources to see how accurate this portrayal may be, but Latin America is a land of odd paradox and contradiction. Bolivar seems to embody that spitit.

Post script: I had the great and fortunate opportunity to visit Venezuela last winter and I took with me Gabriel Marquez's wonderful A General in his Labyrinth, the story of the last days of Simon Bolivar. He adds his own overlay of tragic heroism to this enigmatic figure which looms so large in the venezuelan imagination.