This Saturday, Andrés Manuel López Obrador will preside over an event to commemorate the birth of a historic man from Caracas who is usually associated, politically, with Hugo Chávez: Simon Bolivar. But he does it not really to support the Bolivarian project in Venezuela, but to raise a flag of commitment to a South America that has seen Mexico more allied to the United States than south of the border. “Why in the bicentennial of Mexico is someone who is not Mexican celebrated?” Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said in a short speech days before. “For the very important contribution of an essential idea that brings us together: the awareness that we are a Latin American and Caribbean nation.”
Bolívar, the liberator of what today are Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Panama and Bolivia, will be celebrated in one of 15 special events organized by the presidency this year to commemorate 200 years since the independence of Mexico and 500 since the fall of Tenochtitlan to the Spanish. At each event, an international figure is invited to give a speech, such as the presidents of Argentina, from Bolivia O from Guatemala. To invite Nicolas MaduroHowever, it was perhaps risky. The special guest will be the writer Chilean Isabel Allende, according to the Mexican Presidency told EL PAÍS, exiled in Venezuela during the Pinochet dictatorship and whose uncle, Salvador Allende, also represents a Latin American symbol of the left. 25 ministers from across the continent will also attend.
The event is somewhat strange for several reasons. The first, because López Obrador has not mentioned Bolívar more than a couple of times in his political life, unlike the figures he worships in dozens of speeches like Benito Juárez or Francisco Madero. The second, because this year there is no round date to commemorate the birth of Bolívar: he was born 238 years ago, in 1783. And third, because Simón Bolívar –although he fought for the independence of New Granada at the same time that the Independence from New Spain – had little to do with Mexico’s independence process. But by joining the cult of Bolívar, the president of Mexico opens a new chapter in the political ways in which the figure of the liberator has been used.
The Bolivar of Mexico
“News came from South America, but that process of independence never had too much weight in Mexican independence,” he tells EL PAÍS Alfredo Avila, professor of history at the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and expert in the independence process. “If you are looking for the greatest influence for Mexico’s war of independence, it was the war of independence from Spain, the war against France when Napoleon invaded it.” The war of independence of the United States in 1776 also had great influence, Avila says. But the influence of South America, on the other hand, was very subtle.
Ávila explains that Bolívar had no greater contact with the great heroes of Mexican independence such as Miguel Hidalgo or José María Morelos. After both were assassinated and the authoritarian Agustín de Iturbide came to power in 1821, contacts between the Venezuelan and Mexican leaders remained scarce. “They were very different political projects,” says Ávila. “The Bolivar of 1821 was very republican and did not like the imperial project of Iturbide.” The Mexico of that time almost reached what is today Costa Rica, and the territory of Bolívar to Panama. As neighbors, rather than allies, Bolívar feared that Iturbide’s imperialist project would threaten his territory.
Ávila considers that there was a type of influence, very indirect, by the Trujillo Armistice Treaty of 1820, which recognized Colombia as a country at war against Spain. This was a basis for what later became the Treaty of Córdoba, which recognized the Mexican empire in 1821. Bolívar and Iturbide, with these agreements, were no longer rebels but leaders of States. But apart from those treaties, and very few friendships between Bolivarians and Mexicans, there was no military support during the two wars.
Bolívar’s unifying project also did not include Mexico. The liberator did not consider that his territory known as Gran Colombia should expand further north than the territories he already included: Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama. His image as a leader who wants to unify all of Latin America in a single state, in that sense, is more myth than reality. He did try to organize a military alliance with other nations in the face of the threat of a Spanish reconquest, but in both efforts he failed. Each state continued to defend its territory on its own side.
“The truth is that I believe that it is to fall into a cliché, what the president does,” Avila thinks about the López Obrador event. “Indeed, Bolívar had a project for a military alliance to confront the European powers, but not a project for Latin American unity. That is actually something that was later attributed to Bolívar, this idea of Latin American unity began to be forged, fundamentally from Venezuela where, since always, there has been a tremendous cult of Bolívar ”.
The great cult of Bolívar
With the event on Saturday, López Obrador is about to get on a train in which many politicians and writers have already passed who read Bolívar in the way that best fits his project. Hugo Chávez, for example, especially praised the version of the leader as a caudillista and a revolutionary military man. Karl Marx described it in 1858 like a despot more like Napoleon. Two very different faces of the same man from the left. But the cult of the figure of Bolívar, which precedes Chávez and Marx, is above all a Venezuelan cultural production that has been successfully spreading throughout Latin America since the 19th century.
“Bolivarianism is almost endemic to Venezuelan political history,” says Socrates Ramírez, a researcher on the political uses of Bolívar in Venezuelan history and a doctoral student in history at UNAM. After Bolívar’s death, General José Antonio Paéz – who opposed the liberator when he was alive – repatriated his remains to Caracas and was the first to turn him into a symbol of unity to remedy a moment of political crisis. A pantheon and a number of institutions were later built to glorify the liberator. Years later, the authoritarian government of Juan Vicente Gómez at the beginning of the 20th century would transform Bolívar’s version into something more to the right, like an ultra-conservative Bolívar and “a source of inspiration to preserve certain political orders,” says Ramírez.
At the same time, a trend appeared, perhaps the best known among leftist leaders, which read the liberator as the opposite: an anti-imperialist, antiyankee and anti-European, who wanted to subvert order. “From that tradition he will drink [el partido venezolano] Democratic Action from its origins, also the Party of the Mexican Revolution of Mexico – later converted into the PRI -, certain traditions of the Cuban left before the revolution, and certain traditions of the left in Latin America ”, explains Ramírez. “There is not a Bolívar but a multi-Bolívar, in Venezuelan politics, and in Latin American politics.”
The multi-Bolívar exists because Simón Bolívar could be, depending on the historical moment one looks at him, all those people at the same time: revolutionary and traditional; liberator and despot; anti-Spanish and pro-European. He was an admirer of the civic concepts of Jean-Jaques Rousseau, but he was also the one who ordered the massacre of thousands of indigenous people who opposed him in 1822 in southern Colombia; It was the Caracas aristocrat in a family of slave owners but also the one who promised the president of Haiti to abolish slavery; He was the one who defended republican ideas in his writings but was willing to massacre the political leaders who opposed him.
“In each national tradition in the Americas, including the United States, the way in which Bolívar is remembered is different and depends on the figures to which he is compared,” says history professor Robert T. Conn of the Wesleyan University and author of a recent book on the different political uses that have been made with the figure of the liberator, Bolívar’s Afterlife in the Americas (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).
In Colombia, for example, Bolívar was seen as a conservative when compared to General Santander, known as a liberal and a man of the laws (in the second half of the 20th century, he also became an icon of the FARC or M- 19). In Venezuela he was a unifying symbol when he was compared to General Páez, a critic of the alliances of Greater Colombia. In the United States, in a 1921 speech, United States President Warren Harding compared him to George Washington to promote a Pan-American alliance (which years later would become the OAS). Also to defend, implicitly, the Monroe doctrine that consolidated North American power on the continent. “If we could consult Washington and Bolívar,” then said the president of the United States, “They would tell us to move forward with the firm confidence that ours is the right path.”
“Bolívar is always going to circulate as a cultural figure, and it is not so worth seeing who is right and who is wrong about him, because what you have to see is the context of the moment,” says Conn. In the literary world something similar happened to political leaders, he explains, when the most important pens of the continent dedicated their letters to the Bolivar they preferred.
“There was a renewed interest in Mexico with the figure of Bolívar with José Vasconcelos,” he says about the author of The Cosmic Race who wrote a text in 1939 on the life of the liberator. “Vasconcelos wanted to produce his own version of Bolívar, and what he builds is a fascist version, as an authoritarian figure, as a Hispanic against the British, and representing a Latin American racial cultural essence that is Hispanic.” Allied with German National Socialism and critical of the anti-Nazi British and American axis, Vasconcelos made Bolívar an anti-British when in reality the liberator fought alongside the English and Irish during independence.
Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, compensates for that fascist vision of Vasconcelos shortly after with A Song for Bolívar, an ode written in 1941 when Neruda was helping Spanish exiles in Mexico fleeing the Franco dictatorship. “Neruda presents Bolívar as a warrior who fights against the fascists,” explains Conn. “From the dead of Spain comes this red hand that is the daughter of yours”Neruda tells Bolívar in the poem.
“There are many ways in which López Obrador can use the figure of Bolívar on Saturday,” says Conn about the event. “It could be Bolívar’s version as anti-imperialist, or Bolívar criticizing the elites, or Bolívar’s version as a unifier. But in any case it will be an easy speech, because the real fact is that most people in Mexico do not really know who Bolívar was. So the president, honestly, will be able to say whatever he wants about Simón Bolívar ”.
“We already have independence, General, now tell us what to do with it”, a citizen asks Bolívar in the famous novel by Gabriel García Márquez, The General in his Labyrinth, perhaps the most famous about the liberator. Rewrite it a thousand times, history would respond, which has not stopped trying to discover who the liberator really was. In a Colombia that now protests against the government of Iván Duque, for example, protesters meet almost daily in a monument where the statue of Bolívar was removed for safety. Below his last name a less glorious adjective was now drawn to accompany it: Oppressor.
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