Discovering Simon Bolivar

by Ralph Stone on March 25, 2008

My wife and I recently returned from a three-week vacation to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela – where Simon Bolivar is revered as a national hero, the country’s liberator from Spain. We were, therefore, cautioned never to show disrespect for Bolivar. Hugo Chavez Frias, the current president of Venezuela, frequently links himself to this legendary figure to gain popular support for his programs both at home and abroad. But who exactly is Simon Bolivar?

Simon Bolivar was born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1783. At age 16, he was sent abroad to continue his education in Spain and France where he was introduced to the progressive works of Rousseau and Voltaire. He married Spaniard Maria Teresa and returned to Venezuela. After Maria Teresa’s death, he returned to France and met with the leaders of the French Revolution.

Bolivar then traveled to the United States to witness the U.S. after the American Revolution. He returned to Caracas filled with revolutionary ideas and quickly joined pro-independence groups. Bolivar’s military career began under Francisco de Miranda. When Miranda was captured by the Spanish in 1812, Bolivar took command.

Over the next decade, Bolivar commanded the independence forces in numerous battles, including the key battle of Carabobo, which brought independence for Venezuela. Bolivar also brought independence from Spanish rule to the entire northwest of South America creating the Gran Colombia in what today comprises Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.

Because his central government could not govern such a large land mass with its racial and regional differences, his Gran Colombia lasted just a decade. Disillusioned and in bad health, Bolivar resigned the presidency of Gran Colombia in early 1830. He died in December 1830 at age 47, in Santa Marta, Colombia, while on his way to Europe.

During our brief stay in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital city, we did a mini-tour of Boliviariana, which began at the Plaza Bolivar. By the way, every Venezuelan city has a Plaza Bolivar. The federal district (Caracas) and the capital cities of Venezuela’s twenty-two states such as Merida, Coro, Barinas, Guanare, capital cities we visited, have a statue of Bolivar on a horse.

Other major cities have a statue of Bolivar unhorsed and smaller towns have a bust of Bolivar in their Plaza Bolivar. We visited Bolivar’s birthplace (“Casa Natal de Bolivar”), the Bolivar museum next door where I was asked to remove my cap out of respect (“Museo Bolivariana”), the nearby cathedral where he was baptized and where his wife and family lie, and the “Panteon Nacional” containing his body and those of other eminent Venezuelans.

Hugo Chavez envisions a modern day “Bolivarian Revolution,” a Latin American political block with a socialist bent as an alternative to United States hegemony. As of August 2007, Venezuela had pledged over $8.87 billion in aid, financing, and energy funding in Latin America and the Caribbean in an effort to blunt U.S.-backed economic policies in Latin America.

It is unclear, however, how much of this money has actually been paid. He has made an international reputation with his strident opposition to U.S. policies in Latin America. Remember Chavez’s opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas at the 2005 Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina, and his unsuccessful bid to win the Latin American and Caribbean nonpermanent seat on the UN Security Council (the seat ultimately went to Panama).

And who can forget Chavez calling President Bush “the devil” in his September 2006 speech to the UN General Assembly, and in March 2007, calling Bush “history’s greatest killer” and “the devil.” Chavez’s histrionics find a sympathetic ear in many Latin American countries and certainly to his constituency, his Chavistas, in Venezuela.

Among Chávez’s new priorities is proving that Simon Bolívar was slain by corrupt officials and did not succumb to tuberculosis as historians universally agree happened. In January 2008, Chavez convened a high commission, led by his vice president and composed of nine cabinet ministers and the attorney general. Its job is to exhume Bolivar’s body and carry out the necessary scientific tests to confirm Chávez’s contention — that assassins murdered Bolivar. If they find evidence of foul play, what then?

Only time will tell whether Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” will succeed. In the meantime, many Venezuelans want Chavez to tend to problems on the home front such as government corruption, inefficiency, and mismanagement; the deteriorating health and education programs; the troubled economy; and crime.

Did you know that there is a statue of Simon Bolivar on a horse in San Francisco’s United Nations Plaza? It is a 1984 “Gift from Venezuela to the People of San Francisco.”

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