In the year 2012 Venezuela celebrated 201 years since its declaration of independence on July 5th 1811. Hugo Chavez took this opportunity to talk about the nation’s independence hero: Simon Bolivar. Simon Bolivar liberated Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela and Panama of Spanish rule and is considered a revered figure in these countries, especially in Venezuela. Chavez often claims that he is fulfilling Bolivar’s dreams and living by his ideology, thus why he calls his movement “la revolucion bolivariana” (or the Bolivarian Revolution) in honour of the South American independence hero. But how much of Chavez’ policies and rhetoric actually fit with Bolivar’s vision for the continent? Surprisingly a lot, though this may not be necessarily positive. Taking a historical perspective and comparing the ideology and actions of these two leaders reveals much and raises questions on what Chavez’ next steps could be and what consequences this might entail.
Since coming to power in 1999 Chavez has spoken of regional integration, and has taken concrete steps towards it. In May 2008 a regional security body was created, UNASUR, having as its members Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela; as well as Mexico and Panama as observers. Chavez was an important driving force behind the creation of UNASUR; guided by the desire to have a regional organization that would not include the U.S.,as this would lead to inevitable U.S. domination in Chavez’ view, as is the case with the Organization of American States (OAS). Chavez has also pushed the OAS to accept Cuba as a member and invite the communist country to regional meetings; a move which has been supported by all member-countries except Canada and the U.S. Even the U.S.’ long time ally in the region, Colombia, has supported the move; testament to Chavez’ integration and unified vision efforts. In this respect the Venezuelan president thinks much like Bolivar, dreaming of a united South America. Bolivar was the first president of the territory then-known as the Gran Colombia from 1819 to 1830; the Gran Colombia comprised modern day Panama, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela.
The current political system in Venezuela has been widely criticized and deemed as nearing a dictatorial state. There is a wide-held belief that Chavez has undermined institutions and silenced opposition and has thus guaranteed his rule for years to come. There is wide evidence of this, as the Venezuelan leader has extended presidential terms, eliminated term limits (both these changes were accomplished through democratic means) and openly said he wishes to govern until 2030, though it is likely his health will determine this, rather than elections. The fear that his wishes of holding on to power for as long as possible were confirmed for many in 2012 when Chavez defeated Enrique Capriles; giving Chavez the presidency until 2019. These initiatives have earned him a dictatorial reputation; yet, it is interesting to note that Simon Bolivar, although a great admirer of the American and French revolution, believed that the Spanish Americas had to be governed with a strong hand. He argued that the democratic system put in place in the United States would never function in Spanish America because the people of South America had been subject to the triple yoke of ignorance, tyranny, and vice, which called for strong leaders, not for popular mandate. Of course Chavez could never justify his reforms on this basis, but fundamentally he is fulfilling Bolivar’s presage of the need for a strong hand in South America by undermining the opposition and creating the conditions to stay in power for as long as possible.
Simon Bolivar is hailed as a great hero in the countries he liberated, and rightly so, as he rid these countries of Spanish colonial rule and brought an end to slavery. However, some of the similarities of Chavez with Bolivar are definitely not desirable for modern times and should cause some concern for the region. Like Bolivar, Chavez has taken positive steps for South America and Venezuela, such as promoting regional integration and tackling inequality (this in the continent with the highest level of inequality in the world). However, for all who have studied some Latin American history, it is also good to remember that one of the reasons for Bolivar’s downfall was his attempt to recreate the Peruvian constitution in the Gran Colombia. The Peruvian constitution called for making Bolivar lifelong president and creating a hereditary senate. Many fear that Chavez is attempting a similar feat, and as noted above, there may some evidence to support this fear. One can only hope that just as Chavez would never say that Venezuela is subject to the yoke of ignorance and vice, he will not attempt to become president for life and suffer Bolivar’s end. Chavez’ allusion to Bolivar inspires the people and brings forth positive images, however, Venezuelans should hope Chavez will only build upon Bolivar’s successes not his shortcomings.