The legacy of “The Liberator” and modern-day bolivarianism

. Jan 04, 2021
bolivarianism venezuela maduro Woman holds a photograph of the late Hugo Chávez during a rally in support for his successor, Nicolás Maduro. Photo: StringerAL/Shutterstock

In his famously long and scathing speeches delivered from the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez — who led the country until his death in 2013 — was always shadowed by a large and triumphant portrait of Simón Bolívar, the military leader who liberated Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, and Bolivia from Spanish rule in the early 1800s.

More than just a nod to his hero, the portrait of Bolívar represented much more to Hugo Chávez and his government. His unwavering belief in self-identification, popular democracy, and territorial and political sovereignty formed the basis of Chávez’s so-called “Bolivarian Revolution” in the late 1990s.

Until today, the official name of the country is the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, seeking to continue Bolívar’s legacy by way of socialist rhetoric.</p> <p>The <a href="">resilience of Bolivarianism</a> can be seen in both Venezuela — where Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, remains in power despite economic collapse and gargantuan pressure from the U.S. — and in Bolivia, where the Movement for Socialism party was swept back into power at the polls one year after being ousted by a military coup. </p> <p>In a ceremonial gesture after <a href="">swearing in President Luis Arce</a>, the portrait of Simón Bolívar was returned to the walls of Bolivia’s presidential palace.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1000" height="667" src="" alt="nicolas maduro venezuela" class="wp-image-54553" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 600w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>Bolivarianism in display: President Nicolas Maduro in an earlier photograph — with the portrait of Bolívar behind him. Photo: Harold Escalona/Shutterstock</figcaption></figure> <h2>The Bolívar trump card</h2> <p>Declaring himself as the “spiritual successor” to Bolívar, Hugo Chávez used the image of <a href="">one of South America’s liberators</a> to create a patriotic and populist political project. Instead of colonial rulers Spain, the new enemy became the all-powerful U.S., portrayed by Chávez as being a greedy neoliberal power seeking to use Latin America as its own backyard.</p> <p>Famously calling President George W. Bush “the devil,” Chávez became the leading anti-imperialist figure on the global stage, decrying the country’s military ventures into Iraq and Libya. U.S. economic sanctions placed on Caracas only served to fuel Chávez’s narrative even further.</p> <p>In order to explore the precise meaning of Bolivarianism, <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> spoke with history Ph.D. and American History professor Marcos Sorrilha, who highlights the importance of separating Simón Bolívar of the Latin American liberation from the political symbol he has become today.</p> <p>Mr. Sorrilha points to the turbulent 20th century in Latin America as the time when Bolívar’s historical image had its popular makeover. With the region witness to social uprisings, military coups, and revolutions — all with the shadow of the Cold War lurking in the background — “Simón Bolívar was constantly quoted by texts, novels, biographies, and speeches that transformed him into a great popular icon, someone venerated by the ordinary man and woman,” explains Mr. Sorrilha.</p> <p>Upon rising to power in the 1990s, Hugo Chávez piggybacked on this historical charismatic figure in order to lead his own revolution. “He talked about refounding the country, and his ‘new Venezuela’ was designed to be distant from corruption, the country’s elites, and foreign capital’s coveting of Venezuela’s natural resources. The figure of Bolívar was perfect for relaying this message.”&nbsp;</p> <h2>Bolivarianism today</h2> <p>Indeed, Hugo Chávez has now <a href="">taken his place alongside Bolívar</a> on the walls of the Miraflores palace as an eternal hero of the country’s socialist government. However, Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, is unlikely to receive a portrait of his own after leaving office.</p> <p>Claiming to govern in the name of Chávez and Bolívar, Mr. Maduro is a highly contested individual within Venezuela and abroad. His government has become increasingly authoritarian and has been criticized for allegedly turning its back on the principles laid down by Hugo Chávez, and therefore, Bolívar himself.</p> <p>However, while the <a href="">putschist opposition has repeatedly tried and failed</a> to topple his government — despite unwavering support from the U.S. and several countries around the world, including Brazil — Nicolás Maduro remains in power, outlasting even the most generous of predictions of his longevity.</p> <p>While his Bolivarianist suit of armor may be growing old and more vulnerable to attack, Mr. Maduro withstands. However, when hearing the president speak, flanked by the images of Chávez and Bolívar, one cannot help but wonder what scathing critique each would have about today’s Venezuelan government.

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Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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