Chávez as a Modern Day Bolívar

Murals of Chavez
By Andrés Bayona

This year Venezuela celebrated 201 years since its declaration of independence on 5 July 1811. Hugo Chávez took this opportunity to talk about the nation’s independence hero: Simón Bolívar. Bolívar liberated Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela and Panama of Spanish rule and is considered a revered figure in these countries, especially in Venezuela. Chávez often claims that he is fulfilling Bolívar’s dreams and living by his ideology, thus he calls his movement “la Revolucion Bolívariana” (or the Bolívarian Revolution) in honour of the South American independence hero. But how much of Chávez’ policies and rhetoric actually fit with Bolívar’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 Chávez’ next steps could be and what consequences this might entail.

Since coming to power in 1999 Chávez 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. Chávez was an important driving force behind the creation of UNASUR; guided by the desire to have a regional organisation that would not include the US, as this would lead to inevitable US domination in Chávez’ view, as is the case with the Organization of American States (OAS). Chávez 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 US.  Even the US’ long time ally in the region, Colombia, has supported the move; testament to Chávez’ efforts at integration and a unified vision. In this respect the Venezuelan president thinks much like Bolívar, dreaming of a united South America. Bolívar 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 criticised and deemed as nearing a dictatorial state. There is a widely held belief that Chávez has undermined institutions and silenced opposition and has thus guaranteed his rule for years to come. There is clear 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 he wishes to hold on to power for as long as possible were confirmed for many in 2012 when Chávez defeated  Henrique Capriles; giving Chávez the presidency until 2019. These initiatives have earned him a dictatorial reputation; yet, it is interesting to note that Simon Bolívar, although a great admirer of the American and French revolutions, 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 a popular mandate. Of course Chávez could never justify his reforms on this basis, but fundamentally he is fulfilling Bolívar’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 Bolívar 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 between Chávez and  Bolívar are definitely not desirable for modern times and should cause some concern for the region. Like Bolívar, Chávez 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 Bolívar’s downfall was his attempt to recreate the Peruvian constitution in the Gran Colombia. The Peruvian constitution called for making Bolívar lifelong president and creating a hereditary senate. Many fear that Chávez is attempting a similar feat, and as noted above, there may some evidence to support this fear. One can only hope that just as Chávez 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 Bolívar’s end. Chávez’ allusion to Bolívar inspires the people and brings forth positive images. However, Venezuelans should hope Chávez will only build upon Bolívar’s successes not his shortcomings. 


Andrés Bayona has deep interest in Latin American politics and has worked as a consultant in Chile, Uruguay, Ecuador, and Brazil in environmental and social projects. He holds a BA in economics from McGill University and an MA in Local Economic Development from the London School of Economics.


5 December 2012