“Simón Bolívar’s popularity in South America is enormous,” wrote Erik Hesselberg (1914-72) in his book Kon-tiki and I (1949). “So many things carry his name, including the hotel where I stayed [in Lima, Peru]. It was a very large hotel that covered one whole block in front of the San Martin square. That of Madame Rodriguez in Colon was a hut compared to the Bolivar.” This popularity is much more extended in Venezuela, where Simón Bolívar was born and first came to be known. For the last 25 years, though, the legendary hero’s name has been used to label a wicked version of Socialism that impoverished the country and made its people unhappy — and thinner.
Simón Bolívar belonged to the dominant class of the 18th-century colonial establishment. Born in Caracas on July 24, 1783, he was the youngest of four sons of a wealthy family. In 1799, as his social position demanded, he traveled to Spain to be trained as a professional military officer. He returned married to a noblewoman who died shortly after. Then, full of the Romantic feeling of fatality, he went back to Europe, where he learned about the independence movement.
Simón Bolívar and the War for Independence
His life was ripe for another change, when he met his mentor, Simón Rodríguez (1769-1854), in Rome, and swore before him to devote his life to free his land from tyranny. He came back to Caracas and engaged in the independence cause led by the veteran General Francisco de Miranda (1750-1816). On April 19, 1810, the new, provisional, monarchy-supporting government sent him and two other young ambassadors to obtain support in Europe. After the Independence Act is signed on July 5, 1911, he soon became the leader of the war against Spain.
Years later, after securing the independence of Venezuela, he exported the effort to Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. He led those countries to victory and created a huge new nation: The Great Colombia, from eastern Venezuela to the north Peruvian border, including present Panama. On the pinnacle of his career, the Republic of Bolivia was created to honor him, and, even though, on December 17, 1830, he died alone and betrayed by his former allies.
The independence war killed a third of the Venezuelan population in barely ten years, but it made Simón Bolívar a mythic figure that all Venezuelans have venerated since then. He is now the national hero, undisputed by the myriad of other prominent soldiers of Venezuelan history. All the Venezuelan rulers have worked to unite the people around his biography and epopee as if he had fought it alone.
And not only that. The country’s currency was named after him; even the most modest institution in the remotest places in the country could be named Simón Bolívar. All, or almost all, schools in Venezuela used to foster a Bolivarian Society where students of all ages were taught about the importance of Simón Bolívar.
Simón Bolívar, the Idol
No other country has taken the idealization of a man further. When I was in elementary school, and much more in high school, although I respected Bolívar’s image and fame, I thought he could not be as much of a saint as, for instance, my grandmother, born in 1921. All of this could be thought of as naïve love for a hero, but it did not qualify as negative for a country — or so many of us thought.
In the 1990s a “new” “political” current came about that was not too much like love, reverence or idealization. but rather fanaticism. One night of February 1992, a military parachutist (oh, what a powerful metaphor!) publicly stole Simón Bolívar’s name for his own appalling goals. Hugo Chávez (1954-2013) jumped to international fame thanks to a military coup attempt. All his words seemed to be backed by Bolívar’s thought. It was so much so, it was so annoyingly repetitive, that I then confirmed that the Bolívar fascination perceived during my school days could not be a good thing for the Venezuelans.
Hugo Chávez: Using the Name of Bolívar
Chávez conquered power with that “philosophy” in 1999. Shortly after, he called it Socialism, but it was populism, fanaticism. He hid behind Simón Bolívar to justify every single idea on government, international relations, laws, wealth distribution, market, and property. Schools, hospitals, banks, supporting groups, municipalities, states, the Armed Forces, the new Constitution, everything had to be renamed to increase Bolívar’s “glory.” He even changed the name of the country, and it is now officially called the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.”
The new “leader,” thus, actually acted as a foreman more than as a modern ruler of a rich and civilized nation. Not that Simón Bolívar engaged in an extraordinarily civilized activity to earn a living, but at least his (profound and abundant) writings show a respectable vision of the law, the coexistence of opposing ideologies, democracy and peace that seems to have been completely ignored by the self-dubbed “21st-century Socialist revolutionaries.”
He closed television channels and radio stations, imprisoned opposition leaders, insulted journalists asking uncomfortable questions, and nationalized huge properties just for the sake of caprice, always sanctified by the unquestionable spirit of Simón Bolívar. His “obsession” with the 19th-century general went so far, that he, one day, ordered to exhume his remains. Allegedly to find out the reason for his death. Actually, what it produced was a three-dimensional image of Bolívar that looks more like Chávez than the much-portrayed leader’s family.
Simón Bolívar’s Influence on Language in Venezuela
The Spanish spoken in Venezuela, as well, now shows evidence of all these changes. Just as the new Constitution renamed the country, other words and names changed their meanings. Once Chávez started using words like escualidos (‘scant’) and golpista (‘coup plotter’) to refer to the opposition, his supporters immediately adopted them, and, as a majority, imposed them on the rest of the population. Now we have guarimba (‘manifestation with barricades’) to mean protests; terrorista (‘terrorist’) for protesters; bachaquero (‘smugglers’) for people queuing up for food; majunche (‘mediocre’) for opposition leaders; diablo con sotana (‘devil with cassock’) for priest; niñito de papá (‘spoiled child’) for university student. Not to mention the instauration of obscene language in the public discourse.
Notoriously enough, the people insulted by these new words, (or new meanings given to old words) tend to use them to refer to themselves, an evidence of the deep crisis in the society’s consciousness. But government critics have also created words to insult supporters. The perfect example is boliburgués (‘Bolivarian bourgeois’), which refers to a public servant that has become rich thanks to the “revolution.”
A Deformed Name
As a result of this all-inclusive fanaticism, the use (and, more significantly, the deformation) of Simón Bolívar’s name, words, and ideas, his image, fame and symbols, all of which had to serve as a theoretical floor to a new, justice-making government style, ended up tarnishing Bolívar’s reputation. Even the name Bolívar, mentioned by government supporters, now means Chávez rather than ‘father of the nation,’ and bolivariano now means Chavista.
In other words, Bolívar’s brilliant political career has become an umbrella for an ideological disaster. Bolívar’s dream of justice, peace, and well-being for all has become an implacable punishment for a country too naïve to tell a romantic legend from a wordy fraud.
Simón Bolívar, regretfully, has gone from a mythical hero to the protagonist of an economic, political, and social hecatomb that is narrating the end of the national history and even the physical and visible country as we have known it for the last 200 years.