'Simn says ...' Populist leader revives an icon

When Venezuelan schoolchildren returned from summer vacation last week, the country's education minister declared this was not just any back-to-school, but the initiation of a "Bolivarian school year."

Earlier this month, when President Hugo Chvez addressed the role of women, he spoke to the freshly constituted "Women's Bolivarian Force."

And Mr. Chvez welcomed the leaders of OPEC here this week to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, the official new name coined at Mr. Chvez's insistence last December.

Evoking Simn Bolvar is more than a game of nomenclature. For Venezuelans, and many Latin Americans, Bolvar is the "Liberator," the father of independence from Spain. He's George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in one. And the grinning, red-bereted Chvez is now unabashedly and determinably wrapping himself in the cloak of this iconic 19th-century military leader.

All Venezuelans know by age 6 that the heroic Bolvar in 1819 defeated the Spanish to win independence for Gran Colombia, a union of today's Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Panama.

Bolvar's name is so sacred that something akin to civilian churches sprang up in his honor in the late 19th century, and even today it remains illegal to use his name in the name of a political party. That's why the organization that brought Chvez to power is called the Fifth Republic Movement and not the Bolvarian Movement that Chvez originally intended.

Chvez, who first took office in February 1999 and has since won reelection to a six-year term under a new "Bolvarian" Constitution, is not the first Venezuelan leader to use the cult of Bolvar to his benefit, historians note. At different times over the past few decades, Bolvar has been referred to as the country's first environmentalist (he apparently did once make reference to the need for clean water in Caracas), an anti-imperialist, and even a feminist.

But Chvez is the first leader to pass so categorically from rhetoric to actions supposedly inspired by the principles of the general-turned-statesman.

The former failed-coup leader-turned- president says it is "Bolvarian principles" that underpin his project for a "social revolution" in Venezuela and indeed across South America.

And it's working.

The Bolvarian cloak has cleverly rendered Chvez's actions unquestionable in the eyes of Venezuela's poor masses and the middle class, impoverished by years of economic deterioration, that remain his supporters 18 months into his regime. At the same time, it turns his critics into not just political opponents, but unpatriotic naysayers suspected of serving non-nationalist interests.

"Never mind that Bolvar - even in his era - never believed in countries closing out the rest of the world," says Elas Pino Iturrieta, a Venezuelan Bolvar specialist. "Chvez wears this Bolivarianismo as a shield against economic globalization and what he calls the 'savage neoliberalism' of the international economy. Anyone questioning that view," he adds, "suddenly becomes a traitor to our supreme national myth."

Along the way, Chvez may also being trying to redefine what it means to be Bolivarian.

"Bolvar is one thing, and Bolivarianismo is another thing altogether," says Samuel Moncada, a historian at Venezuela's Central University in Caracas. "People may interpret the latter a hundred different ways, but they know it has to do with Chvez."

The irony of the new Bolivarianism is that Bolvar was banished from Venezuela as a despot and tyrant and fled to neighboring Colombia where he died in 1830. It wasn't until 1870 that he was rehabilitated and the cult to his name began to bloom.

Mr. Pino says this "banishment of the father" was something like Venezuela's "original sin," which the country continues to atone for by holding Bolvar aloft as a national demi-god.

Bolvarian experts say there are a number of the Liberator's guiding ideas that fit nicely with the broad lines of the Chvez project. Bolvar stood for South American unity, and Chvez promotes South America's integration as a "Bolvarian necessity" in today's world of regional trade and political blocs. Bolvar battled and ultimately defeated Spanish colonialism, and today Chvez lambastes a "unipolar world" led by the United States.

But most Venezuelans make little connection between Bolvar's and Chvez's ideals, social analysts say. The Bolvarian cloak simply makes Chvez more credible as a national savior to large segments of the population.

"For Chvez, the figure of Bolvar is a convenient symbol of this project to create a new nation," says Miguel Hurtado, a Venezuelan specialist in Bolvarian thinking. "But it's much more a ritual use than something coming out of similarities in the thinking of the two."

Mr. Hurtado notes, for example, that even though Bolvar was a military leader, he was adamantly opposed to a military influence in civilian governments. Hurtado notes, "He said the military spirit is 'unacceptable in civilian government.' "

But Chvez has caused controversy by employing the military in traditionally civilian tasks, he notes, and transformed civics courses in schools to something called "pre-military education."

But just how closely this Bolvarian president follows Bolvar's thinking is unimportant to a Venezuelan like Anita Delgado.

A longtime community activist and founder of a national network of "Working Women's Circles," Ms. Delgado says what matters to her is that Bolvar was a "fighter," and now Venezuela has a president who is also a fighter, and for causes she believes in, like poor women's rights.

Delgado says she remembers one time in the 1980s when she and a group of women from her organization finally were granted an audience with the president. The women patiently waited at the presidential palace for six hours, she says, only to be told at the end of the day that unfortunately the president had had to leave to greet a Miss Venezuela who was returning home as Miss Universe.

Delgado contrasts that to the day earlier this month when she presented Chvez with a list of women's demands at a ceremony launching the "Women's Bolvarian Force." Delgado says she remains "politically independent," but she does feel part of what she calls a "Bolvarian process" that has opened doors to a wider swatch of Venezuelans.

The problem with such a wide interpretation of what Bolivarianismo means is that it also works for people who would use it in more negative ways, analysts say.

Heated criticism of Chvez's nationalist vision of Bolivarianismo erupted recently when small groups of Venezuelans wearing Chvez-style red berets and calling themselves defenders of the Bolvarian revolution began passing out antiforeigner pamphlets outside Caracas subway stations - calling for action against wealthy Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian immigrants.

"When this rhetoric from Chvez's mouth is transformed into pathology," says Pino, "then it becomes his responsibility to say what he does and doesn't mean by Bolvariano."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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