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Colombia-Ecuador-Venezuela: A Close Call

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• Santander and Bolivar Called to the Colors to Butress Uribe and Chávez
• Uribe tries out for The Dick Cheney Role
• A Narrow Escape from Brinkmanship
• No victors, but Uribe clearly is a loser

As last week’s diplomatic crisis between Venezuela and Colombia demonstrates, Chávez has once again sought to appropriate historical symbols in an effort to score political points. Employing explosive language, Chávez remarked “Some day Colombia will be freed from the hand of the (U.S.) empire. We have to liberate Colombia.”

At its peak, the political battle lines of the triangular confrontation embracing Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador had been drawn. On the one side was Colombia, a key U.S. ally headed by rightist Álvaro Uribe. On the other side was Chávez, who seeks to turn Venezuela into a powerful regional player that may serve as a counterweight to Washington’s desire to project its authority. Ultimately, Chávez seeks to plant his socialist economic agenda fused with a parliamentary democratic political system throughout the region and to this end he has been able to recruit key allies such as Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and, or course, Cuba.

Bolívar and His Historical Legacy
When Chávez employs the word “liberate,” he conjures up the epic struggles from South America’s stormy political past which gave the continent its present borders. The Venezuelan leader clearly intends to make an association with Bolívar, a Venezuelan native hero who liberated Colombia from the Spanish. Bolívar, the “Great Liberator” is revered by many as a great hero in the lands that he freed from Spain.

A tactical military genius, Bolívar was also a skilled politician who in 1819 adroitly managed to briefly unify Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela and Panama into one large nation state called the Republic of Gran Colombia. The Great Liberator believed Venezuela would carry more prestige as part of a larger entity than it could ever hope to acquire on its own. “Only a Venezuela united with New Granada [Colombia] could form a nation that would inspire in others the proper consideration due to her,” Bolívar once argued. Because of Bolívar’s cult-like status in the region, it’s critical for Chávez to prove that he is on the right side of history, and that he, and no one else, has inherited the true mantle of the Great Liberator.

The Standoff
The recent crisis involving a Colombian military incursion into Ecuador is politically tailor-made for Chávez, and the Venezuelan leader has wasted little time in seeking to exploit it. The diplomatic tit-for-tat was set into motion on March 1st when, in flagrant disregard for Ecuadoran sovereignty, the Colombian government ordered an attack of a FARC guerilla camp site in Ecuador, a mile from the Colombian border. For years, the Marxist FARC has been locked in a protracted struggle with successive Colombian governments in Bogotá.

From a military and strategic standpoint, Uribe has some reason to be pleased: seventeen rebels were killed in the raid, as well as Raúl Reyes, the FARC’s second in command. Though there’s no evidence that the U.S. helped to plan the attack, the Southern Command in Miami might have played a role by providing intelligence to the Colombian military.

For years, the U.S. has provided billions of dollars in military aid to the Colombian government which has been at war not only with left wing guerrillas but also with other progressive forces such as indigenous peoples, human rights workers, and labor union activists. The Uribe government has been tainted by human rights abuses and its association with right wing paramilitary death squads.

While Uribe has been aggressively prosecuting the war almost from the onset of his presidential term, he has now succeeded in escalating the conflict beyond its borders. Predictably, Ecuador immediately recalled its ambassador to Colombia and ordered troops to deploy to the border. Predictably, Chávez backed up Ecuador by similarly recalling its ambassador to Colombia and massing troops on its western border. Uribe then hit back against Chávez, accusing him of supporting the FARC guerrilla insurgency and encouraging terrorism.

Employing Bolívar as a Rhetorical Tool
Although it has always been somewhat unlikely that the border dispute would result in actual military hostilities, it appeared to be very risky (at least for part of the time). For a while, Chávez appeared intent on stepping up his non-stop public relations blitz against President Uribe. For the Venezuelan leader, part of his future efforts are likely to hinge on appropriating historical symbols such as Bolívar and casting the Colombian regime as enemies of the Great Liberator and his legacy. Bolívar, Chávez has said, was a socialist like himself; was stridently opposed to the United States, and, also like himself, was determined to build a classless society. What’s more, the Venezuelan leader argues, Bolívar’s dream of uniting Latin America represented a threat to oligarchs and imperialists, thus awakening the ire of the United States.

Chávez has no doubt taken some historical liberties and embellished his causal intellectual ties to Bolívar. The Liberator never talked about class struggle per se, though he did refer to the need to abolish slavery. The Liberator also issued decrees for the establishment of schools (for boys as well as girls), deplored the misery of indigenous peoples, and ordered the conservation of forest resources.

But Bolívar was perhaps most forward looking when he spoke of the necessity of integrating Latin America. It was Bolívar, early on, who understood that the region had no future unless it confronted both Europe and the U.S. as a unified bloc. The United States, Bolívar once famously declared, seemed “destined by providence to plague America with misery on behalf of freedom.”

Chávez has said that he will not rest until Venezuela is liberated from the “imperialist and anti-Boliviaran threat.” He frequently draws comparisons between Bolívar’s struggle against the Spanish Empire and his own political confrontation with the United States (which Chávez habitually refers to as “The Empire”). Employing his usual penchant for making over self-serving historical connections, however far-fetched they may be, Chávez recently warned Colombian “oligarchs” not to tangle with Venezuela. “Don’t even think about it,” he said, or “you would run into the soldiers of Bolívar.”

Bolívar’s Cult of Personality in Venezuela
Given the prominence that Chávez has attached to Bolívar in his public speeches, it’s not surprising that books about the Great Liberator are briskly selling in Caracas. In Venezuela, Bolívar is revered as a God-like figure and his popularity continues to soar. Indeed, a popular religion based on the fertility goddess of María Lionza has appropriated Bolívar as one of its central ritual figures. The faith is based on indigenous, black, African, and Catholic roots, and priests hold ceremonies in which the spirit of the Liberator is channeled through a medium who coughs when Bolívar is present, since Venezuela’s most distinguished native son had a debilitating case of tuberculosis. Meanwhile, religious altars of the faithful generally feature a portrait of Bolívar.

Venezuela’s currency, main squares, and universities bear the Liberator’s name. His sayings are taught in schools, broadcast on the radio and emblazoned on government buildings. Chávez almost reverentially has referred to his political movement as a “Bolivarian Revolution.” Chávez has renamed his country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and has reportedly left a chair empty at meetings to honor the Liberator.

Chávez supporters, or Chavistas, have dubbed the areas they politically control as “liberated zones of the Bolivarian Republic,” and adorn offices and homes with portraits of the Liberator. Chávez has promoted so-called Bolivarian Circles, local grassroots groups at the local or barrio level, which lobby the government for important grass-root resources.

Meanwhile, Chávez champions Bolívar’s idea of a unified South America, and echoes the Liberator’s words during his televised speeches. Chávez also likes to appear on television with a portrait of Bolívar near at hand. Riding along Caracas highways, one may see repeated instances of murals juxtaposing portraits of Chávez and Bolívar.

In Caracas, a key historic landmark is Bolívar’s house as a youth. Located along downtown streets crowded with informal vendors, the house is often full of visiting school children. In conjunction with the author’s next book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (to be released April 1 with Palgrave-Macmillan), a visit is paid to the museum, and its director, Mercedes García, is interviewed.

According to her, Chávez’s chronically lengthy speeches awakened an interest in the Liberator. The volume of people visiting the museum has been increasing, and at the time I visited, 3,500 individuals were showing up every week. In particular, there was great curiosity amongst the military, and soldiers from all over the county were paying visits to the museum.

War of Words Between Chávez and Uribe: It’s All About Bolívar
Uribe however has sought to question Chávez’s almost exclusive appropriation of Bolívar as a political icon. “The truth, President Chávez, is that if you are pursuing an expansionist project in this continent, Colombia has no place for that, project,” Uribe remarked. “One cannot set fire to the continent, as you are doing, speaking one day against Spain, the next against the United States; abusing Mexico one day and Peru the next, and the day after that, Bolivia,” Uribe continued. “One cannot abuse a whole continent, or set it on fire as you do, by speaking of imperialism, when you, based on your own ambitions, are looking to set up an empire.”

Seeking to rip down Chávez’s historical narrative, Uribe said “We cannot abuse history, we cannot stain the memory of our heroes, by disfiguring them in popular demagoguery, in misleading the people. We cannot mislead the people by misinterpreting the legacy of the Liberator Bolívar. Bolívar was an integrationist, but not an expansionist.”

Bolívar, Uribe continued, brought independence to South American nations, “but he did not bring them [newly independent countries] a new era of subjection.” Turning up the rhetoric, Uribe added, “Bolívar did not spend his time trying to remove European domination from the Americans, only to impose his own terms with the power at his disposal—as you wish to do—on the people of Venezuela and on the people of Colombia.”

Sparing no opportunity to exploit his favorite subject, Chávez has accused Uribe of being a spokesperson of the “anti-Bolivarian oligarchy.” The Colombian oligarchy, Chávez remarked, “Doesn’t want peace and believes it can mess around with us. Neither the Colombian oligarchy nor any other oligarchy can mess with us. Venezuela needs to be respected.” In one of his typical bombastic flourishes, Chávez added that when Uribe accused him of carrying out Bolivarian expansionism in South America, the Colombian politician was talking like the U.S. President. Underneath Uribe’s mask, Chávez said, lurked President Bush.

Colombian Elite: Fearful of Bolivarian Revolution
Uribe’s diplomatic ripostes are not surprising, given the fortress mentality now prevalent within the Colombian elite. Within a rising tide of left social movements and progressive-minded regimes that have flourished throughout the region, Colombia remains a bastion of conservatism and reaction. What’s worse, many ordinary Colombians are beginning to gain inspiration from Chávez and his so-called Bolivarian Revolution, thus adding to the Colombian elite’s sense of political isolation.

In several Colombian provincial states, Bolívar has again been politicized. Recently, Colombians formed Bolivarian Circles similar to those common in Venezuela. In Barranquilla, a Colombian port, barrio and social activists, union organizers and some members from the Polo Democrático left opposition have united to form the Corriente Bolivariana Colombiana (Colombian Bolivarian Current), a political organization that claims almost 5,000 members and fields candidates in local elections.

A worrying consideration for the Colombian elite is that Chávez may have an ideological impact not only upon ordinary Colombians, but also those Colombians living in Venezuela. For years, Colombian immigrants have fled the war in their country, fleeing across the border and seeking greater economic opportunity. Unfortunately for the Colombian elite, many émigrés have returned to Colombia and helped to organize Bolivarian movements at home.

Oscar Manduca, a Bolivarian organizer and candidate in Atlántico state on the Caribbean coast, has remarked, “This is a social movement against poverty in Colombia. Venezuela’s revolution can help change things here through solidarity and cooperation across the frontier.” Meanwhile the Movimiento Bolivariano de Colombia S A (sin armas)—the Bolivarian Movement of Colombia (without arms)—is presenting an electoral challenge to right wing politicians who control politics along the Colombian frontier in Santander state.

Containing the Bolivarian Revolution
Ever since Chávez was elected in 1998, the Colombian media establishment has been implacably opposed to the Venezuelan leader and commonly refers to Chávez as a dictator or caudillo. Venezuelan commentator Gabriel Bustamante believes that Colombian journalists “don’t know, and don’t want to know, anything positive” about political and social changes in his country. “Revolutions threaten their privileges, so there is a need to create ‘Chávezphobia’—an excessive and irrational fear about Chávez and even Bolívar to try to stop Colombians being influenced,” he said.

There would seem to be a fair degree of truth in what Bustamante says. The newspaper El Tiempo, a bastion of elite sentiment in Bogotá, has editorialized that “Caudillos like Chávez have historically impeded the consolidation of liberal democracy in Latin America.” Rafael Nieto, a columnist at the Colombian magazine Semana, worries that “Polo Democrático leaders going to Caracas and Bolivarian officials in Bogotá could become a daily occurrence.”

Echoing elite opinion, the Uribe government has acted to limit Chávez’s political influence within Colombia. Before diplomatic relations wound up in tatters, Uribe was careful in handling Chávez when the latter visited Colombia. Uribe forced the Venezuelan president to meet him at an isolated hacienda rather than allow his presidential motorcade to travel through the capital.

What’s more, a meeting with opposition Polo Democrático leaders had to be conducted after midnight, in private at the Venezuelan Embassy. When Chávez asked to visit Bolívar’s historic hacienda in central Bogotá, the authorities (who were afraid that the Venezuelan leader would come into contact with ordinary Colombians) denied his request. Meanwhile, Colombia’s intelligence services cracked down on the Corriente Bolivariana Colombiana, raiding a political meeting of the group on the coast. Armed Forces Commander Freddy Padilla commented that “Bolivarian circles are spreading all over Latin America, and particularly here in Colombia we want to prevent this from happening.”

Santander: Chávez’s Great Historical Villain
Within this climate of escalating political tensions, Chávez has whipped up a furor by making skillful use of his own historical narrative. He has referred to the “Colombian oligarchy” as the most rancid and criminal elite group in Latin America. The oligarchy, Chávez says, descends from a despicable historical figure named Francisco Paula de Santander. For Chávez, Santander, Bolívar’s Vice President, is a great historical villain.

It was Santander, Chávez charges, who was most responsible for bringing down South American unity and dashing any hope that the Bolivarian independence struggle might lead to real political change. By 1825, Bolívar’s influence on the countries that he had liberated was on the wane. Returning to Bogotá from his military campaigns, the Liberator resumed his duties as president of Colombia but found that he had little political support from government officials and the local citizenry.

In 1827 he pushed for a new Colombian constitution that would have increased the power of the president. But a constitutional convention in 1828 rebuffed Bolívar and rejected any change to the constitution. It was a stunning reversal for him. Egged on by his supporters however, he struck back by assuming dictatorial powers. Predictably, such a move did not go over well amongst Colombia’s political elite.

Sporadic uprisings broke out in opposition to Bolivarian rule, and in 1828 a group of conspirators in Bogotá, tiring of his dictatorship, broke into the presidential palace intent on murdering him. It was Santander, Chávez claims, who was the intellectual author of the plot to kill Bolívar and thus sabotage the Great Liberator’s political project.
Though Bolívar survived the infamous ‘Black September Night’ attempt against his life, Colombia’s continued opposition to his united Latin America dream disillusioned him. Dispirited and disheartened, the Great Liberator resigned as president. By now sick with tuberculosis, Bolívar departed Bogotá for the Caribbean coast.

Gran Colombia was already in shambles: Venezuela had left the Republic as had Ecuador and the new nations Bolívar helped to found were wracked by violence and internal dissension. Bolívar died on the way to Cartagena on December 17, 1830, at the age of 47. Bolívar asked to be buried in his home city of Caracas, but he had so many political enemies that his family feared for the safety of his remains. In 1842, his body was finally taken home.

Seeking to take advantage of Bolívar’s tragic death and political eclipse, Chávez has remarked, in yet another questionable historical leap, that Uribe is a spokesperson for the “Santanderean” and “anti-Bolivarian” oligarchy. Uribe responded in turn that the Venezuelan president was manipulating history and that Santander “gave us the example of adherence to the law. The truth, President Chávez, is that we cannot make a mockery of the law, as you do, trying to abuse General Santander, and exchange the rule of law for personal whim.”

Bolívar’s Death: Chávez Suspects Foul Play
Taking his picturesque concept of history to yet greater political heights, Chávez is now intent on proving that Bolívar was poisoned by corrupt oligarchs and did not succumb to tuberculosis. The Venezuelan leader asserts that in Bolívar’s day, tuberculosis was not lethal enough to cause death in a few scant weeks. As evidence to support his version of the medical arts, Chávez points to one of Bolívar’s letters in which the Liberator discusses his future plans. Bolívar wrote the letter shortly before his own death.

“Some say he [Bolívar] was very ill and knew he was going to die, and he wanted to die by the side of the sea and he died happy, and Colombia was happy and Venezuela was happy,” Chávez said in a long speech. “How the oligarchs fooled us, the ones here, the ones there. How the historians who falsified history fooled us.”

The Venezuelan leader recently convened a high commission, led by his vice president and composed of nine cabinet ministers and the attorney general. Their mission: exhume Bolívar’s remains, which lie in a sarcophagus at the National Pantheon in downtown Caracas, and conduct scientific tests to confirm Chávez’s contention—that diabolical assassins murdered Bolívar. “This commission has been created because the executive considers it to be of great historical and cultural value to clarify important doubts regarding the death of the Liberator,” Venezuela’s official Gazette said.

Even Chávez’s most stalwart supporters say their leader may have gone too far this time. “This doesn’t make any sense,” said Alberto Mueller Rojas, a retired general who works as a presidential adviser on international affairs and military matters. “Why should I care? Bolívar died. If they killed him, they killed him. If he died of tuberculosis, he died of tuberculosis. In this day and age, this doesn’t have any significance.”

In his historical novel, The General in His Labyrinth, the legendary Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez portrayed Bolívar as a man of the people opposed by a reactionary oligarchy. However, neither García Márquez nor any serious historian has suggested that the Liberator was poisoned. John Lynch, a Bolívar biographer, points out that as the Liberator lay dying he was watched over by a “qualified and conscientious” French doctor whose medical bulletins were later published in Caracas. Lynch has accused Chávez of “a modern perversion” of the mythical cult of Bolívar.

It’s unlikely that Chávez will ever be able to prove his historical hypothesis by exhuming Bolívar’s tomb, but at least he will have succeeded in scoring more points in the never-ending propaganda war against Uribe. As the frail diplomatic engagement continues in the upcoming weeks, and Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela try to tame their simmering wrath, it won’t be surprising if we hear yet more Bolivarian rhetoric coming from adjunct professor Chávez. Almost two hundred years after his death, Bolívar is still the central and defining figure in the lands that he formerly liberated, a region still wracked by chronic political instability, poverty, and glaring social inequalities.

Nikolas Kozloff, a COHA Senior Research Fellow, is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, April 2008)