Ignoring both domestic and international protests, Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro has recently overseen the creation of a Constituent Assembly with the power to dissolve parliament, rewrite the constitution, and remove any remaining checks on his power. But this should not be interpreted merely as a power grab by yet another desperate ruler. History’s invisible hand is at work, playing out a recurring theme that has haunted Venezuela since its formation by Simón Bolívar.
On his deathbed in 1830, Bolívar wrote a letter to the new president of Ecuador, General Juan José Flores, encouraging him to flee the continent: “The country is bound to fall into unimaginable chaos, after which it will pass into the hands of an undistinguishable string of tyrants of every colour; Once we are devoured by all manner of crime and reduced to a frenzy of violence, no one — not even the Europeans — will want to subjugate us.”
Now, almost 200 years later, Bolívar’s quote seems prescient. Ironically, he himself became the prototype for the series of democratically elected leaders turned autocrats.
Simón Bolívar swept to power on the back of his legendary military victories against impossible odds. Riding a white horse and donning a cape, he freed much of the Spanish-speaking Americas from colonial rule. And while he started out a staunch democrat, he ended his rule as a dictator and was eventually cast out to die alone and in poverty. In spite of his ignominious final days, in death his flaws were soon forgotten and his virtues enhanced until they took on mythical proportions.
The embellishment of Bolívar’s legend started twelve years after his death. Oddly, it also involved the repeated exhuming of his corpse. In November 1842, seeking to tie himself to the Liberator, President José Antonio Páez successfully repatriated Bolívar’s remains, except his heart, from Colombia to his native Venezuela.
Impressed by the populist impact Páez derived from associating himself with the Liberator’s image, in the 1870s, dictator Antonio Guzmán Blanco decided that he too would dig up Bolívar’s remains and have them transferred to a newly built National Pantheon.
And so it has continued. With each generation the mythical stature of Bolívar has increased.
During the rule of Hugo Chávez, the cult of Bolívar would achieve its apex, as the magical realism of the region’s literary traditions increasingly blended into political rhetoric. Chávez transformed Bolívar from a noun to an adjective, from a historical figure to a spirit, embodied by all his supporters.
Chávez’s infatuation with the Liberator started at the military academy in Caracas where he and a group of like-minded cadets dreamed of economic and social liberation. On 17 December 1982, the anniversary of Bolívar’s death, they formed a Bolivarian revolutionary army, MBR, and repeated the same oath that Bolívar had first uttered when he pledged to devote his life to liberate Venezuela from Spanish oppression: “I will not allow my arm to relax, nor my soul to rest, until I have broken the chains that oppress us.”
From then on, Chávez would incorporate Bolívar into everything he did. Every attempted coup, every speech to the nation, was carried out in the name of the Liberator. The first place Chávez visited after having been pardoned from prison in 1994 was Bolívar’s tomb. And after gaining power in 1999, he had a Bolivarian constitution drafted and renamed the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The Bolivarian revolution was equipped with a Bolivarian intelligence service, Bolivarian universities were founded, and in Avenida Bolívar Chávez campaigned to abolish presidential term limits so that he, like the Liberator, would be able to rule indefinitely. And of course, in 2010, Chávez too dug up the body of Bolívar, an event that was broadcast live to the nation.
After Chávez died of cancer in March 2013, his successor Nicolás Maduro has sustained the “Bolivarian” legacy. On 14 May 2013, Maduro inaugurated a new, $140 million-mausoleum for Bolívar. A 54-metre tall, white-tiled building, it has been likened to the snow-covered Andean peaks Bolívar traversed in pursuit of his Spanish foes.
During Maduro’s rule, Venezuela has descended into a crippling crisis marked by corruption, mismanagement, and widespread shortages of food and medicine. In May 2017, in response to increasing support for the opposition and its latest series of protests, Maduro called a vote for a Constituent Assembly able to grant him and his ruling Socialist Party unlimited powers. Amidst widespread allegations of voter fraud, Maduro announced the greatest electoral victory the Bolivarian revolution had ever seen: “It’s when imperialism challenges us that we prove ourselves worthy of the blood of the liberators that runs through the veins of men, women, children and young people.”
Maduro is now in the final stages of the “Bolivarian evolution”: the transition from democrat to dictator, and as such he will remain in power until the next Liberator rises from the people to free them, most probably also in the name of Simón Bolívar. As Bolívar left behind countless speeches and writings, full of contradictions, most political standpoints can find support somewhere in his canon. While he started out professing that “regular elections are essential to popular government” and “a nation in which one man rules is a nation of slaves,” he later conceded that dictatorship was the only way to accomplish anything when ruling an uneducated and “immature” people. Consequently, Bolívar drafted a new constitution, giving the president the power to rule for life and select his own successor.
Maduro is not a lone despot. Nor will he be the last. He is simply another turn in Venezuela’s Bolivarian cycle of perpetual liberation.
Kajsa Norman is a London-based investigative journalist and author focused on dictatorships and conflict zones. She has previously published books on Cuba, Zimbabwe and South Africa. She has also served as a press and information officer for the Swedish Armed Forces in Afghanistan and Mali. Her most recent books are Bridge Over Blood River: The Rise and Fall of the Afrikaners (2016) and A Hero’s Curse: The Perpetual Liberation of Venezuela (2017), both published by Hurst.