A year before his death, the Liberator Simón Bolívar wrote to one of his supporters that “in my name both good and evil is sought…and many invoke it as the text of their madness.” This, in a nutshell, summarizes what political cults are all about. When a man becomes a myth or a legend, he ceases to be an actor and becomes an object for others to use for their own political ends. In this regard, Bolívar is akin to a santo de vestir, a church mannequin capable of performing the role of more than one saint simply through the changing of its vestments. This is why to study the image of Bolívar over time is to meet many different Bolivars; we see conservatives who tout Bolívar as a symbol of political centralism while Cold War-era Soviet historians celebrated him as a Marxist revolutionary.
Now, with the death of Hugo Chávez we are witnessing the emergence of a parallel Cult of Chávez, modeled on the Cult of Bolívar. In my 2003 book, The Cult of Bolívar in Latin American Literature, I outlined a theoretical model for understanding the kind of symbolism that underpins the Cult of Bolívar and which remains relevant for an understanding of what is happening right now with Chávez. I argued for three elements that defined how intellectuals, writers and statesmen have defined the meaning of Bolívar.
“My argument is that the authority of monuments, and by extension, monumetnalist narratives about heroes, may be diagrammed through the concept of monumental poses, or authoritative statements about the monumentalist hero that explain his primary claim on ideological power. In the case of Bolívar there are three monumental poses…The first poses is the concept of progress. In modern Latin America, the symbol of Bolívar has been charged with the defense of hte promise of tomorrow. History is plotted through continuities and Bolívar is a powerful wellspring of myth capable of joining the past to the present and to a providential future…The Liberator encodes an authoritiative claim to the past and to the future, with the power to exert influence over the political, social and cultural realms…Another dominant pose of the monumental Bolívar is its embodiment of the patriarchal principle…The Liberator is a symbolic father whose heroism and vision have entitled him to the unswerving loyalty of his heirs, who seek his inspiration and guidance in times of crisis…The third and final poses is related to language and signification, and may be termed metatextual. The cult of Bolívar maintains itself through unquestioned faith in the authority of the words of Bolívar…” (3-4)
In looking at the outpouring of grief over Chávez’s death, and the ritualistic, state sponsored celebration of his life, we begin the see these monumental poses at work on the dead body of Chávez. We see Chávez explained as the key to Venezuela’s Socialist future (the pose of progress and futurism), we see him celebrated as a symbolic father who cannot be questioned (the pose of patriarchy) and we see him as a symbolic set of authoritative statements about what Venezuela should be (the pose of metatextuality.)
In the “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” Karl Marx famously wrote “all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice…the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” Bolívar’s anonymous death on the coast of Colombia was tragic because he was arguably the most important leader of Independence and because he had been rejected by all. There were no state funerals or processions or grandilocuent speeches. The man who had led the liberation of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, died a pauper’s death and vilified by both Colombians and Venezuelans. It was only twelve years after his death that Venezuela reclaimed his body and began the symbolic work of rehabilitating him for posterity. Other South American countries did the same by mid-century and Bolívar became a Pan-American symbol that has endured into the twenty first century.
The death of Chávez, and the transparent creation of “another” Bolívar-like cult is reminiscent of the farce in Marx’s quote above. I don’t say this on ideological grounds, out of a rejection of Chavismo (although I am not a Chavista). I say it in relation to the question of form: the Cult of Chávez is a simulacrum or parody of the Cult of Bolívar that has begun and will continue to function in parallel and analogous ways to the original Cult of Bolívar.
It will be interesting to see how the Venezuelan state tries to negotiate the maintenance of two cults at the same time: the Cult of Bolívar and the Cult of Chávez. It will also be interesting to see whether the Venezuelan opposition to Chavismo will take up the mantle of Bolívar to counter the Cult of Chávez. In a war of words and ideas, political factions always need symbols.
My citation of Marx is from The Karl Marx Library, vol. 1, ed. Saul K. Padover (McGraw Hill: New York, 1972), 245–46.
The association of Bolívar with a Santo de Vestir is a concept I use in The Cult of Bolívar in Latin American Literature on page 18. Elías Pino Iturrieta, in his book El Divino Bolívar, cites a conversation with me in which I shared the term with him before the publication of my book.
For students and researchers in finding out more about my book, here’s an overview of its contents:
The Cult of Bolívar in Latin American Literature provides an introduction to Bolivarian identity in Latin American culture.
My introduction, “Dominant Poses, Iconoclastic Gestures,” uses a controversial painting by the Chilean Juan Dávila to frame an analyis of how the Cult of Bolívar has historically authorized itself as a commanding set of “Truths” related to language, gender and historical development. The rest of the book examines how critiques of the Cult of Bolívar have been used as vehicles for condemning the shortcomings of Latin American modernization. Primary materials considered in the study include: the visual arts, fiction, poetry, biographies, children’s literature, and political tracts. In sum the book provides a framework for speaking about the contours and limitations of hero-worship in modern Latin America.
Chapter 1 “Bolívar and the Emergence of a National Religion” examines the emergence of the Cult of Bolívar in nineteenth- century Venezuela through archival research.
Chapter 2 “Monumentalism and the Erotics of National Degeneration” is an exploration of late nineteenth-century challenges to Bolivarian nationalism. This chapter includes a reading of the Modernist novel “Idolos rotos” (1901), with special emphasis on sexuality and development.
Chapter 3 “The Promise of Bolivarian Paternity” deals with Bolívar as symbolic father of the nation, through children’s literature and specifically the writings of Teresa de la Parra, who died before she could write a sentimental and ‘feminine’ biography of Bolívar.
Chapter 4 “A Whore in the Palace: The Poetics of Pornodetraction” examines the Cult of Manuela Sáenz as it relates to Simón Bolívar, with special attention to the controversy over Denzil Romero’s pornographic novel “La Esposa del Dr. Thorne” (1983).
Chapter 5 “Solitude, Signs and Power in ‘The General in His Labyrinth’ analyzes Gabriel García Márquez’s “The General in his Labyrinth” (1989) vis-a-vis “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, “The Autumn of the Patriarch”, and García Márquez’s early journalism, his Nobel lecture and his memoir, “Living to Tell the Tale” (originally published in Spanish in 2001; 2003 English translation).
Afterword “Bolivarian Self-Fashioning into the Twenty-First Century” is a meditation on President Hugo Chávez and his brand of Bolivarian nationalism. Full text here.