Crowds, a cacophony, and traffic-congested streets give life to downtown Caracas.
by Pedro Cavallero*
And a landscape dotted with buildings that emerged following oil booms, the ones which have alternatively modernized, blessed and at times even cursed this land. Unexpectedly, a 17th century colonial house captures the attention of passers-by and it magically brings them back to the very beginnings of all things Venezuelan. Here was born Simón Bolívar (1783-1830), a quintessential Latin American independence leader and the country’s founding father. Nowadays, the Libertador (as the Caraqueño is widely known in the region) has turned into a paradigmatic figure who inspires the rambunctious political process unfolding in Caracas.
Since coming to power in 1999, Hugo Chávez has been championing his so-called “Bolivarian revolution,” a powerful, popularly-driven and antagonistic ideology centered on General Bolívar’s legacy. Fervently, proponents of Bolivarianism are rewriting history. And they do so by brewing a mix of 21st century socialism – despite the General’s having “classic” liberal views – anti-globalism, utopian integration and recycled anti-Americanism.
As the Venezuelan political process progressed, President Chávez managed to reform the constitution and implemented a major institutional overhaul. Ultimately, he changed the country’s official name by adding “Bolivarian” to the “Republic of Venezuela.” Following a 2002 failed coup attempt, the Chávez administration further expanded this process which now permeates the nation.
Accordingly, the image of a triumphant Bolívar has gained the streets of Venezuela’s capital. No longer is he the politically-exhausted, decaying ghost that comes to life through the pages of Gabriel Gracia Marquez’s The General in His Labyrinth, a superb recreation of Bolivar’s last days where he faces opprobrium, defeat and ultimately exile. In today’s Caracas, Bolivar reigns supreme. And nowhere is he more alive than in the vicinity of the Miraflores Palace. Near the huge compound that serves as the President’s office, colorful murals spread the new revolutionary gospel by depicting a forward-looking Libertador. Here Bolívar battles again with the Spaniards, appears alongside his mentor Simón Rodríguez or even utters exalting maxims conveniently recorded by history. Through these wall-to-wall paintings an aristocratic leader connects with the masses, as they prepare themselves for the upcoming battles.
Meanwhile, superimposed images of Hugo Chávez serve to draw parallels between past and present challenges. Prominently, an alert, fatigue-clothed and war-ready Chávez keeps a steady, fixed look over the horizon as if sensing the hidden menaces.
To reinforce these colorful wall messages spread throughout the city, Caraqueños are bombarded nightly by an unapologetically pro-Chávez TV talk show. During the program, a conspicuous Bolívar serves as background, resting uncomfortably alongside the likes of an eternal Fidel Castro and a forever-young “Che” Guevara. And as highly charged (though historically dubious) references fill the air, old rhetoric clouds viewers’ understanding of both their nation’s past and burdensome present.
* Pedro G. Cavallero is a foreign policy analyst based in Washington, DC.
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