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Jul. 25 2010 - 5:43 pm | 72 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

The old bones at the root of the Venezuela-Colombia rift

Venezuelan officials and scientists surround Bolívar's coffin during the exhumation (Image - Venezuelan government)

When Venezuela broke off diplomatic relations with Colombia last week, amidst bellicose talk, the Andean war-risk meter inched up a couple of points. At issue, according to President Hugo Chávez, were the Colombians’ claims that his government was offering sanctuary to narcoguerrillas, claims that Chávez deemed offensive and untrue.

Most analysis of this latest spat (like the L.A. Times article linked above) puts the reasons behind it in the political opportunism category. Chávez, a former army parachutist, facing a deteriorating economic situation at home, wants to shore up his popularity with left-leaning and nationalist Venezuelans. Colombia’s conservative government is a convenient and nearby punching bag.

But that’s a rational explanation for the actions of an administration riddled through with preoccupations that are much more esoteric. Chávez is trying to rewrite South America’s 19th Century history, and his saber-rattling in Colombia’s direction may have as much to do with myth-making as it does with politics or diplomacy.

The dispute with Colombia coincides with Chávez’s ongoing effort to prove that Venezuelan founding father and independence hero general Simón Bolívar was poisoned with arsenic by a Colombian rival, Francisco de Paula Santander, in 1830 (Bolívar died in Santa Marta, Colombia, presumably of tuberculosis).

Santander, persona non grata in Chávez's Venezuela

There is only spotty evidence to support the arsenic theory (mainly the opinions of Johns Hopkins M.D. Paul Auwaerter, who in any case thinks the chronic arsenic poisoning was unlikely to have been deliberate, since contaminated water could have caused it). But nonetheless, Chávez had Bolívar’s remains exhumed on July 16 in order to conduct forensic tests. He is also having Bolívar’s sister’s remains disinterred to verify the identity of Bolívar’s remains.

Why would a convincing case against Santander (Bolívar’s Colombian rival) be significant?

Because it would rewrite South American history in Bolívar’s favor. Bolívar’s death would go from being sad and almost anticlimactic death-in-exile to a tragic injustice, a slow murder perpetrated by a double-dealing rival. And this would go a long way to rehabilitate Bolívar’s image and denigrate that of Santander, who thought Bolívar was amassing too much power. This rewriting of the narrative would play into Chávez’s own personal view of South American history, in which Bolívar’s dream of a united continent has been constantly foiled by sellouts like Santander, who, once Bolívar was out of the way, cozied up to the United States and pushed free trade (much as Colombia’s leaders are doing today).

On July 16, Chávez tweeted the exhumation of Bolívar’s “glorious skeleton” with several overwrought comments expressing his mystical rapture at being in the liberator’s presence: “Bolívar lives dammit! We are his flame!”(Bolivar vive Carajo!! Somos su llamarada!!).

It’s clear that in Chávez’s mind, the 19th Century past, the 21st Century present, the dead and the living, Venezuelan crude oil, imperialist Washington, D.C., Bolivarian dreams, arsenic, and Colombian yanqui bootlickers, all are melded in a kind of mental soup from which his policy decisions emanate. So, those analysts seeking to rate the probability of a Colombian-Venezuelan border war might track the progress of the investigation into Bolívar’s death as an indicator of how high tensions are likely to ratchet up.

Screenshot: Chávez tweets from the crypt (click to enlarge)

Maite Rico, the Bogotá correspondent of Spanish newspaper El País, does a good job of summing up the real-world implications of all the tomb-raiding going on in Venezuela, in a recent article headlined “The reinvention of the liberator,” analyzing Chávez’s experiments in historical clinical pathology. Here are two paragraphs (my translation):

Hugo Chávez was stubbornly determined to exhume Simón Bolívar, and he did not let up until the skeleton was in his hands. He is convinced that the Liberator was assassinated by enemies who, coincidentally, coincide with his own latter-day enemies: Andean oligarchs, the United States and Colombia, all incarnated in the figure of Francisco de Paul Santander, the legally-minded Colombian founding father who ended up as the bitter rival of the militaristic Bolívar.

… Chávez wants to appropriate the figure of Bolívar, just as Fidel Castro, his mentor, did with José Martí in Cuba. It’s true that all of Venezuela’s leaders have sought to cloak themselves with the cult to Bolívar, the Liberator. But Chávez would like to become Bolívar’s heir, rewriting history from top to bottom. He wants to transform Bolívar, an aristocrat to his roots, into a mulatto, child of a slave; an enlightened despot, suspicious of the rabble, into the ideological forefather of 21st Century Socialism. And now, as the victim of an assassination, Bolívar would become the proto-martyr of the anticapitalist struggle.


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    Readers, thanks for your eyeball time, please send tips, corrections, complaints, rants, etc. My email is ballve [at] gmail.com. I was born in Buenos Aires and raised there and in Atlanta, Mexico City and Caracas. I've written and reported on Latin America for almost a dozen years. I started out as an Associated Press reporter and editor in the agency’s Brazil and Caribbean bureaus. In 2007 I co-founded El Sol de San Telmo, a community newspaper in Buenos Aires. I am now a contributing editor for the nonprofit New America Media, Americas correspondent for Amsterdam-based Research World magazine (publication of the international association of market and public opinion researchers), and a 2010-2011 Lemann Fellow at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

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