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Jul-21-2010 17:06printcomments

Who Is Simon Bolivar?

Only time will tell whether Chávez's "Bolivarian Revolution" will succeed.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in front of a painting of  Simón Bolivar
Venezuelan Pres. Hugo Chávez with painting of Simón Bolivar

(SAN FRANCISCO) - Recently Hugo Rafael Chávez Frias, the current president of Venezuela, opened the coffin of his idol Simón Bolivar so Venezuela can investigate the president's suspicions of foul play in Bolivar's death in 1830. Chavez displayed the intact skeleton briefly on national television, saying he wept when he saw the bones of the inspiration for his Bolivarian Revolution.

Historians have generally concluded that Bolivar died of tuberculosis in 1830, but Chavez believes that Bolivar was murdered. Chavez often speaks under a portrait of "The Liberator" and quotes his words frequently and links himself to this legendary figure to gain popular support for his programs both at home and abroad. Chavez has also renamed Venezuela the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and says he's creating a socialist system based on Bolivar's ideals.

With Venezuela's economy slumping and Chávez's socialist party facing competitive parliamentary elections in September, some suggest that reviving the idea of Bolívar's martyrdom in Colombia could be a move by Chávez to galvanize his political base. Just who is Simón Bolivar anyway?

In 2007 and 2008, my wife and I traveled to Venezuela -- where Simón Bolivar is revered as a national hero, the country's liberator from Spain. We were, therefore, cautioned never to show disrespect for Bolivar.

Simón Bolivar was born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1783. At age 16, he was sent abroad to continue his education in Spain and France where he was introduced to the progressive works of Rousseau and Voltaire. He married Spaniard Maria Teresa and returned to Venezuela. Maria Teresa died 8 months later of yellow fever. He never married again but had many lovers, including Manuela Saenz affectionately known as Manuleta, whom he met in 1822 and who was with him until a few days before he died. After Maria Teresa's death, he returned to France and met with the leaders of the French Revolution. Bolivar then traveled to the United States to witness the U.S. after the American Revolution. He returned to Caracas filled with revolutionary ideas and quickly joined pro-independence groups. Bolivar's military career began under Francisco de Miranda. When Miranda was captured by the Spanish in 1812, Bolivar took command.

Over the next decade, Bolivar commanded the independence forces in numerous battles, including the key battle of Carabobo, which brought independence for Venezuela. Bolivar also brought independence from Spanish rule to the entire northwest of South America, creating the Gran Colombia in what today comprises Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Because his central government could not govern such a large land mass with its racial and regional differences, his Gran Colombia lasted just a decade. Disillusioned and in bad health, Bolivar resigned the presidency of Gran Colombia in early 1830. He died in December 1830 at age 47, in Santa Marta, Colombia, while on his way to Europe. Ironically, the newly independent Venezuela banned Bolivar from his homeland for twelve years until 1842, when his remains were finally brought from Santa Marta to Caracas and entombed in the "catedral." In 1876, his remains were transferred to the "Panteon Nacional."

During our brief stays in Caracas, Venezuela's capital city, we did a mini-tour of Bolivariana, which began at the Plaza Bolivar. By the way, every Venezuelan city has a Plaza Bolivar. The federal district (Caracas) and the capital cities of Venezuela's twenty-two states such as Merida, Coro, Barinas, Guanare, capital cities we visited, have a statue of Bolivar on a horse. Other major cities have a statue of Bolivar unhorsed and smaller towns have a bust of Bolivar in their Plaza Bolivar.

We visited Bolivar's birthplace ("Casa Natal de Bolivar"), the Bolivar museum next door where I was asked to remove my cap out of respect ("Museo Bolivariana"), the nearby cathedral where he was baptized and where his wife and family lie, and the "Panteon Nacional" containing his body -- until he was recently exhumed -- and those of other eminent Venezuelans.

Last year, we took a road trip along the coast from Cartagena, Colombia, to visit Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the hacieda where Bolivar spent his last days before he died. Spaniard Joaquin de Mier, the owner of the hacienda, a supporter of Colombia’s independence, invited Bolivar to stay and rest until his departure for Europe. The hacienda grounds contain a massive central structure ("Altar de la Patria"), the Museo Bolivariana, and a 22-hectare garden.

Hugo Chávez envisions a modern day "Bolivarian Revolution," a Latin American political block with a socialist bent as an alternative to United States hegemony. Chávez has been generous with his foreign aid to Latin America and the Caribbean in an effort to blunt U.S.-backed economic policies in Latin America. His efforts have garnered some support among the growing number of Latin America’s left-leaning governments.

Only time will tell whether Chávez's "Bolivarian Revolution" will succeed. In the meantime, many Venezuelans want Chávez to tend to problems on the home front such as government corruption, inefficiency, and mismanagement; the deteriorating health and education programs; the troubled economy; crime, human rights violations, and media censorship. I join the Venezuelans in their fear that the “socialist revolutionary” is slowly morphing into a president-for-life. writer Ralph E. Stone was born in Massachusetts. He is a graduate of both Middlebury College and Suffolk Law School. We are very fortunate to have this writer's talents in this troubling world; Ralph has an eye for detail that others miss. As is the case with many writers, Ralph is an American Veteran who served in war. Ralph served his nation after college as a U.S. Army officer during the Vietnam war. After Vietnam, he went on to have a career with the Federal Trade Commission as an Attorney specializing in Consumer and Antitrust Law. Over the years, Ralph has traveled extensively with his wife Judi, taking in data from all over the world, which today adds to his collective knowledge about extremely important subjects like the economy and taxation. You can send Ralph an email at this address

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Ralph E. Stone July 23, 2010 7:37 am (Pacific time)

I recommend Oliver Stone"s documentary, "South of the Border." You know going in that it will be one-sided, but it is refreshing to see and hear Chavez, Lula da Silva (Brazil), Evo Moreles (Bolivia), the Kirchners (Argentina), Fernando Lugo (Paraguay), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), and Raul Castro speak unfiltered through the U.S. media. The film mostly focuses on Chavez. I like the idea of a Latin American union similar to the European Union largely free from U.S. control. We have carried the Monroe Doctrine to an absurd extreme, treating Latin America as one big U.S. colony.

Roger von Bütow July 22, 2010 7:26 pm (Pacific time)

Ralph: If you haven't read it, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 1989 fictionilized account of Bolivar's last months (The General in His Labyrinth) is a very interesting and gripping read. No, it may not be 100% accurate (what could be all of these years later?) but it has a spicy flavor, a certain eclectic cosmopolitan taste only the Hispanic magical realists can bring to a subject. Initially condemned as profane, I thought it helped a historical figure become more accessible to a wider readership while the always entertaining (and ironic) Marquez works through a lot of his personal feelings about South america. Which is one of the reasons writers write, as a form of therapy----At least I do! As for Bolivar's death it has surfaced that he had a long term exposure to arsenic which had built up to catastrophic concentrations in his blood. FYI: Arsenic is a naturally occurring substance that can be found in ground and surface waters all over the planet. He may not have been poisoned: He may just have been in regions where arsenic was present in abundance, so he may have been bathing in and drinking it too. Arsenic also gets introduced/activated due to mining, of which a lot was happening instigated by the Spaniards in their quest for gold and other precious metals/minerals. Chavez is NOT a liberator, and Bolivar himself near his death predicted that South America would never unite as his dream, that is one country, one continent.

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