Juan Guaido, head of Venezuela's opposition-run congress, declares himself interim president of Venezuela, during a rally demanding President Nicolas Maduro's resignation in Caracas, Venezuela.
( Fernando Llano
BOB GARFIELD: This is On The Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
[CLIP OF CROWD CHATTING UP & UNDER].
BOB GARFIELD: When Juan Guaido took the oath of office as would be interim president of Venezuela last week, he held a copy of the Venezuelan constitution adorned with a portrait of Simon Bolívar. Known as 'El Libertador,' the Liberator, Bolivar had a vision of a United South America.
[CLIP IN SPANISH].
BOB GARFIELD: When former President Hugo Chavez was in power, he renamed the country the 'Bolivar-ian' and Republic of Venezuela and sang on television after exhuming Bolívar's remains.
[CLIP OF HUGO CHAVEZ SINGING UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: In high school history textbooks, Bolívaris usually referred to as the George Washington of Latin America–which might be selling him short. He freed no fewer than six countries from the oppression of Spanish colonial rule in the early 19th century and for good measure he worked to abolish slavery decades before we did.
MARIE ARANA: Bolívar's Military action lasted more than twice as long as North America's.
BOB GARFIELD: Marie Arana is the author of Bolívar: American Liberator.This is from her TED Talk.
MARIE ARANA: The territory that he covered was seven times as large and spanned an astonishing geographic diversity from crocodile infested jungles to the snow capped Andes. Moreover Bolívar's war could not have been won without the aid of Black and Indian troops. His success in rallying Blacks and Indians to his cause marked the turning point of the revolution. [END CLIP]
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BOB GARFIELD: Bolívar was a Caracas born aristocrat, educated in Europe and fluent in the teachings of the Enlightenment. He was also an exemplar both of political vision and of paradox. For instance, he was disgusted by slavery in the US and dismissive about fixation on race but also highly wary of surrendering too much political power to the indigenous and black majority–for fear of having popular revolutions topple his revolutions. He gave himself the title liberator and dictator, which is evidence as good as any that his legacy is ambiguous even for those who now claim to represent it. Miguel Tinker Salas is a Venezuelan historian and professor at Pomona College. He says there are two Bolivars, the elite statesmen and the man of the people.
MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: He's a powerful figure that is brought back into the forefront by the latter part of the 19th century as a symbolic figure. Unfortunately, as the elite Bolivar, as the statesman Bolívar, to help consolidate the nation, searching for national symbols and that's the role he began to play. That official Bolivar always coexisted side by side with another Bolivar. A Popular Bolivar, a Bolivar that was identified by the social movements, by people of color by others who looked in his writings about empire and about the US's efforts at reconquering Latin America. So these two Bolivars coexisted in Venezuela throughout the 20th century. The elites promoting one vision of this statesman Bolivar. And the other, captured in music and song in poetry as a potent symbol for political change.
BOB GARFIELD: The invocation of Bolívar by various constituencies reminds me a little bit of of scripture.
MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Haha.
BOB GARFIELD: Depending on your worldview, your religious philosophy, you can make a given passage stand for your views or somebody can make an adjacent passage stand for the opposite.
MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Yeah, No doubt. I've always said that quoting Bolivar tells us more about the person that is quoting Bolivar than it does about Bolivar. He cannot be simplified as a radical, as a Democrat, as a dictator, a as caudillo –military strongman. He is a very complex figure. He was complex on questions of race. He wanted to incorporate people of color, but then he also tried a commander who rejected one of his orders and had him executed as as a message to Afro Venezuelans about any potential a race based rebellion. So he's a controversial figure.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's not move past that execution too quickly because it seemed to stand for his general misgivings about democracy, did it not? That he was concerned that the ethnic majorities of Latin America, given too much power, could lead still more revolutions against the governing elites.
MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Haiti is in the background of all the independence leaders in Latin America. They saw what happened with the oppression of slaves and the oppression of people of color and then their rebellion against the French colonial rule. One of the most profitable colonies in all of the Caribbean. So that's always in the background, but he is also a bit worried about how this democracy is going to take root. After all, there is nothing to unify the country. The country had been a colony. It had not been a country, there wasn't national symbols, there wasn't even loyalty to a capital city. As soon as Caracas declares independence, the other provinces are pulling in the opposite direction and there's very little faith in a concept such as democracy, which had not been practiced in Venezuela or any other colonial entity, can somehow bring this together. So he made a statement that trying to promote democracy was akin to plowing the ocean in Latin America.
BOB GARFIELD: So he is una paradoja . That's that's me speaking Spanish.
MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Haha. He Is a paradox. But whose vision was interpreted as an unfinished vision for Latin America and for Venezuela. And that's where you have Hugo Chavez coming into the picture. To take that other Bolivar, that other image and to promote his project as part of Bolivar's unfinished business.
BOB GARFIELD: You spoke of Bolivar as a visionary–well you can say that again. He really harked George Washington and George Washington really harked did him. But Bolívar was also quoted as saying, about the United States, that it quote appeared destined to plague Latin America with misery in the name of liberty–which is about as dead on as can be.
MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: And that quote is adorned on walls throughout Latin America and especially in Venezuela. Not everyone reads Bolivar but everyone knows, anecdotally, some of his sayings, some of his proclamations some of his ideals. So you have the larger symbolic Bolivar as the shadow over much of this process. One that again, differences have been drawn between what was the elite Bolivar–and how he was represented. And the people's Bolívar or the popular Bolívar. And there's a very interesting song in Venezuela by a singer named Ali Primera called 'Cancion Bolivariana'–the Bolivarian song in which Bolívar is having a conversation with the young boy. And Bolivar says look the elites are going to my grave to pay homage to me and the young boy says, no Bolivar--.
[CLIP OF L A CONCIAN BOLVARIANA]
MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: They're going to make sure your dead. So that you do not return.
BOB GARFIELD: Haha.
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BOB GARFIELD: He's been dead for about a 185 years, he has not rested in peace. He had been exhumed.
MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Well he doesn't die in Venezuela. He's exiled to Colombia. So it takes quite some time to bring his bones back to Venezuela. They were brought back and they're put in a tomb with other family bones. In 1945, when there's a Democratic interregnum in Venezuela, the government convenes a committee to determine the the bones of Bolivar and to actually unearth the casket open it and examine it. And there's actually a convocation sent to the other Bolivaian republics of Latin America to tell them this is happening.
BOB GARFIELD: And then as mentioned in the introduction, in 2010, Chavez did it too.
MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Chavez argued that it was an effort to develop a more realistic image of Bolívar by digital imaging and also to determine what had been poisoned. Because there was always this mythology that they Bolivar had been poisoned by his enemies. In the end, after the casket had been opened and the imaging done, what emerged was a much swarthier your image of Bolívar that then was used to adorn government buildings throughout Venezuela. It's interesting because for many in the poor sectors of Venezuela, while the elites and others may have been mocking the opening of the casket, others actually--and I saw them cry. It was the first time they had seen, in human form, the remains of El Libertador, the liberator. The Venezuelan author, Alberto Barrera, wrote a column in the New York Times in Spanish, observing that far from unifying Venezuela, the cult, as he phrased it of Simone Boulevard now, is tearing the country apart. Is he more divisive at this point than unifying?
MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Um, it's interesting you would raise that. I would have said for the opposition, he is divisive because of the Chavez appropriation of Bolivar. And in fact that article byseveral historians have written essays as to why they are not Bolivarian. Except that now with one way though we have him using the symbol of Bolívar on the Constitution that he swore his self-proclaimed presidency. What is he attempting to do? I don't think that appeals the same way to the middle class and upper classes who may have supported him. Was he making an effort to reach other classes? It's unclear at this point but it's obvious that he was making use of that symbol. In the past, Bolivar would have been seen as appropriated by the Chavez-tas and not promoted. When the National Assembly is taken by the opposition in 2015 and they are inaugurated in 2016, one of the first things they do is take down the images of Chavez and of Bolivar so that they were trying to quote unquote 'cleanse' the space of these previous influences.
BOB GARFIELD: I have one final question for you. What would you do? How would you mediate this situation where two men and two factions are claiming the presidency?
MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: I would start by going to the meeting on February 7th that Mexico and Uruguay convened in Montevideo. Because the only solution here is to find some level of negotiated, mediated solution. The real issue here is the social fabric in Venezuela. No matter who is in power, whether it's the opposition and its many factions or whether it's the Chavez-tas and there are many factions, because the reality is unless there is some kind of consensus on what is going to happen next and how both sides respect the political decision that is made, the realities will be back to square one tomorrow. And it will repeat and repeat because neither the Chavez-tas nor the opposition are going away.
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BOB GARFIELD: Miguel, many thanks.
MIGUEL TINKER SALAS: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Miguel Tinker Salas is a Venezuelan historian and professor at Pomona College, Author of Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know.