Hugo Chavez, who has won a fourth term as Venezuela’s president, likes to think of himself as a liberator of the people. He deplores autocracy and supports “democratic socialism” just, as he claims, did his hero, 19th century South American independence stalwart Simon Bolivar. Bolivar was indeed an anti-royalist, tired of the Spanish Catholic monarchy’s autocratic grip on their by then centuries-old colonies. This arch-republican is widely credited with bringing independence to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and, of course, Venezuela.
It is little wonder then that Chavez seeks to compare himself with Bolivar, a man revered as a founding farther of a continent, not just a nation. You might think Chavez is being a little bold likening himself to this semi-legendary figure. After all, his regime is one mired by corruption and inequality and the so-called “man of the people” has stood by whilst the highest murder rate in the world spirals out of control in his capital Caracas and impoverished shanty towns spring up on a monthly bases in geologically unstable locations. Perhaps the defining reason people may see Chavez’s comparison of himself to Bolivar as laughable is because, to all intents and purposes, he is an autocrat.
His rule is populist, often governing by decree rather than via a formulated, consultative policymaking process; he is not afraid to call upon the army to subdue domestic disturbances; opposition newspapers are censored, activists murdered by his thuggish followers. Surely he cannot be comparable to that republican libertarian Bolivar?
Wrong. As he came to realise that the stability brought by strong, monarchical rule was disintegrating rapidly in his newly-founded independent states, Bolivar sought a new authoritarian approach to preserve his republican dream and, importantly, his position as lead statesmen. In drawing up a constitution for Bolivia in 1826 he gave presidents the right to rule for life and the power to name their own successor, given that elections are “the greatest scourge of republics and bring only anarchy”. When autocracy failed, Bolivar flinched. The new nation of Gran Colombia he had founded disintegrated, with Ecuador and Venezuela (ironically) breaking ties with the capital, Bogota. Bolivar decided to flee to Europe, labelling South America as “ungovernable”, before dying before he could even begin his boat journey.
It is lucky for Bolivar that the simultaneous decline of the Spanish monarchy meant the South American republics survived and preserved his legacy.
A man with aspirations for a genuine “people’s republic”, subsequently driven to autocracy by the failure of his Utopian vision and the desire to stay in power. Hugo Chavez may indeed be compared to Simon Bolivar. Whether he will share his hero’s fate, only time will tell.