Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Tipping Bolívar's Pedestal

Too tall a pedestal for Bolívar?
Few things are more annoying - or more deceptive - than turning heroes of history into gods. And few people have been carried closer to godliness than the Liberator Simon Bolivar.

Bolívar was unquestionably a great hero. He led the revolution which freed much of South America
Do they deserve to be heroes?
from oppresive Spanish rule, replacing tyrrany with nascent democracy and leading to the end of slavery.

But Bolívar was also a man with imperfections and contradictions, which have been generally sanitized from history (Bolívar's womanizing is an exception, but that's also admired in Latin culture).

In a corner of the Museo Nacional, which is full of Bolívar busts, portraits and quotes, there's a small exhibition calling into question the prefection of the Great Man.

Naval hero José Prudencio Padilla
was executed by Bolívar's supporters.
The episode involves another revolutionary hero, José Prudencio Padilla, who fought and won several naval battles critical to the revolution. Padilla also happened to be a man of mixed-race, which has complicated the story of his relationship to Bolívar.

According to what seems to be history's official version, Padilla opposed Bolívar and apparently betrayed him and even participated in a conspiracy to assassinate El Libertador.

But today Padilla's opposition to Bolívar looks like a principled stand against a man who wanted to make himself into president for life. In that, Padilla was allied with fellow revolutionary hero and Colombian president Francisco de Paula Santander, who famously told Colombians that 'The law will give you freedom.' While Bolívar advocated a centralized government with a strong president - himself - Padilla and Santander supported a system with a strong Congress and powers vested in the provinces.

Mariano Montilla supported Bolívar against
the 'threat' of race mixing.  He sent
Padilla to prison for 'fomenting
racial hatred.'
And Padilla may have been framed because of Bolívar's apparent fear of race-mixing and the influence of people of color. According to the Museo Nacional's exhibition "Bolívar and other generals feared that people of African descent would seize power and eliminate the dominant class."

In 1828, shortly after Bolívar escaped an asassination attempt, Padilla was arrested and executed by Bolívar's forces.

Bolívar apparently recognized his error and repented for his treatment of Padilla, writing in a letter that same year "...what most torments me is the just clamor by with which...Padilla's people will complain. They will say with great justice that I have not been weak but in favor of that infamous white man..."

By then, of course, it was too late.

I wonder what Venezuela's mixed-race Pres. Hugo Chávez, who worhsipped Bolívar, thot about this. Rather, I bet, he conveniently ignored it.

Racism isn't the only one of Bolívar's flaws which has been generally forgotten. He also ordered acts which we'd consider severe war crimes, but back then were likely accepted as a normal part of war.

Letter by Bolívar: 'I have not been weak,
but in favor of that infamous white man...'
North America's heroes were also, of course, deeply flawed men. Many owned and traded slaves while writing soaring rhetoric about the equality and freedom of mankind. They directed the displacement and near genocide of Native Americans.

All these were men of their time and it's not fair to evaluate them by today's standards. But neither do their deserve sanctification.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Stuart Oswald said...

Much of this later part of the post can be applied to today's socialists. Particularly the hypocritical aspects of your piece.

mauricio forero l said...

Stuart, taking our debate on the subject of HATE, I have to admit, that you are right. My insults to you are full of hate, and this also makes me a hypocrite. Do, I have to ad, that I do not hate you, I dislike your attitude very much, but it is not hate. You not answering my E-mails also put you in a better position, more diplomatic and less emotional and, I could learn from this. But from your part, you have to admit also that is not cool and not very diplomatic to call people scum or disgusting, because like my insults and rudeness really upset people.

Stuart Oswald said...

OK. I am going to say "sorry" that my views and words upset you. But this is as far as I can go. I am not sorry for the views I hold of such people and especially their ideologies. I am going to say one more sorry. This is something that has tainted my conscience since. I am sorry for what I said about your 50th birthday in a previous comment threat. It was uncalled for. I actually hoped you'd have a nice day. :) I however think that the racist aspect you tried to label me with needs to be retracted by yourself and another (Apolitical), as it simply isn't true. Have a good day.

Carlito said...

An interesting article about Bolivar and how Bolivar's image end up with the left when he always was considered a figure from the right: http://www.elmalpensante.com/index.php?doc=display_contenido&id=669

mauricio forero l said...

Wonderful Stuart, I appreciate your words. Yes, you are right, indeed I have no proof that you are a racist and, for that I'm sorry, really sorry. About my birthday, no worries dude, you have to read the comments of some of my friends and their sarcastic and, very dark sense of humor...It was a very nice day in the company of my family.

Miguel said...

Hi Stuart and Oswald,

I really appreciate your both reaching out and dropping your anger. I don't think I ever expected to see it, but it makes me feel good and I hope it lasts.

Best regards,


mauricio forero l said...

Miguel, I am in so much trouble so often because of my filthy mouth, that I know I have to change.

Miguel said...

Hi Carlito. Thanks for the reference to the Malpensante piec.

On the one hand, every historical figure gets seized a molded and distorted according to ideological conveniences. Jesus Christ is a great example of this. Were the followers of Liberation Theology and Francisco Franco really talking about the same guy?

I think that both sides simplify Bolivar's story. Toward the end of his life he definitely supported authoritarianism, and he had 'conservative' sentiments of his time, such as classism and racial beliefs. But that's all in the context of a guy who overthrew a tyrranical government and helped bring democracy.

it's not difficult to see how both the left and the right sieze on him - a revolutionary, but also a traditionalist and elitist with authoritarian tendencies. An extraordinary figure, but also a man of contradictions, troubles and a man of his time.

Each side wants a sanitized, inflated version of the man. Worship is not a good approach for evaluating anybody.