Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez declares that his country is in the forefront of a new “Bolivarian revolution” sweeping Latin America.
Just what defines a “Bolivarian revolution” is debatable. The Venezuelan leader and his counterparts elected in recent years in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay are called “leftists,” “socialists” and/or “populists.” Nationalist rhetoric against the policies of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank is commonly heard. But the amount of action to back up the words varies widely, and the recently elected “socialist” president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, announced even before taking office that she is in accord with the Bush plan for a hemisphere trade pact.
President Chavez’s invocation of Simon Bolivar suggests the nature of the Latin movement. Bolivar was a Venezuelan intellectual imbued with the 1789 French spirit of “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” who returned to Venezuela from living in Paris to lead the army of liberation from Spanish colonial rule.
Across Latin America, the independence wars of the 1810-1830 era were fought in opposition to king and aristocracy and in favor of bourgeois republican institutions. Latin revolutionaries abolished royal monopolies and other economic restrictions while taxing to fund schools, roads, ports, and other props for commerce, such as public mule corrals.
After Mexican independence the sleepy fishing villages of Tampico, Manzanillo and Mazatlan were dredged to become ports, and a road fit for carriages was finally constructed through the mountains from Veracruz to the capital.
Today’s radicals tackle the issue of “economic infrastructure” through Chavez’s new program, ALBA, “Alternative Bolivariana para las Americas,” which promotes new public economic ventures while acting to protect from privatization entities which in many cases date back to the original Bolivarians.
The Chavez revolution involves a political restructuring. His election ended a near century of presidential musical chairs between two parties beholden to the traditional Venezuelan elite; and new president Tabare Vazquez of Uruguay ended a similar dual party monopoly that had lasted 180 years.
Fierce internal opposition to both Bolivarian revolutions has come from agents of the old inbred, sheltered European-looking elite of the mansions and great haciendas. When the independence era revolutionary, Lorenzo de Zavala, wrote that the class divide in his Mexico was more sharp and bitter than in Europe, he could have been writing from any number of Latin American countries. Outside the tall mansion doors, then and now, is an enormous mostly colored majority.
Bolivarians are militants from those outside who have seen that a 51 percent vote meant political power. Hugo Chavez, the son of school teachers, calls himself Venezuela’s first “African President,” and first “Indigenous President.” One parent was a “zambo” (African-Indigenous), the other a “mestizo” (Spanish-Indigenous).
The other new leaders include, President Nestor Kirchner of Argentina—his father was a postal worker in impoverished Patagonia; President Evo Morales of Bolivia, an Ayamra Indigenous coca farmer raised in poverty dire enough for the family to be migrant workers in Argentina; Luis Lula da Silva of Brazil was born of modest means in Pernambuco, one of the nation’s most poverty-stricken and most African states.
Nicanor Duarte Frutos of Paraguay has mostly Indigenous heritage and came “from a humble peasant background.” He campaigned against the IMF privatization plans for his country, but analysts expected him to follow the Washington line because he was from the decades-old Colorado Party. However, once in office he broke Paraguay’s tradition of voting in the U.N. with the United States on Cuba resolutions, and he added insult to injury by inviting in Cuban doctors to help the struggling Paraguayan medical system. Two presidents of middle-class background are oncologist Vazquez of Uruguay and pediatrician Bachelet of Chile.
The non-elite roots in the current Latin leadership echoes that of the revolutionaries against Spain. Mexico’s three independence army leaders presently honored with states in their name are mule driver Vicente Guerrero (African-Indigenous), the mule driver-turned priest, Jose Maria Morelos (African-Indigenous), and the smalltown priest Miguel Hidalgo (basically European, but from a family of farmers).
Ironically, the 1810 national leader closest to the elite was Bolivar, whose family owned much land. But then census records show he had a mulatto grandmother. During the liberation wars he strove to be a man of the people, as in sleeping in hammocks rather than beds.
Another European-traveled, French revolution-inspired South American independence fighter with African heritage was Argentina’s first president, the medical doctor Bernadino Rivadavia. His political enemies called him “Dr. Chocolate.” The founding father of Uruguay was the “gaucho” Jose Artigas. The elite considered gauchos low and disreputable. The first two presidents of Paraguay had African ancestry, Carlos Antonio Lopez and his son Francisco Solano Lopez.
Education was and is again a “Bolivarian” issue. Hugo Chavez has arranged the creation of over three thousand public schools in his country; and President Evo Morales halved his salary upon taking office so he could employ more teachers.
Among original “Bolivarians” to promote public education was Carlos Antonio Lopez, who is credited with land reform and launching public education in Paraguay. Argentina’s Dr. Rivadavia was a strong advocate of public schooling.
In 1829 the Guatemalan radical, Jose del Valle, published a series of articles on the value of national funding of education, noting that throughout central Europe it was when the armies of Napoleon passed through that the country began public schooling.
Del Valle declared that the example from Europe showed that “a successful nation cannot leave its citizens deaf and dumb, without value or aptitude to acquire a useful trade, and it is education that provides the aptitude to acquire skills and social value.”
Two of Del Valle’s articles were on the need for women’s education.
Del Valle wanted his country to follow through on bright promises made a few years earlier. In 1824 the Central American Federation declared that the nations of the federation should institute a system of public schooling.
By the 1830s Central American nations and Mexico had adopted from England the “Lancaster” system of mass education, which was also adopted in parts of the United States at this time under pressure of “Jacksonian democrats.”
The independence era was noted for the revolutionary innovation of the public hospital. Now, Hugo Chavez greatly expands medical coverage for his people. An important assist comes from a few hundred Cuban doctors who administer to people of the barrios who previously had virtually no medical care.
Chavez talks of the need for racial equality in the new Venezuela, as does Lula da Silva for Brazil, who has made a number of trips to Africa to further cultural and economic ties with his country. Politics in the independence era were laced with declarations of equality between the races.
“All inhabitants ... without distinction to their being Europeans, Africans or Indians are citizens with the option to seek all employment according to their merits and virtues,” read a clause in Mexico’s 1821 independence war peace plan.
The French Revolution vision of equality permeated the Americas. One French Revolution poster was a painting depicting mother liberty suckling a baby on each breast, one black, one white (she was white).
Although French militants called for the abolition of slavery, implementation in French colonies was lacking. Abolition in Haiti required the black troops of Toussaint L’Ouverture charging out of the mountains singing “La Marseillaise.” Historians write of French troops being angry and demoralized over the black slave enemy using their song of freedom.
Simon Bolivar sought refuge in free Haiti in 1816 after a setback in Venezuela in his fight with the Spaniards. Haitian president Alejandre Petion promised Bolivar support in cash and arms if Bolivar promised in return to abolish slavery in Venezuela.
A few years later Bolivar followed through on the promise, but after his revolution was crushed in Venezuela in 1830, slavery was temporarily reinstituted in that country. Other nations successfully seized the independence spirit to abolish the heinous institution for good: Chile in 1812, Argentina in 1813, Central America in 1824, Mexico in 1829, Bolivia in 1831.
Making peasants into land owners was a feature of the revolution in France. In Latin America, informal seizure by peasants of land abandoned by fleeing Spaniards was common. However, over the following century conservative governments saw to it that the peasants lost far more land than they had expropriated. Now new “Bolivarians” arise.
The government of Hugo Chavez is distributing land to rural peasantry, and in a move watched throughout Latin America, the government has empowered the residents of the sprawling barrios of shacks and shanties of Caracas and other cities to legally draw up deeds of individual family ownership.
Legal possession is declared upon display of proof that the old owner has not, in a reasonable time, made an effort to use the land. Neighborhood barrio organizations take testimony about the owner’s land use or lack thereof. Poor people by the thousands have become homeowners. Complaints from old owners are few for the plots on steep hillsides or in ravines, but friction has been noted in land title switches in some better located barrios.
The Bolivarian experiment in Venezuela is more talk than substance in the opinion of a few Marxist analysts. The journal El Militante laments that Venezuelans seem to lack the will to expropriate factories and the oil industry and thus directly challenge capitalist power.
Critics to the left of Hugo Chavez wonder what he has in mind when he speaks of a socialism for the new millennium. He himself is probably not sure what it means, other than updating and consummating the short-circuited original “Bolivarian revolution.”
Can the second Bolivarian movement succeed? The first one suffered from assorted economic reprisals against the new governments. Mexico’s profitable silver production, for instance, was cut to a trickle by a European boycott of sale to Mexico of mercury, an element essential to silver smelting.
Today, economic reprisals from Washington are a well-known threat. Assassination was a problem for the first Bolivarians. Guerrero was a victim, and Bolivar withdrew from politics after an attempt on his life, which came while factionalism was ending his dream of a continent-wide republic.
John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, explained from his knowledge as an undercover U.S. agent that political assassinations of Latin American leaders has been a feature of the political landscape in recent years, although often reported as accidents, such as airplane crashes.
Interviewed on KPFA, Perkins explained the “fear factor” with the example of ex-President Lucio Gutierrez of Ecuador. In 2003 Gutierrez was an army officer assigned to crush a mass demonstration of Indigenous who were angry at IMF policies. Gutierrez refused his orders, became a folk hero, and was elected president.
Perkins states that Gutierrez was then “visited” and, essentially, given two choices: tow the line or experience bad things for him and his family. Within a few months the Ecuadorian poor were calling Gutierrez the “Bush puppet.” Riots forced him out of office last year.
From Panama comes President Martin Torrijos, a new Bolivarian who apparently will not be intimidated, although he could be excused if he was. Martin’s father, Omar, was Panama’s leader who bucked Washington in the 1970s and died in a plane crash caused by a bomb on board, according to Perkins and others.
Nevertheless, Torrijos declared in his inaugural address this past year that his first acts would include reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba,and moves to strengthen relations with “the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.”