by Charles Lemos, Sat Jul 17, 2010 at 11:04:59 AM EDT
The above was the scene late on Thursday in Caracas at the tomb of Simón Bolívar whose earthly remains were disturbed so as to indulge a fantasy of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. Bolívar died in 1830 in Santa Marta on the Colombian coast. He died there on his way into exile. The cause of his death was believed to be tuberculosis but Chávez seems to think that he was murdered. His remains were exhumed with Chávez narrating a play-by-play on Venezuelan television to test a theory that will prove nothing.
I don't want to get into a long detailed history of the breakup of La Gran Colombia, the ill-fated union of Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador that dissolved bitterly in 1830 with each country going its separate way. From afar these countries may seem similar but they are not and in 1830 they were vastly more different than they are today. The saying goes that the Venezuela was a barracks, Ecuador a monastery and Colombia a university. It's a remarkably accurate assessment. Venezuela would be ruled by caudillos, strongmen, well into the second half of the 20th century, Ecuador would become a theocracy under Gabriel Garcia Moreno (who was actually killed by a distant relative of mine but that's another story though I am proud that my family has seen a number of radicals for 250 years) and Colombia consumed in an eternal debate between conservatism and liberalism, between protectionism and free trade, between clericalism and anti-clericalism and the other great debates of the 19th century.
I've long ago stopped to trying to understand the mind of Hugo Chávez but this is beyond the pale. It's macabre and frankly Bolívar deserves better. Mind you, I'm no fan of Simón Bolívar. He's not a political hero of mine. He was a bloody dictator who was rightfully sent packing into exile. My heroes of the Colombian independence movement are Francisco Paula de Santander, Antonio Nariño, Francisco José de Caldas, Policarpa Salavarrieta, and the Ecuadorian-born José Antonio de Sucre who in truth was the military genius behind the battles that eventually liberated South America.
Suffice it to say that Bolívar's proposal for a chief executive was one that ruled for life and who then got to pick his successor. In his defense, it was another day and age and typical for someone of his social standing. Bolívar argued for the enlightened despot. That model worked fairly well in Paraguay where under José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia and his successor Carlos Antonio López that landlocked country would become the wealthiest and most egalitarian country in the South America by 1850. But Paraguay under Rodríguez de Francia may have been efficiently managed but it also was a one-man state with El Supremo as he was known even deciding marriages.
An enlightened despot would not have worked well in Colombia because we are a country of regions crisscrossed by three jungle covered mountain ranges that rise to over 18,000 feet. To travel from Bogotá to Cali, a distance of 200 miles, took three weeks during the dry season and three months during the wet season. Colombia required a federal system that devolved power to its nine regions that then included Panamá. Santander proposed this while Bolívar sought to implant a centralized regime in Bogotá. When, in 1828, a constitutional convention rejected amendments to the constitution that Bolívar had proposed, Bolívar assumed dictatorial powers in a coup d'état. What followed next was a period of extreme oppression and rebellion throughout the country. In 1830, having survived an assassination attempt, in declining health and with uprisings occurring in various parts of Gran Colombia, Bolívar resigned all his political positions and sulked towards exile but never reaching it. So despised was he in his native Venezuela that it would take 12 years before his family was allowed to bring his body back to Caracas.