Frontline World

VENEZUELA, A Critical Turning Point, August 2003
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project
Venezuela: A Critical Turning Point
My Country's Rise and Fall
Hugo Chavez Comes to Power
The President's Foes Strike Back
Tapping a Nationalist Vein
Chavez's Remarkable Staying Power
A Clash Between Rich and Poor
Venzuela's Next Chapter
What is the FRONTLINE/World Fellows program?
Tapping a Nationalist Vein

Simón Bolívar Redux: Chavez Seasons Bolivarianism in His Own Way

Hugo Chavez appears at Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas.

Hugo Chavez appears at Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas with a portrait of Venezuelan liberator Simón Bolívar in the background. Chavez's self-proclaimed mission is to fulfill the dreams of the 19th-century independence fighter, who envisioned a free and unified South America. (AP/Wide World Photos)
As every Venezuelan schoolchild knows, Simón Bolívar, the patron saint of Venezuela, was born to Caracas's wealthiest family in 1783. Bolívar joined the independence effort against Spain in 1810, and he liberated a large part of the South American continent before his death in 1830. He was not only a remarkable warrior, but also a philosopher, a politician and even a famous lover. Once in power, he ruled with an iron fist because he thought that South America was not yet ready for U.S.-style freedoms (part of the reason he was deposed by his lieutenants in 1830).

Bolívar's main legacy, besides the equestrian statues adorning major city squares in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Panama, is the idea of Latin American unity against imperial powers. Now Chavez had appropriated part of Bolívar's discourse. Here's another irony: Bolívar himself was no populist playing to the mass gallery; he was a racist elitist. But to be considered Bolivarian in Venezuela today is also to be considered pro-Chavez.This renewed Chavez-style Bolivarianism -- a mixture of anti-imperialism and pan-Americanism that Chavez appropriated, then seasoned in his own way -- has held his revolution together so far, scooping up followers from the center to the far left.

Welcome to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Riding on the subway in the summer of 2002, I heard a government official say, "He has a nice résumé. Is he Bolivarian?" This was the bureaucrat's key point of reference in a discussion of someone's job prospects. Then he got off at Parque Central. There the towers of Centro Simón Bolívar, the tallest building in South America, stand as a kind of monument to the halcyon days of the country's petroleum wealth.

Promises to the Poor: Bolivarian Circles Spring Up in the Name of Popular Control

A boy overlooks the shantytowns of Catia, in west Caracas.

A boy overlooks the shantytowns of Catia, in west Caracas, in April 2002.
Chavez's invocation of Bolívar has been stretched to include promises to the disenfranchised and the poor of access to the upper echelons of power. The new constitution aims to grant the poor a role in governmental decision-making by organizing Bolivarian Circles -- neighborhood associations charged with solving community problems and with the "political education" of the people. Since Chavez's election, more than 100,000 Bolivarian Circles have sprung up nationwide.

Are these circles vehicles of liberation or tools of repression? The answer depends on who is asked. "The revolution is the defense of the Bolivarian Constitution," Ricardo Monsalve, a Bolivarian Circle organizer, told me last year. "If the government is deposed by unconstitutional means, the circles would be able to generate the most powerful wave of violence Venezuela has ever seen." There you have both a patriotic sentiment and a threat.

Middle-class people, like my former neighbors and friends, fear the circles. At meetings of anti-Chavez opponents in the summer of 2002, I noticed an apocalyptic tone whenever the subject came up. "Police or no police, at the first sign of trouble, the Bolivarian Circles will attack (the wealthiest neighborhoods in Caracas)," predicted an angry red-headed patriarch, earning a room full of nods from like-minded activists.

Others, though, think that the circles are just a symptom of the larger problem -- Chavez's own contradictory impulses. Opposition activist Elias Santana, a longtime proponent of decentralizing political power in Venezuela, argued that Chavez hasn't lived up to his rhetoric. His government "has increased centralization, macrocephalia and corruption... suppressing genuine political participation in the name of increased popular control," Santana said.

NEXT: Chavez's Remarkable Staying Power