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Colombia-Venezuela Hostilities

As a result of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s decision to allow six U.S. military bases on his country’s soil the propaganda war has heated up in the Andean region. In neighboring Venezuela, Hugo Chávez says Colombia is seeking to destabilize the border and has hinted that war could be imminent.

When Uribe and Chávez slug it out rhetorically the two constantly employ historical references, in particular to the Great Liberator Simón Bolívar. A leader of the independence struggle against Spain, Bolívar was a member of the Caracas aristocracy and liberated Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador from imperial rule in the early nineteenth century.

Why is this Bolivarian rhetoric still so common and integral to politics in the Andean region? To answer that question I wrote a piece for the Washington, D.C-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs in March, 2008.  I was prompted to write the piece in response to the political crisis stemming from a Colombian military raid on a FARC guerrilla encampment within Ecuadoran territory. For years the Colombian government has been at war with the leftist FARC and is wont to pursue its political enemy across its borders in Venezuela to the east and Ecuador to the south.

Then as now, Uribe’s U.S.-assisted military brinksmanship resulted in a rhetorical outburst from Chávez. In light of the current crisis and threat of war perhaps it’s instructive to revisit my original piece for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

Looking back on my article written a little more than a year ago it is striking how little politics has changed in the Andean region. Indeed, Chávez continues to employ Bolivarian symbols and his government has sought to pass an education bill based on “the Bolivarian doctrine”: a term used by the Venezuelan President to describe his socialist political movement. The measure has generated considerable controversy with some protesters claiming that the bill will open the door to socialist indoctrination in schools. In the international arena meanwhile, Chávez has said that the U.S. seeks to fracture Bolivarian unity by installing its bases in Colombia and Soto Cano in Honduras [for more on the U.S. airbase at Soto Cano, see my previous columns].

Chávez never misses a chance to use Bolívar for political ends. In a column for the state-run Bolivarian News Agency the Venezuelan President recently made allusion to an early diplomatic encounter between Bolívar and the United States. In 1817, American ships sought to supply arms to Spanish forces opposed to Bolívar in Venezuela. When Bolívar captured the two ships Secretary of State John Quincy Adams sent a Baltimore journalist with political ambitions named John Baptiste Irving to negotiate with Bolívar.

In her book Venezuela and the United States: From Monroe’s Doctrine to Petroleum’s Empire, historian Judith Ewell writes that Irving was instructed to secure the release of the ships and the handover of the vessels to their rightful owners. Irving was also told to secure an indemnity for the lost cargo. Bolívar received Irving graciously as he hoped that the diplomatic envoy would extend U.S. political recognition to his movement.

However, diplomatic negotiations quickly deteriorated: Bolívar would not back down on his position vis-a-vis the ships while Irving failed to provide the coveted recognition. Bolívar grew disenchanted with the U.S., a power which in his view had failed to provide adequate support for South American independence movements. According to Ewell, Irving did not take Bolívar’s dismissal of the shipping issue lightly. For several months, the American fired angry notes back to Adams which characterized Bolívar as a tyrant and a “Don Quixote with ambition.” “The wheels of his [Bolívar’s] government,” Irving wrote, “are clogged already with imbecility.” In 1819 Irving finally gave up his mission and returned to the U.S.

In his column Chávez made reference to the Irving-Bolívar diplomatic spat, writing that the U.S. has historically sought to head off Latin American unity. To this day, Chávez says, Washington continues its geopolitical strategy in such nations as Honduras and Colombia. A few days ago, during a summit of South American nations held in Quito, Ecuador Chávez continued to hark on this theme.

Ecuador has pursued a political alliance with Venezuela and recently the Rafael Correa government refused to renew a lease for a U.S. military base located at the port city of Manta. In Quito, Chávez was joined by Correa as well as the deposed President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya. During the summit Chávez compared Uribe to General Francisco de Paula Santander and remarked that in Ecuador “Bolívar’s sword is more alive than ever.”

“Now I understand why Bolívar got tied up with Manuela Sáenz,” Chávez added. The Venezuelan was making reference to Simón Bolívar’s lover, a native of Quito. As I note in my book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left which came out just after I wrote my piece for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Sáenz is a potent political symbol linking Venezuela to Ecuador.

“To this day,” I wrote in my book, “Ecuador and Venezuela still have the same flag colors. Saenz belonged to the aristocracy and met the Liberator after the famed Battle of Pichincha. She accompanied Bolivar on his military campaigns, carrying out intelligence work, raising funds for independence forces, and cheering on the troops. Saenz also demonstrated great valor on the battlefield, seeing action during the Battle of Ayacucho…Saenz’s love letters to Bolivar are preserved in a Quito museum, along with some of her garments and an oil painting showing her in her childhood.”

In her day, Sáenz remarkably rose to the rank of coronela or colonel. Like Chávez, Correa is a politician who makes skilful use of historical symbols. Indeed, Correa recently raised Sáenz’s rank to generala or general in recognition of the woman’s efforts in the South American independence struggle.

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