The aggressively statist, socialist government of Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro styles itself as a Bolivarian revolutionary regime for Venezuela. Named for the great 19th century South American independence hero, Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan Bolivarian movement claims to be the fulfillment of that leader’s legacy. Yet virtually everything we know about the man and his political philosophy suggests he would be horrified by “his” revolution.
Simon Bolivar was a true visionary. Born to a wealthy slave-owning family in Spanish-controlled Venezuela, he rose to prominence within the South American independence movement thanks both to his exceptional education in history, economics, and military science, and to his ready access to funds. He took inspiration from the American Revolution, and found a kindred spirit in George Washington. In fact, Bolivar and George Washington shared a mutual admiration. His deepest desire was the same as Washington’s: to set his people free from foreign dominion and to establish a republic devoted to the principle of liberty.
Bolivar excelled as a strategist, and was instrumental in the victories that liberated not only Venezuela, but also much of South America from Spanish rule. It was this military genius that won him the title El Libertador, “the liberator,” and ultimately drove foreign influence from his homeland.
Bolivar became president of Gran Colombia, a vast territory stretching across all of modern Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela, as well as pieces of Brazil, Guyana, and Peru. Bolivar envisioned Gran Colombia as a federal republic, much like the young United States, that would balance national and regional government and ensure the protection of individual rights and liberties. Bolivar was a chief architect of a constitution that would institutionalize legislative processes to replace the largely centralized, militarized early independent government. He also saw through the abolition of slavery.
The dream that was Gran Colombia fell apart, thanks to the machinations of petty warlords and politicians seeking to feather their own nests. Bolivar was one of the only leaders who believed genuinely in the ideals of individualism and limited government, and eventually the strain of fighting became too much. Bolivar retired, exhausted, and Gran Colombia disintegrated into many smaller states.
Given this heroic legacy, it is easy to understand why a contemporary regime would want to associate itself with Bolivar. Yet the Chavistas in Venezuela are the absolute antithesis of everything Bolivar stood for. They have centralized power, eroded individual rights, spurned the Enlightenment ideals Bolivar admired in favor of Marxism, and have generally ruled by carving out portions of the economy for the benefit of party favorites at the expense of the common people.
Today Venezuela is in dire need of leaders who profess the true ideals of Simon Bolivar. As the economy stagnates, infrastructure deteriorates, and the rule of law evaporates, all citizens are harmed. After many years of resigned acceptance, people are finally fed up.
The days of the current regime are numbered, but what will replace it remains to be seen. Will Venzuela follow down the path of so many revolutions and remain venal and corrupt, or will it embrace the ideals of human liberty? Venezuela’s opposition leaders ought to look to their greatest founding father for guidance.