Hugo Chavez’s latest bout of political theater reeks of George Orwell. In his dystopian novel, 1984, Orwell shrewdly points out that “those who control the present, control the past, and those who control the past, control the future,” an assertion Chavez seems to have taken to heart. The Venezuelan president’s recent decision to exhume the body of legendary hero and national founder, Simon Bolivar, has sparked an onslaught of international criticism about the president’s persistent eccentricities and obsession with the national figure. According to Chavez, a self-professed admirer, follower and disciple of Bolivar, the exhumation seeks to allow forensic scientists to discover the real cause of Bolivar’s death; Chavez believes Bolivar was possibly poisoned by Colombian traitors. The aberrant decision has reinforced perceptions that Chavez is a mad man who is losing his grip of reality; but how crazy is he really?
The search for possible reasons behind the exhumation has yielded a plethora of theories. Some say Chavez wishes to divert attention from domestic problems such as the economy’s unrelenting recession or a recent scandal over imported food left rotting in the country’s ports. Others claim that, if he can prove that Bolivar was indeed poisoned by Colombian traitors, Chavez would use such evidence to support his contentious relationship with the current Colombian government. Yet others believe that Chavez seeks to use Bolivar’s body as a political gimmick to rile up support for his Bolivarian movement ahead of crucial parliamentary votes in September. Regardless of which theory turns out to be right, one thing is clear: Chavez wants to use Bolivar’s symbolic power to pursue his own ends, whatever they may turn out to be.
The notion of using a historical symbol to foster a national identity is common to most nation-building processes. Seeking national unity through a common past is often necessary to unite people who might otherwise not identify with each other. However, the grim dystopian picture that Orwell paints in 1984 urges carefully treading the path of nationalism. Manipulating a people’s mythological past can yield great power, perhaps too much power. Chavez’s obsession with Bolivar reflects the presidents desire to legitimate and strengthen public support for his own political project. Unfortunately, Chavez’s populist project, which started out as a mass movement to lift poor Venezuelans out of poverty, has reverted to a cult of his personality and whims.
South America’s political and economic future will depend on cooperation and integration, a fact that can only suffer from the constant quarreling between Venezuela and Colombia. By using Bolivar’s possible poisoning by Colombians over 200 years ago, Chavez can only help foment nationalist sentiments against its neighbor. And through his personal promotion as Bolivar’s fated emissary, Chavez is presenting himself as the only viable medium through which Venezuela can achieve its true Bolivarian destiny. Down this path lies a grim Orwellian future where Chavez’s project is the only project; political opposition and diversity, the bedrock of any democracy, may soon be extinct in Venezuela.