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¡Viva Belzu!

20 December 2010

Private property is the chief source of most of the offenses and crimes in Bolivia.  It is the cause of the continuing struggle between Bolivians; it is the dominant principle of that selfishness eternally condemned by universal morality.  No more property, no more proprietors, no more inheritances!  Down with aristocrats!  Let the lands be for all!  Enough of exploitation of man by man.

Che Guevara (who also ended up shot in Bolivia) might have said this, but the speaker was  former Bolivian President (1848-55) Manuel Isadoro Belzu,   shortly before his assassination in March 1865.

Manuel Belzu wasn’t all that remarkable as Latin American caudillos go — plotting and coup-making with the best and worst of them and mixing the political and the personal:  his attempts to overthrow the other Bolivian strong-man of his time, José Ballivián started off with a bang — Belzu shot and wounded then-President Ballivián for making improper advances towards Mrs. Belzu.   If he ascribed to any particular political theory at all, it might best be described as “Belzuism”.

Belzu does stand out though, from your stereotyped caduillo:

In his travels as a fugitive, Belzu had seen the deplorable conditions under which most of the population lived, with scarcely any improvements or public works by the government. His position established a strong base of support among the peasants…

Guevara also claims to have come to his political positions via his own experiences as a “poverty tourist” .  What marks Latin “leftism” is that it is not doctrinaire.

Living among the poor, and coming to identify with them, does put Belzu in the company of any number of Latin American leaders, all of whom — with very few changes in wording — might have said the same thing Belzu said in 1865.  While some (Pancho Villa,  Andres Manuel López Obrador,  Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales) might be called “socialists” , there are many others we’d have a hard time fitting into that particular political box — from José Maria Morelos to Emiliano Zapata to Eva Peron to Rafael Correa.   Che (whom the CIA paid the back-handed compliment of referring to as “fairly intellectual for a Latino) was the scion of a intellectual, politically active, middle-class family.  But, he was hardly an orthodox Communist.*

It seems, however, that Europeans (and in the last century, the United States) have either colonized the terms of political discourse as successfully colonized the rest of public life.  That indigenous culture (and political discourse) masquerades under foreign labels should be no more a surprise than discovering that Quetazacoatl lurks beneath Christian altars.

Certainly there are differences between “socialism” and Peronism, and, for that matter,  “Lopezobradorismo”, and the Bolivian “Movement Towards Socialism”, but — much as we lump the myriad American cultures together as “indigenous beliefs”, we lump the various political movements into uncomfortable boxes labeled “Socialism” or “Populism” or, as I tend to do, “Bolivarianism”.

Make that “leftist Bolivarianism”.  I’m aware that successful Latin American political movements, like Peronism or the Mexican PRI, incorporate both left and right wing European/North American theories.  But the rightist movements (or rightist tendencies within Peronism or the PRI) are knock-offs of foreign theories.  Fascism and neo-liberalism, both foreign theories, have been adopted and have their adherents in Latin America. As I’ve written before, Bolivarianism was initially a right-wing theory.  But, what it came down to was a 20th century update of  Spanish absolutism — borrowed from what Francisco Franco had already achieved in Spain.

The leftist tendencies within Peronism and the PRI, while often using the language of the European left (especially from party intellectuals) in practice takes its cue from American-born experience.  Of course European Marxists talked about the poor, for example, but it would take an Argentina — with a working class resentful of both the old post-colonial hierarchy and the neo-colonial British to create Eva Peron.  Argentina, of course, also had a European working class, whereas most of Latin America’s working class is considered mestizo or indigenous, but a good part of Peronism’s appeal is rooted in strictly indigenous (or indigenized) “mythology” … the independent vaquero reduced to peonage by the landed gentry (with their British financing) resonated even with the Italian, Serbian, Polish, etc. masses of Buenos Aires.  The PRI maintained hegemony (until it began espousing foreign — and largely rightist — concepts like neo-liberalism) by absorbing at least the mythology of the authentic indigenous movements like those of Zapata and Villa (and although Villa would define himself as “communist”, it was only after John Reed explained the theory to Villa that he realized at least in general principles Communism and Villa-ism were roughly equivalent).    Lazaro Cardenás — by embracing the indigenous within the state — was essential for creating what was, and could only be, a Mexican political organization.

Today’s Latin leftists, like Andres Manuel López Obrador (a former social worker), Rafael Correa (once a lay brother in Quito), Hugo Chavez (the son of jungle catechists) or Fernando Lugo (once a bishop) show the influence of not a political heritage, but a religious one… listen to a speech by Hugo Chavez and you’re more likely to hear a reference to the Virgin of Guadalupe than to Fidel Castro.  That’s not by accident. “Liberation Theology” — itself rooted in an interpretation of the Gospels based on the realities of Latin America, in turn had a profound impact on a generation of Latin political leaders, who — whether religious or not, Roman Catholic or not — view the Latin American variations on Roman Catholicism as an indigenous church.  And, don’t forget Evo Morales, Bezu’s distant successor both in office and in philosophy.  Morales does not speak of the “opiate of the masses”, but of Pamchaca, the indigenous spiritual heritage of his own Amayra tradition.

I sometimes wonder if the ferocious opposition to the populist-socialist-bolivarian isn’t based not so much on aversion to one or another European political theory as it is to something much simpler… the never completely forgotten fear of the conquistadors that Americans have not forgotten the idols under the altars and that even among the criollos and later immigrants, there is always the danger that the people will go native… and the natives may be meek, but nowhere does it say the meek inherit the earth through the good graces of an overseas benefactor, but may instead come into their inheritance by asserting their own rights.

* come to think of it, about the only orthodox Communist leader of note in Latin America, Fidel Castro, was a Jesuit-educated preppy.  Even those who overtly identified themselves as Marxists, like the Mexican politician and labor leader, Vicente Lombardo Toledano, came from relatively wealthy or intellectual (or both) families.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 21 December 2010 6:21 pm

    It isn’t all Latin American political leades that can be considered “intellectuals”, and most certainly not Chavez. He is simply playing the poor up against the middle class and the wealthy, exploiting the least fortunate in Venezuela for political gains. It is a ploy that is played over and over in Latin America (and elsewhere for that matter). Some people simply just want to be in power for the sake of the euphoria it may give them. Che Guevara was not a born leader, but Fidel Castro was. His uncanny abilities to out-smarten his foes, only 90 miles to the north is not to be dismissed lightly. There is little doubt, however, that President Kennedy by and large is responsible for Cuba becoming a communist country. Kennedy was under great pressure by the American investors (very large companies, such as United Fruit Company, Standard Oil, and a host of others) in Cuba not to yield to his demands. Had he stood his grounds, Cuba would not have gone knocking on the door of the (then) USSR for financial help.
    Morales in Bolivia is exploiting his fellow natives for political gains. The success he will have in improving their lives and bring them out of poverty is highly doubtful in view of his lack of support from the traditional elite of the country, but I certainly wish him good luck.

  2. 21 December 2010 7:31 pm

    I think you’re making my point; Castro, like other orthodox Communists AND the right are generally from the “traditional elites”; while the leftist leaders … López Obrador, Hugo Chavez, Rafael Correa, Evo Morales, Eva Peron … and Manuel Belzu … sprang from poor families, or rural families of modest means.

    There is no claim that Chavez is any more an intellectual than Pancho Villa was: neither has ever claimed to be. Villa surrounded himself with educated, intelligent advisers, and you’re under-estimating Chavez’ education. His parents, as catechists, were also teachers, and he received a pretty sound education through the Army. He’s known to be a reader, and gives ever indication of intellectual curiosity, which is usually a better sign of intelligence than academic achievement.

    I guess exploiting his fellow natives is what accounts for Bolivia’s dramatic economic growth plunging child mortality and illiteracy rates and impressive gains in its standard of living.

    And I can’t see that Mexicans in general have prospered under its Ivy League educated presidents and the “traditional elites” of the right, although nations under rightist leaders have shown macro-economic growth: Chile under Pinochet being one example.


  1. Lidia Gueiler Tejada, DEP « The Mex Files

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