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Bolívar’s Roman Oath: Hugo Chavez, Pope Francis and being on the periphery

27 March 2013

I swear before you, I swear by the God of my fathers, I swear on their graves, I swear on my Country that I will not rest body or soul until I have broken the chains binding us to the will of Spanish might!..

 — Símon Bolívar, 1805

While Bolívar himself is not much associated with Mexico, Bolivarianism is.  The term itself was coined by José Vasconcelos (along with its forgotten antonym, “Monrorism”) to distinguish between two currents in pan-Latinamerican political and cultural discourse that have existed since liberation:  the Bolivarians being (for Vasconcelos) those who turn to the common Iberian experience to interpret their history (and guide their future) and those who look northward to the history and experience of the Anglo-Americans.

Of course, Vasconcelos was politically to the far right (and became a fascist), but how the term has come to be applied doesn’t have any more to do with Vasconcelos’ politics than Jeffersonian concepts of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” have anything to do the author’s  slave-holding or  18th century sexual mores (or lack thereof).  Bolívar and Jefferson (and, by extension, James Monroe — whose name was applied to a “doctrine” written by John Quincey Adams — that Vasconcelos used as the symbol of Ango-American attitudes towards the part of the world Napoleon III dubbed “Latin America”) were products of their respective 18th century upbringing as colonial landowners.   What Thomas Jefferson wrote in Philadelphia in 1776, and what Símon Bolívar swore in Rome in 1805 reflected specific conditions, and we can safely jettison their thinking on race and class that no longer apply just as easily as we can the specifics of their grievances agains their respective colonial overlords.    What matters is how we have interpreted the terms within our own time, and how the “core values” have affected us.

What we still hold to, even under vastly changed conditions are Jefferson’s IDEAS of individualism and “self-reliance”, and — incidentally — a broad tolerance for religious non-conformity and the Iberian (and LatinAmerican) TRADITIONS  Vasconcelos read into Bolívarwere those of a hierarchical society that fostered  communal values, which naturally assumes religious conformity.

In 1805, the Papacy and Spain (and it’s colonial possessions) were  satellites of a superpower… Napoleon Bonaparte’s French Empire.   I think there’s some significance in that, since Bolívar had famously attended Napoleon’s coronation the previous year and come to the realization that Empire led to tyranny.  He couldn’t have helped notice that among the other witnesses was Pope Pius VII, underscoring the Empire’s control of the Church itself.  Bolívar did not swear by his (personal) honor, but by the God of my fathers, by my country”.  That is, where the North Americans, Jefferson, et. al., thought in terms of personal rights  (white, English-speaking, Protestant male people)  Bolívar’s loyalty was to institutional traditions  — the God of my fathers —  and communities… a country.  In North America we have (often with a lot of bloodshed) expanded the definition of those people who should be free, and so has our understanding of what it means for a country to “break the chains binding us to the will of” imposed outside control.

If Vasconcelos erred in his assumptions about la raza cosmica in defining Bolivarianism solely in terms of the colonial and Iberian tradition, he was correct in recognizing that the rival for the “soul” of Las Americas had appeared in the 19th and 20th — the Ango-American, Monrovians.

Semi-colonized economically and “Monroized ” in political forms, Bolivar’s country of many borders was peripheral to the intellectual movements of the last two centuries.  Or so it seemed.

Just as the United States expanded its sense of who was, and wasn’t a person, and the notion of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was to change over time, so too, at the Bolivarian periphery, even under the cloak of Monroe, the meaning of “country” was expanding.  The God of my fathers was still there, but understood to include Pachakuti, the Virgin of Guadalupe, Quetzecoatl and Jesus.  Bolívar himself recognized, and celebrated, the multi-cultural humanity of his “country” which has only become more inclusive since his era.  Benito Juárez, Eva Peron, Vicente Guerrero, Manuel Belzu — who no one in 1805 would have considered leaders rose to the top, and people with names not normally considered part of the “raza cosmica” (Spanish-Native American-African) — Fujimori, Kubitschek, Fox, Kirschner and Stossner) for better or worse, led one or another part of the country.

Under the radar, while being robbed and left behind, Latin Americans were not only expanding the boundaries of “raza cosmica”, but, as a peripheral part of the world, not forced to abide by the orthodoxies of the “mainstream” ideologies.  The 19th and 20th century “isms”… the religions of the marketplace… were alien  “Gods of my fathers”, but — like Questzcoatl and Jesus, could co-exist out of sight.    The chains that bound Latin America might be rattled by orthodox Marxism or Fascism or Capitalism, but in a “country” of mixed people and beliefs who saw themselves as part of the same community, somehow our peripheral ways of doing things escaped the notice of the wider world.

Latin politics was peripheral merely because it went unreported, and unremarked by the wider (imperial) world, until the outside world was forced, by scarce resources, by new competitors for those resources, and by the Bolívar’s county to take notice.

Latin America has no trouble seeing an Afro-Mestizo soldier from the jungles of Venezuela and the pious son of Italian immigrants as part of the same “country” and part of the same family, a family at the periphery. To those that rattle the chains, though, it seems as if something new has appeared in the universe.

Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo,  the Director of the Research Center for Religion in Society and Culture, writes in the Washington Post:

… The linking of the Venezuelan president to the Argentine pope is similar to how U.S. Catholics linked John F. Kennedy and the vigor of Kennedy’s Camelot administration to Blessed Pope John XXIII and the reforms of the II Vatican Council. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s combination of charm and conservative principles was considered in tune with Blessed Pope John Paul II. These associations sprung from popular culture and did not carry an imprimatur. The comparison in Latin America of the combative Hugo Chavez with the humble Pope Francis is just as revealing.

People who only get news in English from mainstream U.S. media may not understand the linkage.


Chavez’ Bolivarian Revolution  […] voices principles of concern for economic equality in harmony with the social justice perspectives of Catholicism. The witness to this similarity comes from Pope Francis when in 2007 as archbishop he addressed the Latin American episcopate with a stark statement of the need for economic change on the continent: “We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least.” He added “The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.”

[…] the pope’s social justice commitment does not come from Mr. Chavez: it is the other way around, with Chavez and the continents governments siding with the church. It not just some tiny anti-American “left” that thinks this way. In the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico, in the San Juan cathedral, the Mass for the repose of the soul of Chavez featured the same message of the need to redistribute wealth so as to attack systemic poverty. The collapse of neo-liberal economics no longer debates the need to redistribute wealth in our 21 republics, the challenge is rather how to do so.

Three of a kind?

Three of a kind?

The message of Pope Francis, therefore, is faithful to the experience of the church in his hemisphere where the majority of the world’s Catholics reside. What was once considered the periphery of the church is now its center.

Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega mentions that hours before being elevated to the Papacy, Pope Francis:

… called for the Vatican to emerge from self-absorption and what he called “theological narcissism.”

He urged the church to refocus its energy on the “peripheries,” not only geographical but existential: sin, suffering, injustice and ignorance.

Pachakuti (the world turned upside down)?, or simply the peripheral people, the cosmic race, in Rome, where they swore to break the chains binding them?




One Comment leave one →
  1. 28 March 2013 3:21 am

    You have packed a lot into this very interesting post. To much for one reading, at least for me. One tentative observation. Maybe the linkage in the public mind of various well-liked figures (JFK & John XXIII, Hugo Chavez & Pope Francis) is merely superficial, media-driven patter, lacking any actual programmatic notions about redistribution of wealth – except by those already disposed to such notions.

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