January 16, 2008

The permanent rape of Bolívar

Quico says: Even now, nine years into the Chávez era, it's hard for me to know how to handle the surges of raw anger that well up inside of me at some of the president's antics. Blunted, abused, tested beyond any reasonable limit, it turns out my capacity for outrage is not totally exhausted.

The latest instance followed Chávez's barely-veiled endorsement of Colombia's stunningly brutal narco-guerrilla armies. Turns out that, for Chávez, Colombia's rebel armies "are in no way terrorist groups, they are real armies that control territory in Colombia, FARC and ELN must be recognized, they are insurgent forces that have a political project, a bolivarian project that is respected here."

It's that word, "bolivarian", that jumps out at you. One struggles to picture what Don Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Ponte Palacios y Blanco might have had to say to Tirofijo. How exactly would El Libertador feel about Ingrid Betancourt being held hostage in his name, about the streets of Europe being flooded with cocaine and the upper reaches of the Venezuelan government being corrupted by coke money in his name?

As a thought experiment, it's pure grotesque. Of course, we all know by now that when Chávez uses that word he's not speaking in any real sense about the father of the nation: when he says Bolivarian, he's really just talking about himself, using a barely euphamistic formulation for "chavista". In that context, his statement makes a lot more sense: "FARC and ELN insurgent forces that have a political project, a chavista project that is respected here." No argument from me on that count.

The episode brought back memories of the fracas that first made me realize Venezuela faced not merely a really bad government under Chávez, but a serious threat of authoritarianism. It happened back in 1999, barely a few months after the man had taken office. The Constituent Assembly he had promised was duly rewriting Venezuela's constitution and, in a bid to demonstrate its autonomy, the president decided to leave it "unsupervised" as he took a three-week long tour of East Asia.

The Assembly - packed with Chávez allies - was mostly "well behaved" in his absence, adopting most of the proposals in a draft constitution the president had released months earlier. But they were bold enough to discard one of Chávez's highest profile, and most symbolically loaded, ideas: his call to change the country's official name to República Bolivariana de Venezuela.

It's easy to understand the Constituent Assembly members's misgivings. For the bulk of the previous 170 years, Bolívar's name had been sacrosanct: a symbol of national unity well above the partisan fray. Just a year earlier, the Electoral Council had upheld longstanding practice by preventing Chávez from using Bolívar's name in his party's title. By 1999, however, Chávez had already advanced some ways to ending that tradition, repeatedly referring to his own movement by its adverbial form - Bolivarian. More and more, the word came to be used as a rough synonym for "chavista", a conflation of national identity and party loyalty that easily bled into a view of dissenters as "anti-Bolivarian", treasonous rather than merely wrong.

In 1999, even his followers could grasp how toxic such a mix of sectarianism and nationalism could prove. In effect, Chávez wanted a partisan label added to the nation's official name. To get a sense for the symbolic load here, try to picture a US politician who systematically refers to his own movement as Washingtonianism. Imagine he's elected president, and gets the term to "stick" in public discourse, with editorialists and commentators commonly and matter-of-factly using "Washingtonians" as shorthand for his followers. Then, imagine that, on reaching office, he proposes renaming the country the Washingtonian United States of America.

Silly as it may seem, this whimsical little parallel begins to give you a sense of the kind of Grand Theft Symbol Chávez was proposing...but it only begins to do so, because Bolívar is a far, far more central figure in Venezuelans' understanding of their own history and identity than any single historical figure is to US Americans.

And so, making use of the autonomy Chávez had so vehemently insisted it would enjoy, the Constituent Assembly dissented. The symbolic violence inherent in the forced appropriation of national identity for partisan gain was clear even to Chávez partisans. So while the president wrestled with his chopsticks on his state visit to China, the Constituent Assembly approved an article maintaining the ideologically neutral official name the country had had for decades: República de Venezuela.

What happened next chillingly foreshadowed the kind of leadership Chávez had in store for the country, as well as dramatically capturing the spinelessness of the people he had gathered around him to govern it. On his return, the president was furious with his supporters in the assembly. Calling them to task publicly, he demanded that the new country name be adopted, blustering on TV about the Assembly Members' unreliability and hinting darkly about their insufficient patriotism.

Sure enough, almost immediately, with nary a peep of dissent, the supposedly all-powerful, fully autonomous Constituent Assembly folded, reversing its earlier decision in order to placate the president. The show of Assembly autonomy the trip to Asia had been meant to provide didn't quite pan out as planned. Instead, what we had all feared - that Chávez was content with the thinest of institutional veils to mask the underlying authoritarianism of his vision of power - was ever so publicly demonstrated.

It's an episode I'm reminded of every time I travel: my passport is now duly stamped "República Bolivariana de Venezuela". I always feel a bit odd handing that thing to foreign authorities...a Venezuelan, but far from a Bolivarian in its current, politicized sense, I always feel like I'm committing some kind of fraud: identifying myself as something I'm not. And that, of course, was the point of the exercise: reserving full symbolic membership in the national community to a part of the population only, leaving dissenters to feel less than fully Venezuelan, to feel as though in resisting the governing ideology, they cast doubt on their patriotism.

And now, nine years on, Chávez tells me that Ingrid Betancourt's kidnappers are more Bolivarian, in a sense, more fully Venezuelan than I am. That the foreign thugs who pioneered the bicycle bomb, piloted by unsuspecting kamikaze children, have more of a purchase on my national identity than I do.

And here, well...here all possibility of analysis, of reasoned debate, of cold-blooded introspection, of verständigungorientiertes Handeln...it all just comes to a screeching halt. All I can say, from the bottom heart, is damn you to hell, Hugo Chávez. Damn you and your lunatic ideology and your grotesque assault on my history, my identity and my nation.