Analysis: The mantle of Simon Bolivar

Editor's note: Venezuelans vote today in legislative elections. Opposition parties hope to end the tw0-thirds majority currently held by Chavez's party and thus limit his ability to continue his self-styled socialist revolution.

In a small plaza in Old Town Havana stands a statue of Simon Bolivar, whom American schoolchildren know as the “George Washington of Latin America.”

Most statues of Bolivar, including one in New York’s Central Park, show him in uniform mounted on a warrior steed, striking a bellicose and heroic pose. But this Bolivar stands clothed in a cape, serene and thoughtful, more like a Roman senator than a general or dictator.

Bolivar, who was born in Caracas in 1783 and died in a small town in Colombia in 1830, is receiving a lot of attention these days as Latin American countries celebrate the 200th anniversary of the revolutions that ended Spanish domination in the hemisphere.

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez has focused still more attention on "El Libertador" by exhuming Bolivar’s remains to prove he was assassinated. The exhumation, televised to all Venezuelans with the national anthem blaring and interspersed with portraits of Bolivar and Chavez, appears to have more to do with national unity than uncovering the real cause of death.

Bolivar spent years leading the struggle for independence and then unsuccessfully striving to realize his dream of a united confederation of Latin American republics under his tutelage.

To Chavez, his followers and the adherents of what he calls his “Bolivarian Revolution,” Chavez is Bolivar reborn, come back to merge the anti-imperialist, socialist nations of the hemisphere into a united front against United States hegemony and the evils of capitalism.

Around the Americas, Bolivar is a heroic, even godlike figure. He was one of the two great leaders of the independence armies, along with Jose de San Martin. Both Bolivar and San Martin died in poverty, but Bolivar, unlike San Martin, attained great power during his lifetime. He saw himself declared president for life in several republics, was proclaimed by the people as dictator of Peru, and tried for years to build a united Latin America.

Wars, insurrections and Spanish-led attempts to snuff out the revolutionary fires followed. Local and regional governments were formed and dissolved during a period of chaos and instability that lasted nearly a generation. Some of the revolutions were more bloody, and costly, than others. During that time, Bolivar became the archetypal “caudillo,” or Latin strongman, a role model for Fidel Castro, Chavez, Juan Peron, Augusto Pinochet and so many others.

Today, Chavez has taken up the Bolivarian banner of a united Latin America. His Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra America, or ALBA, lists as its main members Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

“The vision of Chavez is not so different from that of Bolivar, at least with respect to the perceived need to seek protection in togetherness from the interventionist designs of the United States,” said Jan Knippers Black, a professor of Latin American history and politics at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.

Over the past two decades, Latin America has become more united than ever in reaction to the policies of former President George W. Bush, she said. “But grand designs rarely take shape or hold their shapes for long. We the people soon become disillusioned with our leaders — and they with us.”

Bolivar’s attempts to create a unified Latin American confederation of nations failed miserably and ended up tarnishing the Libertador’s image as a democrat and a liberal. Likewise, Chavez’s attempts so far to forge a united anti-American front among the Latin Americans has found resonance only in a small handful of ALBA countries. Border conflicts are commonplace and ideological divisions abound. Unity is a distant reality.

“There is a lot of talk and noise today about Latin American unity, but the differences among countries are deeper than ever and mistrust is, if anything, increasing,” said Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Foundation in Washington and an expert on Latin American politics. “Regional unity may be a laudable aspiration but the reality is far more complicated and Bolivar’s vision seems more remote than ever.”