Hugo Chavez: Re-writing history

CARACAS — Cipriano Castro was a dictator and a despot who grabbed power in Venezuela in a bloody coup in 1899. So say the history books.

But now Castro — an important figure in Venezuelan history — is getting a new gloss: A revision of his career promoted by the government is underway here, and it paints him in a more favorable light.

Last month, members of the National Assembly from President Hugo Chavez’s United Socialist Parties of Venezuela (PSUV) denounced the historians who have so far defined the mainstream view of Castro. Most historical accounts of Castro describe his nine years in power as full of rebellions, the murder or exile of his political opponents and fights with colonial European and U.S. powers.

Referring to a recent book that portrays Castro as a “national hero,” Venezuelan National Assembly delegate Miguel Rojas complained of the “notable absence of certifiable information” about Castro. 

“The facts we have about Cipriano Castro do not remotely resemble those that the text signals as happening in that period that was so important for the country,” he said. The book, called "Cipriano Castro: the Eternal Pilgrim," was published by the Andean Parliament (the governing body for four Andean countries).

Castro is not the first historical figure lined up for reassessment. Last year, Chavez created a committee to examine the events that led to the death of Simon Bolivar, after whom he has named his revolution. Bolivar, a Venezuelan aristocrat who liberated Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia from Spanish rule in the early 19th century, died from tuberculosis in Santa Marta, Colombia.

Conventional history says that by his death he was a broken man, having failed in his dream of uniting the countries he liberated. Chavez believes he was assassinated by his political rival, Franciso de Santander.

The committee, led by the vice president of Venezuela, has yet to publish any findings. 

Chavez courts comparisons with Bolivar. But the parallels between Chavez and Castro are actually more striking. Both were military men. Both led coups (Castro succeded; Chavez failed). Like Castro, Chavez had a U.S.-supported coup mounted against him (unlike Castro, Chavez survived). 

Most significantly, both will be remembered for their fiery nationalistic rhetoric and anti-imperialist stance.

In October 1899, Castro marched on Caracas with a large army and deposed the caudillo, or military strongman, Ignacio Andrade, in what came to be known as the Liberation Revolution. Castro inherited a coffee-growing nation in serious international debt and when, in 1902, he refused to pay Venezuela’s debtors, the British and German navies blockaded the Venezuelan coastline.

“Venezuelans, the insolent foreigner has profaned the sacred earth of our country,” Castro declared, rousing patriotic fervor in his fellow countrymen.

After intervention by then-U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, the Europeans backed off, but Castro ultimately was forced to re-pay Venezuela’s debts. European aggression and Venezuelan defiance prompted Roosevelt to modify his policies toward Latin America, launching the era of U.S. intervention in the region.

Castro was seen by the United States as troublesome, and he was later forced from power in a coup led by his best friend and vice president, Juan Vicente Gomez — with support from the United States.

“I'm not trying to make him into a heroic figure, but he is someone who deserves to be re-evaluated because he always appears as a despot, a criminal, an assassin, a drunk and a rapist — and the other aspects of Venezuelan history don't figure at all,” said Manuel Carrero, director of investigations at the Romulo Gallegos Center for Latin American Studies (CELARG). “That was done to hide the fact that Castro had stood up to imperialism.”

“From [Castro’s] time until now not a single Venezuelan president has said to North American presidents what they deserve when it needs to be said,” Carrero said. “Cipriano Castro said what he did to Roosevelt because he deserved it. Today, Chavez does the same.”

Castro took power at the end of a bloody civil war that saw Venezuela fragmented into a number of fiefdoms ruled by military strongmen. He succeeded in centralizing power under his rule, said Elias Pino Iturrieta, director of the Institute of Historical Investigations at the Catholic University of Venezuela and author of "Castro: Presidential Epistles, 1899-1908."

“The culmination of fragmentation occurs when Castro begins to dominate singlehandedly the country's map by taking advantage of the weakness of his enemies,” he said. “But he did not have new ideas for that domination.

“Cipriano Castro created a bridge between the fragmentation and anarchy of the previous century and the total dictatorship that would exist from 1908," Pino Iturrieta said.

But Pino Iturrieta said the revision of Castro’s presidency has a political agenda: The Chavez government is looking for historical antecedents to Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution.

Chavez "doesn't only want to re-write the history of Cipriano Castro but of all of Venezuelan history,” he said. “The government has no coherent doctrine to explain what it has proclaimed as '21st century socialism,' and because of that it tries to change the past. It tries to find in the past some roots in history in which it can base Chavez's project.”  

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