The inauguration of Colombia’s new President, Gustavo Petro, took place on the 7th of August, involving a lavish ceremony to which several heads of state, including the King of Spain, were invited.
In course of proceedings, Petro invoked a symbol of Latin American sovereignty, hearkening back to the wars of independence against Spain: “As president of Colombia I request that the sword of Bolivar be brought out,” he called, as the 18th relic was displayed (we leave aside the question of the saber’s authenticity and its catalogue of existent replicas, which boasts Venezuelan gifts of state to Putin, Gaddafi and al-Assad).
To begin with, we should note that the sword itself is not an official symbol of state in Colombia, and so is not owed any particular gesture of esteem by foreign dignitaries. The king, along with other attendees, had already shown due respect by standing for the flag and anthem, thereby recognizing Colombian statehood.
The Sword does not Rest
In terms of historical background, Simon Bolivar was the military and political leader whose struggle resulted in the independence of what are now Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia—albeit he himself had hoped for a united country, the closest to which he managed to achieve being a short-lived Greater Colombia. Bolivar’s ideological commitments may be contextualized in the framework of liberal republicanism.
He was a Criollo (an ethnic Spaniard), scion to a thoroughly wealthy, slave-owning family. Some have argued for some distantly mixed background, and Hugo Chavez, for his part, insisted that Bolivar was a mestizo, presumably in order to make him a more representative figure for the Venezuelan nation as he saw it, but these claims appear spurious.
Critics often point to his Guerra o Muerte, “War or Death,” policy, issued in the form of a decree which went some way towards abolishing the distinction between combatant and non-combatant, and in pursuit of which loyalists were put to the machete (bullets being in short supply). Prisoners and hospital patients in particular were executed en masse.
Bolivar contributed to the importation of centralizing political paradigms ill-suited to Spanish America. This led to the establishment of Jacobin states that, in several cases, attempted the cultural and ethnic erasure of indigenous peoples, something which the empire’s decentralized, quasi-medieval structures had generally avoided (including as they did the Republicas Indias, “Indian Republics”).
Interestingly, it seems Bolivar would become one of his own most strident critics, despairing of the continent he was “liberating.” Towards the end of his life, suffering from tuberculosis and weary of assassins, he wrote to General Juan José Flores, the Ecuadorian Head of State, bemoaning that: America was ungovernable; it would fall into despotism; were it possible for men to return to the original state of nature, this would happen in America; things would become so pitiful Europeans would not deign even to conquer it; and finally, that all there was left to do with America was emigrate from it. The litany of woe even includes a fully-fledged rejection of revolutionary politics, when Bolivar writes that “he who serves a revolution, harvests at sea.”
Rhetorical flurries aside, Bolivar did indeed turn his back on his original project, sending a secret envoy to negotiate with Spain, proposing that the European motherland and her former American territories form a joint confederacy. This was partly spurred by his becoming acutely aware of the disastrous arrangement he had procured for the Americas by financially indebting them to the British Empire in return for the latter’s support. That initial Anglophilia from which Bolivar now repented, foreshadows the subordination of Latin America to the US. In fact, much of his late writings read as darkly prophetic of the continent’s post-independence existence.
In terms of ideology, it is also the case that, in his final will and testament, the criollo leader renounced Freemasonry (from which he had partly received the intellectual scaffold for his enterprise, but from which he had also been distancing himself for some time), asserting the Catholic faith. Alas, regret came too late to change the course of history, and Bolivar’s butler, Jóse Palacios, would report how, before dying, the revolutionary lamented that he “abhorred having initiated a war against the Spaniards.”
History very much notwithstanding, however, in recent years, so-called Bolivarianismo, or a certain brand of post-Marxist politics represented by the so-called “pink tide,” of which Hugo Chavez was the spearhead, has made ample use of the figure of Bolivar.
Petro’s connection to the sword of Bolivar is nothing new. It was used as a symbol by the M19 guerrilla group to which he belonged (and which went so far as to steal it) in his younger years. But Petro’s invocation of the warlord’s weapon is also interpretable as a bid for leadership of the Latin American Left and a displacement of Venezuela, of which Colombia has historically been a rival. Indeed, Petro is ideologically divergent from Venezuela’s Maduro (as he was from Chavez), emphasizing green energy, homosexuality, and abortion (causes Chavez did not generally defend, being more socially conservative, although he did make much of supposedly being a feminist).
The King does not Stand
Bearing in mind the sword’s history, then, as well as the current geopolitical and ideological use being made of it, we might conclude that the king’s modest foregoing of deference was, in fact, more prudent than his critics recognize.
Across the Atlantic, one indication that Spain’s head of state was right to act as he did may be gleaned from the reaction of the post-rational, woke-bourgeoise Left, rife as it has been with histrionic remarks about guillotines and other irrelevancies. (The guillotine, as symbol of the French Revolution, would be at odds with Bolivar’s favorable assessment of the England of his day and one-time fancy that he might go to war with Napoleon, a figure that had previously inspired him, but coherence is hardly the point).
The refusal to pay homage to the instrument of war of a man whose conduct and legacy are not above serious moral query, is significant for another reason: it provides a touchstone for an alternative account of Latin American history and possible future. This alternative account—to wit, a relatively positive appraisal of the empire, or aspects thereof, a relatively negative appraisal of (liberal, Jacobin-inspired) republicanism, and a desire to take up the imperial legacy creatively—is shared by large swaths of that continent’s population.
Had the king shown obeisance to Bolivar’s sword, he would have attracted less attention, but this would have been just as much of a statement, and just as alienating to part of the Colombian nation, and the Spanish-speaking world at large.
Unfortunately, we should close by pointing to a possible ambiguity in the king’s gesture, as some outlets are reporting that Felipe did eventually stand when the sword was being returned to its vitrine. If the monarch did, in fact, mean to stand after all, and the above controversy is all a mirage, it would at least have been an instructive, if ultimately disappointing, one.
This controversy will, in all probability, fade without remainder. The same is not true of Bolivar’s legacy and its centrality to a certain political brand (or brands) now sweeping the lands he once stirred to war. Competing accounts of Latin (better, Hispano-) America’s past and, therefore, future, will be needed in order to put up a fight. Vague technocratic speak and an economicist defense of the “free market” are incapable of pushing back against Bolivarianismo. They lack its romantic appeal and fail to address the continued plight of the continent’s poor.
The question of how to break the Right-Left dialectic in the American context, and what American statehood and sovereignty might mean apart from Bolivar’s tainted heritage, however, deserves a separate exploration.