Simón Bolívar- a man of war and a symbol of freedom
It has been said that no historical person has as many statues around the world as Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan hero from the Wars of Independence. One of the statues is located in the middle of Cario - Midan (Square) Simón Bolívar. During the recent revolution in Egypt, Bolívar- a man from a different war, a different century and a different continent- was revisited and embraced a symbol for the people’s struggle. Why?
The man who never dies
What is a statue after all? The features and gestures of a person molded into metal, almost never noticed by locals as they rush past, yet often cherished by doves and other birds. A statue is a monument of a person whose life someone during a moment in history deemed too important to fade into history. Simón Bolívar is such a man, the son of a wealthy Caracas family who liberated six Latin American countries from the Spanish yoke in the name of justice, dignity and freedom. Only to die alone and poor from tuberculosis at the Colombian coast, not even turned 50 years old. The greatest man in Latin America they say, hovering over thousands of plazas, staring from thousands of paintings in museums and public buildings, looking over and across the men, women and children who pass by. In Venezuela, his birth place, Bolívar is the founding myth of the nation, the icon that Venezuelans takes as proof of their greatness as a nation and as a people.
A gift from Venezuela
The statue of Simón Bolívar came to Egypt on February 11, 1979. While Carmelo Tabaco sculpted the 2.3-meter high bronze statue, Manuel Silveira Blanco constructed the pedestal on which Simón Bolívar stands. The statue, a gift from Venezuela to Egypt, was unveiled in the presence of a large Latin American delegation headed by Venezuela’s first lady, Blanca Rodriguez de Perez. Since then, and almost every July 5th ever since- the Venezuelan day of Independence- six Latin American countries, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Panama gather at the foot of Simón Bolívar statue to commemorate Latin America’s battles of independence from Spain.
The struggle for power and the victors of war
Statues commemorating military leaders, overt or discreet, play a powerful role in telling us about people’s values, history, struggles, and success. However subtle or limited the scale and number of military statues, examination of those that do exist during and after a battle provide important indicators of past and present military and social relationships. The presence, placement, and prominence of these military figures tell us something more about who “won” or, if there are no clear victors, about the continuing struggle for power. There are always tensions between the army in its purely military ambition for geopolitical supremacy and the military as a prime vehicle through which nationalist discipline and control is disseminated and experienced. Strengths and weakness of military leaders are demonstrated in war, and their qualities are often mirrored in the memorials of “their” wars. Monuments of military leaders and war commanders are eulogized for social purposes, historical interpretations and contemporary utility.
The eternal liberator
This relationship between military campaigners who claim to act in the name of “the people”- as Simón Bolívar did- is always particularly interesting and important, because it is never an easy one. Who knows what personal ambitions and inner desires Bolívar harbored? Who knows if he ever doubted his cause, or if he at some point realized that he just had to move forward because he had entered a path of no return? But what Bolívar is remembered as, what has elevated him into a myth and a powerful symbol across nations and continents, is that he represented a pure and just cause- “the people’s” struggle against oppression and dominance; a dream of independence and justice. Because of that, we tend to forget that his war was as bloody and painful as any other war. And because of that, he can be invoked as a powerful symbol in other conflicts and struggles, regardless of distance, context and the longevity of history. “The liberation of the people” is an enduring idea, and Bolívar’s legacy is exactly summed up in the title that is attributed to him: El Libertador- the Liberator.
A symbol for the revolution
During the Egyptian revolution in 2011, the statue of a victorious Simón Bolívar, dressed in military attire, holding a lengthy sword and ready to command, acquired the personage of a struggle for dignity and freedom. The statue is located a few meters from Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the Egyptian revolution, and in close proximity to the American Embassy.
Protestors wrapped the Egyptian flag around the statue’s shoulders. When security police fired tear gas on protestors, young men placed a bandage on Bolívar’s eye. In an instance the 19th Century Venezuelan military hero was at the heart of a liberation campaign in Cairo two hundred years after his war efforts in Latin America. Indeed, Simón Bolívar aroused identification among Egyptian protestors in ways that people’s heroes tend to do; as emblems of sacrifice associate with human solidarity and freedom. At a particular moment in Egyptian history, Bolívar was not only a symbol of unification against oppression, but also a demand that the military regime should follow in the footsteps of a great military leader who acted in the interest of “the people.”
The course of history and the power of a dream
History is written by the victors. And history, as we know, is always up for dispute. This not least the case of war-history. Wars are often re-interpreted and re-written as new historians; new political paradigms and new knowledge come and go. Carnages are forgotten or uncovered. Seals of just or unjust wars are handed out, the secret powers in the shadows are exposed, established truths are recognized or discarded.
Often, the men (and women) who led and died in these wars are forgotten. Some are just remembered by their own families, neighbors and communities, sometimes by the nation’s historians, or briefly by school children who are forced to recall names, and the dates of battles at school. Some men remain as statues, briefly glanced at by tourists with guide books in their hands, and occasionally polished by the city’s renovation department. Few men can stand the tear and wear of time, invoking deep sentiments long after their instant of glory.
But in Latin America, Simón Bolívar is still that man. Many people think that his work is still unfulfilled; that justice, liberty and independence for the people are still a dream more than a reality. In the poem A Song to Bolívar, Pablo Neruda writes:
I met Bolívar on a long morning,
In Madrid, at the front of the Fifth Regiment,
Father, I said, are you or are you not or who are you?
And looking at the Headquarters of the Mountain, he said,
“I wake up every hundred years when the people awake.”
This dream of Bolívar’s return in the form of a moment in history and a man who would reinvigorate the struggle in his spirit (a quality many attributed to the late Hugo Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolution) continues to linger in the hearts of many Latin Americans. But as the example from Simón Bolívar Square in Cairo illustrates, the myth of Simón Bolívar is timeless and unbound from space. Now, watching over peoples and places across the world from his pedestal, Bolívar represents an idea and a longing rather than one specific war. More than 180 years after his death, his actions continue to inspire.
Written by Nefissa Naguib and Iselin Åsedotter Strønen