The Petchary notes another birthday today: That of the man simply called “The Liberator.” Simon Bolivar was born in Caracas, Venezuela, on July 24, 1783. He died on December 17, 1830, after a long battle with tuberculosis, in Santa Marta, Colombia. Although his physical remains departed that place twelve years later, when he was returned to the land of his birth, there remains a beautiful, simple white monument to him in that place.
Sadly though, poor Bolivar is not allowed to rest quietly in his birthplace in 2010. Amidst the usual puffed-up pomposity and bristling of red berets, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez just had the poor General exhumed, in order to have his bones tested. There are rumors that he was assassinated and in fact died of slow arsenic poisoning.
Yes, the wicked Colombians killed him! As we know, Mr. Chavez’s socialist government just broke off diplomatic relations with Colombia. Coincidence! And what would the General think of this – a display of Latin American unity? He would be even more melancholy than he was in the beautiful, elegaic Marquez novel “The General in his Labyrinth.”
Of course, the important thing about Bolivar is that in fact, Chavez cannot claim him as his own. He is a truly transnational hero. He left his footprint in so many places in the Americas – including Jamaica. Sometimes he was tired and resting, sometimes defiant, sometimes victorious, sometimes defeated and fleeing.
In Jamaica, he was the latter; he rested here awhile in 1815 after heavy defeats, and gave himself some time to think. In his “Letter from Jamaica” Bolivar wrote: “A people that love freedom will in the end be free.” It was in Jamaica that his vision grew for a great, strong federation of Latin America, cutting the colonial shackles that tied it down. This is the kind of stuff that makes young women’s hearts swell, and the hairs at the back of young men’s necks stand up. (By the way, the Jamaica Information Service calls this famous document a “Letter to Jamaica.” Which wouldn’t make a lot of sense, would it). In fact, the letter was a reply to a Jamaican, and was subtitled rather elegantly, “Reply of a South American to a Gentleman of This Island.”
The statue below was given to Jamaica by the Bolivarian government of Venezuela. Thanks for that, Mr. Chavez.
“A people that love freedom.” It is the Petchary’s passionate hope that the people of Jamaica will themselves, one day, be free of the mental slavery that besets them. Yes, that same mental slavery that Marcus Garvey preached about and Bob Marley sang about.
Why did Bob Marley sing so much about freedom? Surely Jamaica was independent, emancipated, a sovereign state in the 1970s? But freedom – true Bolivarian-style liberation – is a thing of the mind as much as the body. As the General wrote in his Jamaican letter.
As Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha said, thousands of years ago, “Be a lamp unto yourself. Work out your liberation with diligence.”
Note: According to local historian Rebecca Tortello, Bolivar actually survived an assassination attempt here in Jamaica. His treacherous servant stabbed the wrong man, who happened to be sleeping in Bolivar’s hammock (no-one sleeps in hammocks any more do they? They are purely decorative).