Latin America_s go-to hero

Can you name an American founder whose name is shouted in the streets, whose legacy inspires fanatical worship,...

Can you name an American founder whose name is shouted in the streets, whose legacy inspires fanatical worship, whose image is used to bolster ideals not his own, whose mantle is claimed by both left and right? There is no Washington party, no Jeffersonian republic. No one runs for president in Madison_s name. But in Latin America, as the Venezuelan election on Sunday reminded us, the question is easy, and the answer is Sim__n Bol__var.

The past is very present in Latin America. Although Bol__var rode 75,000 miles to win the freedom of what are now six nations, his vision for a unified continent was never realized. In time, he was shunted to ignominy; a rigid racial hierarchy replaced Spain_s haughty overlords; the vast, powerful union he imagined spun into a riot of bickering caudillos; and although (with a higher moral instinct than Washington or Jefferson) he ended slavery more than a half-century before the Emancipation Proclamation, his dream vanished like a fickle specter. But his revolution grinds on.

Time has a way of tweaking history. In the United States, the anticolonial Tea Party was appropriated by those who wanted to turn back the clock. In Venezuela, Bol__var was retrofitted by the late Hugo Ch__vez into _Bolivarianismo,_ a mix of anti-capitalism and free-handout socialism that has crippled the nation _ the opposite of what Bol__var had in mind.

Ch__vez wasn_t the first Venezuelan leader to assume Bol__var_s mantle: Jos__ Antonio P__ez did so in 1842 when his own presidency was faltering. The old general had the bones of Bol__var, a onetime nemesis, exhumed in Colombia and brought to Caracas with fanfare, and then proceeded to bask in (as one of Bol__var_s adjutants called it) _the magic of his prestige._ Later, Antonio Guzm__n Blanco, who embodied everything Bol__var despised _ corruption, pomposity, Freemasonry and anticlericalism _ exhumed Bol__var again, installed him in the National Pantheon, and presided bombastically over the centenary of his birth. The strongman went on to rule for a total of 18 years in the 1870s and 1880s.

In 1998, Ch__vez _ _El Comandante_ _ rode Bol__var_s name to the presidency with his Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement. With the Liberator_s portrait behind him and followers in the street shouting _Viva, Bol__var!,_ he rewrote the Constitution and renamed the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. He called it a revolution.

Ch__vez proceeded to shape a federation of nations named the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, or ALBA. He had Fidel Castro_s support; indeed, with Cuban agents streaming into Venezuela and oil pouring out to Havana, some quipped that Venezuela had become a colony of Cuba. Between 2004 and 2009, others joined: Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador. ALBA pledged to fight poverty and the _humiliation_ of those ruled _by the terrible power structure of Anglo-Saxons._ For a third time, Bol__var_s bones were exhumed, this time in a macabre freak show in which Ch__vez spoke to them, urging them to rise and rule again.

But Bol__var died poor, while Ch__vez died rich. Bol__var insisted on the power of courts and the freedom of the press; Ch__vez respected neither. At the end of his life, Bol__var was called a militarist conservative; today, a militarist chavista is a liberal. Indeed, the only goal Ch__vez and Bol__var seemed to share was a strong Latin America. But while Bol__var craved greatness _for liberty and glory,_ Ch__vez wanted a mighty fist against the United States. Bol__var would have approved of the egalitarian impulse, the campaign against poverty, the Latin pride. But it is a leap to assume he would have embraced Marxism; Marx himself once called Bol__var _that dastardly, most miserable and meanest of blackguards._

In death, Ch__vez approximated Bol__var more than he did in life. Venerated as _the Christ of America,_ his colossal image flapping from Caracas skyscrapers, his red shirts ubiquitous on the streets, El Comandante is finally as exalted as his hero. His _chosen son,_ Nicol__s Maduro, who eked out a surprisingly narrow victory over Henrique Capriles Radonski, scrambled to bask in the magic of Ch__vez_s prestige and _the genes of glorious liberators._ Ironically, as Mr. Capriles_s campaign was quick to point out, it is he who has Bol__var_s blood in his veins. (He is descended from Bol__var_s father_s illegitimate son.) The Liberator ended up on both sides of this ballot.

This struggle over memory plays out elsewhere in South America. Otherwise dignified Peruvian matrons argue volubly over Bol__var_s legacy. Bolivians summon his name when they talk about their country_s maritime rights claim against Chile. Ecuadoreans bristle over his opinions of Quite__os.

We don_t know how far Maduro will take the _Bolivarian_ legacy, but it_s a sure bet he_ll want Ch__vez_s version of the Liberator on his side.

The New York Times | By MARIE ARANA

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