Isn’t it funny, dear readers, that there were once an awful lot of North Americans named after Simón Bolívar, the great South American freedom fighter, admirer of the (North) American Revolution, and trenchant critic of, among other things, the then-nascent US-American imperialism? Sure, they dropped the acute accents that showed where the syllabic emphasis should fall on his name, effectively moving it up to the first syllable instead of the second. And the Spanish pronunciation was anglicized. But that’s not the least of it. It seems that they co-opted his name because it belonged to a great hero of independence — and what gringo doesn’t value theirs? But then it ended up on a southern gringo who, while certainly a distinguished hero to his forces in the Pacific theatre of World War II, was also distinguished by some far less honorable characteristics, as a certain PSUV minister, campaign chief, and close friend of the late president of Venezuela has found:
“That ‘Simon Bolivar Commando’ of the right doesn’t refer to our Liberator, Simón Bolívar, fortunately,” said Jorge Rodríguez, chief of the Hugo Chávez Commando of the PSUV electoral campaign, on Monday, while revealing the history of the real personage the right-wing is paying tribute to under that name.
“This is Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., who is the commander of the right…consult Wikipedia,” invited Jorge Rodríguez. “He led the defence of Alaska during World War II and distinguished himself as a great racist…He said that they must try not to have any soldiers of color in his troops because ‘if they crossbreed with the Eskimos, it will produce the ugliest race the world has ever seen!’
“That’s your Commando, Majunche — the Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr. Command,” said Rodríguez to a crowd in Anzoátegui, and showing a portrait of the personage who was born in 1886 and died in 1945, during the second world war.
“This Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., he didn’t accept soldiers of color in his forces. And also, it’s curious — whenever racists speak of someone who is black or afrodescendant, like our Aristobulo [Istúriz, a long-standing minister in the Chávez government], they don’t say ‘black’ or ‘afrodescendant’ or ‘brown’, because we afrodescendants are brown — they say ‘colored’. But this general was ‘colored’, although much more pinkish*,” said Rodríguez.
The director of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), showing the photo of the historic embarrassment of the self-coronation of the dictator Pedro Carmona Estanga, recalled that on April 12, 2002, the portrait of the Liberator, Simón Bolívar, was removed and “disappeared” from Miraflores Palace, while the right-wing candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, thinks to trick Venezuelans with the supposed name of his command in reference to the Liberator.
“Hugo Chávez was the greatest Bolivarian. He rescued the memory and historic legacy of the Liberator, and in the barely 48 hours of the dictator, Carmona, who removed the portrait of Bolívar from the Ayacucho Room of Miraflores Palace…the same people who were there applauding this barbarity are the very sectors of the economic oligarchy who now have Capriles Radonski as their candidate.
“So you can stop worrying, Venezuelans who feel offended at the opposition trying to taint the memory of the Liberator, Simón Bolívar, giving that name to the command of their campaign.
“The right-wing command is called ‘Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., a North American military general, of pinkish color, who fought in the Second World War and was also a contemptuous racist.
“So we can breathe easy, brothers and sisters. Our commando is called ‘Comando de la Patria Hugo Chávez’. When we say this, it is the same as saying ‘Comando de la Patria Simón Bolívar’, which is the same as saying ‘Comando de la Patria Hugo Chávez’,” Rodríguez pointed out.
Sure, we could dismiss this as a bit of cute patriotic hyperbole on the part of Jorge Rodríguez. Except that there really was a Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. And the latter was not only one of the few generals to fall during World War II, he was also, as Rodríguez says, an avowed Southern racist who hailed from the initially neutral (and later Confederate) state of Kentucky, and who really did bristle at being put in command of a black regiment. And he really did say what Rodríguez says he did. (I looked for his exact words while translating the above.) His own father, Simon Bolivar Buckner, Sr., was a Confederate general who suffered the ignominy of surrendering to none other than Ulysses S. Grant himself. And when Grant defeated the senior Buckner, it was a slap in the face to those who had fought and died for nothing short of the right to be blatantly, slave-owningly racist.
And therein lies another irony, not only of the gringos, but of those sad Venezuelan oligarchs who take their inspiration (and marching orders) from them instead of native sons. Simón Bolívar, the original Venezuelan general, was white himself, but certainly no racist. His entire story indicates the opposite. His parents both died before he was ten years old. He was raised chiefly by his black nursemaid, Hipólita, and often said that she was the only parent he had ever known. Perhaps it was the subjugation and misery of her people that prompted him to contemplate rebellion. His troops included not only white criollos and European immigrants, but mestizos and mulattos and blacks, and he was not shy of handing promotions to anyone who loyally distinguished himself in battle, regardless of color.
And on top of that, his own tutor, Simón Rodríguez, was an adamant proponent of equal education for all people, envisaging classrooms where black, indigenous and white children sat side by side. In fact, that was how Rodríguez ended up becoming young Bolívar’s tutor; he was chased out of the school he taught by white parents alarmed at the idea that their children would be learning alongside “Indians”! It is no coincidence, either, that Chavecito’s long-time education minister was and is the above-mentioned Aristóbulo Istúriz, who is very capable, very determined…and very black. All in all, Chavecito is the Venezuelan president who came closest to accomplishing what the Liberator and his tutor strove for.
So you can see how funny it is that a blatant racist like Buckner would be named after an independence leader who could not have been less racist if he tried. And you can see how strangely appropriate it would be if the very racist Venezuelan opposition, who routinely referred to the tri-racial mestizo Chávez as “that monkey”, took Buckner, and not Bolívar, for the icon of their electoral campaign.
*I couldn’t find an adequate genealogy to confirm Jorge Rodríguez’s seeming contention that Buckner was not quite white, although it would hardly surprise me if that proved to be the case…just as it wouldn’t surprise me a bit to learn that it might have been fudged in light of what side Buckner’s father ultimately took in the Civil War. Alternatively, Rodríguez may have been making the simple, and accurate, observation that everyone’s skin has a color, that Buckner’s color is “pinkish”, and therefore the term “colored”, so favored by racists of the US South, is absurd.