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In this chapter, Laureano Vallenilla Lanz exemplifies how from a sociological point of view Simón Bolívar’s idea—first articulated in the Constitution he gave Bolivia in 1825—had been applied by the leaders of several Latin American countries in the nineteenth and early twentieth century such as José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (Paraguay), Juan Manuel de Rosas (Argentina), Gabriel García Moreno (Ecuador), Ramón Castilla (Peru), José Antonio Páez and Antonio Guzmán Blanco (Venezuela). Bolívar had then argued the need to have a strong man with centralized power and the right of succession. The explanation, according to Vallenilla Lanz, would be sociohistorical, due to the provincial nature of Latin American societies.
Despite having been the ideologue of Juan Vicente Gómez’s dictatorial regime (1908–35), the Venezuelan historian and sociologist Laureano Vallenilla Lanz (1870–1936) is recognized as a rigorous historian. In fact, he was the initiator of an expeditious revision of the racial and social conflicts at stake in the war of independence. Even though the first part of this essay, Cesarismo democrático, demystifies the romantic views and epic saga of Latin American emancipation, as Vallenilla Lanz establishes (with extreme positivistic rigor) how it was a civil war of castes and ideological manipulations, in the second part of the essay the historian salutes the most reactionary aspect of Simón Bolívar in explaining and justifying the leader as a new Caesar, yet one who had emerged from the uneducated masses (as did José Antonio Páez), therefore deserving of the moniker of “democratic leader.” Stemming from a sociological determinism, the text rejects the liberal concept of rotation of power. Vallenilla Lanz’s placement of the Bolivarian doctrine at the service of a [twentieth-century] despotic regime had an enormous impact in the Venezuelan culture of the time.
It is not surprising that in the interest of exalting the quintessential hero of Venezuelan independence, the painter Tito Salas—a supporter of the nineteenth-century tradition of Martín Tovar y Tovar as a painter of history—had been the only one to benefit from the patronage of dictator Gómez, who entrusted him with the décor of both the Casa Natal and of the Panteón Nacional. On both occasions, Salas opted for still-life scenes of Bolívar at a time when many of his contemporaries were more interested in portraying the landscape of Caracas according to Post-Impressionist aesthetics and were living from market-driven commissions. That is to say that it was the opposite of what was happening in the Andean countries or even in Mexico, where the indigenous and sociopolitical issues of social realism had the backing of ruling factions and the public.
The selection of this chapter from Vallenilla Lanz’s book originated when it was published in a newspaper article in 1917, as a result of a lecture given by the historian José Gil Fortoul. The second edition from 1929—selected here—is of more interest due to the accompanying notes about the situation of Peru and Mexico at the beginning of the twentieth century. The book had a preface and was translated into French by Marius André in Paris in 1920 from its first edition. The author was notably questioned from several Latin American countries and was specifically polemic to the Colombian intellectual Eduardo Santos. The entire controversy is covered in the publication of Cesarismo democrático y otros textos (Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1991).