"Manuela Vuelve": la amable loca as Foundational Myth in Venezuela
Heather Hennes, Ph.D.
Saint Joseph’s University
Manuela Sáenz (1797-1856). Portrait by Marcos Salas. Copy of portrait by Tecla Walker. Image acquired from Wikimedia Commons on Dec. 21, 2017.
During Venezuela’s 2010-2011 bicentennial celebrations, a series of state-sponsored ceremonies, speeches and publications elevated to the status of “founding mother” a woman who had previously been disparaged as crazy and a threat to public order: Manuela Sáenz Aizpuru de Thorne (1797-1856). A native of Quito, she was the legendary lover and zealous supporter of Simón Bolívar, and a revolutionary in her own right. She never set foot in what is now Venezuela.
This essay examines the discourse used by then president Hugo Chávez and other members of the ruling party, the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), to represent Sáenz to the Venezuelan public. It analyzes the ways in which characteristics once condemned as detrimental to national order and public peace were exploited and recast by Chávez and other government officials as models of patriotism and commitment to the Bolivarian Revolution. These characteristics include audacity, passion, and loyalty. In addition, the vindication of Manuela Sáenz and her elevation to the status of founding mother was a call to action for present-day Venezuelan women by the self-proclaimed “feminist government” of the PSUV (“Intervención del Comandante Presidente Hugo Chávez durante sesión solemne con motivo del 199º aniversario de la firma del Acta de la Independencia de Venezuela”). The PSUV’s reception of Manuela’s writings and symbolic remains is an emotional appeal to the public that echoes the highly emotive language of Sáenz’s personal writings. It exploits love as a universal experience through which the public might identify itself with Sáenz and with her unwavering support for Bolívar and by extension would support the 21st-century Bolivarian Revolution. This leveraging of Sáenz as a national icon has continued under the presidency of Nicolás Maduro, who in 2015, on the 218th anniversary of Sáenz’s birth, tweeted “Manuela Libertadora con la fuerza de tu Amor vamos celebrándote como Mujer Viva, en nuestras luchas de hoy y Siempre” (@NicolásMaduro).
The primary source material analyzed in this study consists of both oral and print discourses, published or broadcast by Venezuelan government officials in June and July, 2010. These include the paratextual apparatus of a reedited volume, containing the correspondence between Sáenz and Bolívar titled Las más Hermosas cartas de Amor entre Manuela y Simón, which includes the Diario de Quito, Diario de Paita and other related documents; speeches delivered by President Chávez and other government officials in ceremonies commemorating the arrival and interment of Sáenz’s symbolic remains; remarks by Chávez in his weekly television broadcast Aló Presidente; and posts on Chávez’s official blog, Chávez, corazón de mi patria. The frequency with which President Chávez mentioned Manuela Sáenz in his oral and written discourse in 2010, and the way in which her image has been leveraged under Nicolás Maduro are evidence of her significance as a historical and cultural reference. That several of these references place Sáenz in the company of other national and regional heroes such as Simón Bolívar, José Asunción de Sucre and José Martí is evidence of her status as national heroine, though her only ties to Venezuela were by virtue of her support for Bolívar, a native of Caracas and currently revered as “padre de la patria.”
On July 3, 2010, a year and two days before the Venezuelan bicentennial, the symbolic remains of Manuela Sáenz arrived at the Maiquetía International Airport near Caracas. The coffer of sand had originated in Paita, Perú, where Sáenz died of an epidemic in 1856. On a pilgrimage titled Manuela Vuelve, it traveled through Ecuador and Colombia before reaching Venezuela, where it was welcomed amidst a display of ceremonies, cultural acts, and biographical exhibits.
The same day that Sáenz’s symbolic remains were received in Venezuela, the public could download from the Office of the President’s official blog, Hugo Chávez, Corazón de mi Patria, a reedited volume of letters between and about Sáenz and Bolívar titled Las más Hermosas cartas de Amor entre Manuela y Simón (“Descarga el libro”). It includes related documents such as the Diario de Quito and the Diario de Paita, both of which are commonly attributed to Sáenz, though not without scholarly debate regarding their authenticity.1 This 2010 edition of Las más Hermosas cartas, published by the Ministerio del Poder Popular de la Oficina del Presidente, was based on the 2007 edition by the Fundación Editorial El Perro y la Rana. The paratextual apparatus framing the letters and diaries includes a preface and a prologue. The former was authored by Blagdimir Labrador Mendoza, then president of the Banco del Tesoro. The volume’s prologue is a selection from Louis Perú de Lacroix’s Diario de Bucaramanga, written between 1828 and 1830, in which the author recalls a conversation with the Liberator about his relationship with Sáenz.
Two days later, on July 5, 2010, Venezuelan Independence Day, President Chávez and then Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa received the symbolic remains in the national pantheon in Caracas, where they laid them to rest by the tomb of the Liberator. Inscribing Sáenz as heroine in the national foundational myth, President Chávez declared, “Si a Bolívar lo llamamos el Padre de la Patria, a Manuela la llamaremos la Madre de la Patria; la madre de la Revolución” (“Si a Bolívar lo llamamos”).
Presidents Rafael Correa and Hugo Chávez receive the symbolic remains of Manuela Sáenz at the National Pantheon in Caracas. July 5, 2010. Photo by Eduardo Santillán, courtesy of the Presidencia de la República del Ecuador, Flickr.
Presidents Chávez and Correa place the symbolic remains of Manuela Sáenz near the tomb of Simón Bolívar in the National Pantheon. July 5, 2010. Photo by Eduardo Santillán, courtesy of the Presidencia de la República del Ecuador, Flickr.
Presidents Rafael Correa and Hugo Chávez applaud musicians and singers of the Orquesta Sinfónica Francisco de Miranda during the interment ceremony in the National Pantheon. July 5, 2010. Photo by Eduardo Santillán, courtesy of the Presidencia de la República del Ecuador, Flickr.
Manuela “Returns” through the Politics of Passion
Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) was a Romanian-born historian of religions. His theories regarding the regenerative nature of myth is a helpful lens for understanding the cultural and political importance of the Manuela Vuelve commemorations. According to Eliade, myth and the rituals with which it is linked allow people to return to a primordial time, to experience the beginning of some natural or social phenomenon in a way that renews them spiritually (Eliade 48-50). In this case, the social phenomena are the Venezuelan nation and the Bolivarian Revolution, which under Chávez’s authoritarian regime were projected as inseparable. Multiple times in the sources examined, Chávez and others call upon the Venezuelan people to continue the struggle for true independence, presenting the regime as a continuation of Bolívar’s political project. Just as contact with the deity “renews one spiritually” (Eliade 49), contact with Bolívar was to renew the nation spiritually as it revitalized support for the Bolivarian Revolution and the PSUV.
Chávez leveraged this aspect of myth most significantly later that same month of July, 2010, when he ordered a forensic study of Bolívar’s remains in order to test his theory that the Liberator had died not of tuberculosis, as commonly thought, but rather of poisoning. The endeavor, carried out with an over-the-top theatricality characteristic of Chávez, was rich propaganda for the PSUV months before important parliamentary elections and amidst economic recession, accusations of harboring Colombian guerrillas, and reports that much-needed food had rotted away in Venezuelan ports (Romero). One outcome of the study was a digital rendering of Bolívar, a virtual resurrection of the founding father that brought him into the 21st century, allowing the public to engage with him in a new way. What’s more, the declaration that Bolívar had been assassinated by arsenic poisoning2 reinforced the antiimperialist narrative of the Chavez regime, which repeatedly accused the United States of conspiring to overthrow his government.
In a similar way, the internment of Sáenz’s symbolic remains in the national pantheon and the discourse surrounding it aimed at regenerating support for the Bolivarian Revolution. Two weeks prior to the event, during the swearing-in ceremony of fifth-year students of the Programa Nacional de Formación en Medicina Integral Comunitaria as members of the Nuevo Ejército de Batas Blancas para la Medicina Socialista, the Venezuelan president retold the legend of Sáenz and Bolívar’s first encounter and read excerpts from their personal correspondence and the Diario de Paita. From the latter, he read the author’s (supposedly Manuela’s) reflections on Bolívar’s death and what the Liberator was unable to accomplish, “Claro, esto es 1843, era la oscurana, todo el mundo le cayó encima a Bolívar, solo pasaron años para que Bolívar volviera a renacer de la profundidad del alma de un pueblo. ¡Como hoy ha renacido y está vivo entre nosotros!” (“Intervención del Comandante Presidente Hugo Chávez durante acto de juramentación”). He read additional passages from the diary before concluding:
[V]oy a terminar con esto, porque retrata el tiempo de Bolívar, y lo que no se pudo; el tiempo de nosotros, hoy, y lo que nosotros estamos obligados a lograr, ahora sí definitivamente [...] Diríamos hoy con Manuela: Tienes razón, Manuela, Rosa Roja insepulta la llamó Pablo Neruda, tienes razón generala, aquel hombre, tu hombre, no era del siglo XIX, era del XX, y es sobre todo del XXI. Porque este es el siglo de Bolívar, y es el siglo de Manuela, es el siglo de Martí, es el siglo de nosotros. (“Intervención del Comandante Presidente Hugo Chávez durante acto de juramentación”)
This rhetorical resurrection of Sáenz, in the company of Bolívar and Martí, was a call for contemporary Venezuelans to carry out their political visions as they have been conflated, reinterpreted and reshaped by the PSUV.
Similar rhetoric marks Chávez’s public comments on July 3, 2010, the day that Sáenz’s symbolic remains arrived in Venezuela. Chávez was interviewed as he left a meeting in the Casa Amarilla in preparation for the 2011 Cumbre de América Latina y el Caribe. When the journalist mentioned the arrival of Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, Chávez exclaimed, “¡Mira la algarabía! ¡Llegó Manuela! Llegó la pasión manuelista. [Y]o me sumo a esa pasión.” And when the journalist asked what he felt about the “return” of the symbolic remains to the national pantheon under his leadership, Chávez replied, “Bueno, yo creo que siento lo mismo que siente nuestro pueblo, siento una pasión renovada, una pasión patria [...Bolívar y Manuela] juntos incendiaron este continente. Hoy lo están incendiando de pasión de nuevo y sin pasión no hay patria, ¿sabes?” (“Declaraciones”).
In his synopsis of the theories of Mircea Eliade, Robert Segal points out that myth has a diachronic aspect that allows people to travel in time, so to speak, to be present at a primordial time, at the birth of the nation (Segal 44). By rereading the letters of Manuela and Bolívar, 21st century Venezuelans could return to the birth of the nation. By hearing her voice and seeing the birth of the nation through her eyes, the public comes in direct and intimate contact with the Liberator, the Padre de la Patria. The proximity of her albeit symbolic remains further reinforces contact with these foundational figures by virtue of the narrative –the myth– that surrounds her person. Five years later, in a series of tweets, then Minister of Foreign Affairs Delcy Rodríguez, lauded Sáenz’s “ejemplo heroico de valentía y lealtad,” affirming that Chavez had brought her back to life by receiving her in the national pantheon, “desde donde nos guía” (“Delcy Rodríguez”).
The reception of Sáenz’s remains in Caracas was marked by a discourse that Damián Fernández –in the Cuban context– describes as the language of the politics of passion. According to Fernández, the politics of passion are “the expression of deep-seated foundational, material, and moral issues that elicit affective engagement” (19). He further explains, “The principal instrument of the politics of passion is the language they speak. [It is one] that people understand through personalization and affect” (20). The language of the politics of passion “appeals to the senses” and elevates emotion over reason. It also relies heavily on symbols and myths. “[I]t is teleological,” Fernández explains, “The discourse of passion is simultaneously oriented to the past and to the future; like nationalism and religion, it often merges both” (20). In its politics of passion, the PSUV employs highly emotive language in its hyper-representation of its leaders as being “of the people,” in its antagonistic stance against explicit enemies, and in its attempt to mobilize the public against these perceived threats to its sociopolitical vision. This political environment is the context in which Sáenz was recodified in the contemporary Venezuelan political imaginary in 2010.
The rhetoric surrounding the Manuela Vuelve campaign clearly employs the language of the politics of passion. This is evident in Chavez’s public discourses heretofore described, as well as in the textual apparatus surrounding the 2010 edition of Las más Hermosas cartas. Together, these oral and print texts rearticulate the myth surrounding Manuela Sáenz, (re)presenting her once controversial persona as a paradigm of 21st century Bolivarianism, as envisioned by the PSUV. Over the past two centuries, multiple historians and authors, particularly nineteenth and early twentieth-century writers of anti-Bolivarian and liberal leanings, have pointed to Sáenz’s passionate nature, public displays, involvement in national politics, and transgression of gender norms as evidence of perversion or even insanity.3 Thus discredited and even vilified, Sáenz, until recently, remained in the margins of national foundational myths in multiple countries. More recently she has been lauded for her commitment to the independence movements in what are now Peru, Colombia and, most importantly, her native Ecuador. By elevating Sáenz to the level of founding mother of Venezuela by virtue of the same passion and audacity once criticized by liberals, the PSUV casts her as the embodiment of its anti-liberal agenda. This elevation of Sáenz to national icon and foundational Bolivarian solicits the support of the Venezuelan public by appealing not to reason, but to emotion, and in particular to love.
This was the case in the July 3, 2010 post of Chavez’s official blog, Hugo Chávez, corazón de mi patria. On this day, coinciding with the arrival of Sáenz’s symbolic remains in Venezuela, the office of the president released the 2010 edition of Las más Hermosas cartas. Introducing the volume, Chavez’s blog quotes its prologue, which calls the readers to commune with the founding figures through a shared experience of love:
Bolívar and Manuela, es la historia del amor y las mil batallas, por la independencia, la libertad, la justicia y la igualdad, es la historia que trasciende la profundidad de nuestros corazones […] como bolivarianos somos parte de esta historia. (“Descarga el libro”)
The following day, in the July 4, 2010 installation of “Líneas de Chávez” in Correo del Orinoco, the president calls the Venezuelan reception of Sáenz’s remains “un acto de amor contra el olvido y la desmemoria” and implores the public: “no hagamos otra cosa que dar, que darnos. Imitemos a Manuela y Simón” (Chávez). Subsequently, during the July 5 interment, he employs a somewhat incongruent metaphor to invoke the past and incite solidarity with his regime: “los godos que odiaron al padre de la patria, Simón Bolívar, y a la generala Manuela Sáenz, nos odian igual a nosotros, sus hijas e hijos, pero qué nos importa, eso más bien nos honra, porque lo que nos importa es el amor de un pueblo” (“Si a Bolívar lo llamamos”).
Further and more recent evidence of this highly emotive language is found in Chavismo, amor y patria (2015), in which the author, current president Nicolás Maduro Moros, sums up chavismo and XXI century bolivarianismo in one word: Love:
Si tuviéramos que sintetizar qué es el
chavismo, qué es bolivarianismo del siglo
XXI, tendríamos que decir que es la máxima
expresión de amor que jamás se haya sentido
y se haya practicado por nuestra
Patria venezolana en toda su historia;
ese es el chavismo, es amor, amor,
amor y solo amor en todas
sus expresiones y magnitudes. (Maduro 5)
The PSUV’s reception of Sáenz’s symbolic remains and reframing of her writings exploit love in various forms as a universal feeling with which the public can identify. In true populist spirit, it encourages the Venezuelan public to emulate Sáenz’s tendency to conflate love for an individual with political allegiance, a behavior that once inspired harsh criticism of her person.4
This official recognition of Sáenz reaffirmed a place for women in the national political imaginary, implicitly and explicitly encouraging them to participate in the Bolivarian Revolution.5 It also reflected recent advances in women’s rights and a greater appreciation for women’s historical contributions throughout the region, particularly during the era of independence. Cilia Flores, then President of the National Assembly, stated to the press that by honoring Manuela Sáenz, Venezuela was duly recognizing her contribution to the cause of independence. She explained that official national history had obscured Sáenz’s important role in South America and that this “rescuing” of the “true”6 Manuela Sáenz would replace that vision with the “frescor libertario producido por la Revolución (Bolivariana),” which she characterized as feminist. Flores affirmed: “Manuela ha sido descubierta en el proceso revolucionario, porque estamos arrancando con gran esfuerzo las vendas y las mordazas que, de manera interesada, ocultaban nuestro pasado” (“Revolución Bolivariana Reivindica”).
Chávez made similar remarks during the July 3 interment ceremony but took it one step further as he extended the honor to women of all races who have taken part in revolutionary processes. Responding to what one journalist described as the audience’s “diversas reacciones de emotividad,” Chávez declared “Entiendo la pasión que ustedes sienten, porque aquí […] hay una reivindicación de la mujer en los procesos revolucionarios. Manuela son las mujeres negras, indias, mestizas que lucharon por la patria.” He deemed the commemoration a “feminist act” and called for the liberation of women from the “yoke of machismo” as necessary for the “plena independencia de la patria” (“Si a Bolívar lo llamamos”).
In a post-interment statement on Alba Ciudad FM, former Minister of the Popular Power for Women and Gender Equality, María León, likewise reaffirmed the association between the honoring of Manuela Sáenz as foundational figure and the legacy left to today’s Venezuelan women:
Las mujeres somos gestoras de la justicia, la construcción de patria y estamos felices porque trajimos a Manuela y es nuevamente Generala, aquí estamos nosotras, su ejército, sus soldadas, para terminar la obra de ella y su amado, de nuestras libertadoras y libertadores, la independencia, soberanía y la felicidad de los pueblos. (“Restos de Manuela Sáenz”)
In sum, the discourse marking Sáenz’s symbolic interment in the national pantheon employed the language of the politics of passion to galvanize popular support, particularly that of women, for the Bolivarian Revolution. It invoked the past to effect action in the present as it inscribed Manuela Sáenz into Venezuelan history and the 21st century political landscape.
Preface to Las más Hermosas cartas de Amor
As with the discourse surrounding the interment ceremony, Blagdimir Labrador Mendoza’s preface to the 2010 edition of Las más Hermosas cartas, recontextualizes Sáenz’s historical letters and diaries within a contemporary Venezuelan political landscape. It encourages the reader to approach contemporary political life with the same “love” and passion that Manuela and Bolívar mutually expressed. Labrador employs the language of the politics of passion to bridge past, present and future and to rally support for the Revolution through an appeal to emotions. His discourse affirms the primacy of emotion over reason: Love, with a capital “L” is “[el] único sentimiento que nos libera y nos salva.” He describes the legendary love story as one that “trasciende la profundidad de nuestros corazones” and asserts that “como bolivarianos somos parte de esta historia.” As torch bearers of Bolívar’s legacy, Labrador calls upon the public to not merely read the letters but rather to “live” and “relive” the continuing struggle for independence and the same love that, as he states, conquered all (9).
The preface draws to a close by partially quoting a May 1, 1825 letter sent from Sáenz, then in Lima, to Bolívar: “El mundo cambia, la Europa se transforma, América también, ¡nosotros estamos en América!” To this Labrador appends, “Y América está cambiando, nosotros...estamos cambiando” (7), thus linking the current political movement with what appears to be Sáenz’s vision of a newly independent and changing America. By removing this passage from its original context and introducing it into a contemporary one, the author obscures the full meaning of Sáenz’s original statement, which concluded with: “Todas estas circunstancias cambian también. Yo leo fascinada sus memorias por la gloria de usted. ¿Acaso no compartimos la misma? No tolero las habladurías, que no importunan mi sueño. Sin embargo, soy una mujer decente ante el honor de saberme patriota y amante de usted” (Sáenz, Letter to Simón Bolívar, 1 May, 1825). Here, Sáenz’s main point is to question honor as a primordial value, challenging the idea that her illicit relationship with Bolívar undermines her public honor. Labrador accurately appropriates from Sáenz’s letter her employment of a geopolitical discourse in which she repositions the couple in a dynamic new space: that of America in transformation. What is lost is that within this changing space Sáenz proposes new criteria for thinking about honor: that it be rooted in patriotism and love. She justifies her social and sexual transgressions on the grounds of her commitment to the cause of Independence vis-à-vis her love for and loyalty toward Bolívar. In this way, she conflates the personal with the political. In this and other letters, her proposed moral code prioritizes her own personal happiness, though Labrador repurposes it as propaganda for the Bolivarian Revolution. Sáenz continues to question the rules of honor in another letter to Bolívar only eight days later, “¿Por qué privarse del goce infinito del amor? ¿Qué tan alta es la honra para que sobrepase a la del gran Bolívar y cuál es la cordura y la templanza que obligan al Libertador a enjuiciarse a sí mismo? Si una de las virtudes primordiales es la obediencia del amor, que la misma Providencia auspicia en todo ser humano” (Letter to Simón Bolívar, 9 May 1825). Sáenz’s privileging of love as a primordial value is a theme that unites many of her letters and is aptly reflected in Labrador’s preface. This feeds into the discourse of passion characteristic of the Bolivarian Revolution. The preface does not, however, address the question of honor, which is another significant topic in Sáenz’s letters.
Given that Manuela’s sexual transgressions have over the last two centuries inspired harsh and even malevolent criticism of her as an individual, it is not surprising that Labrador’s attempt to write Manuela into the pantheon of national heroes makes no reference to the illicit nature of her relationship with Bolívar nor to the transgressive nature of her gender performance.7 In fact, by taking her words out of context, the author directs attention away from these two controversial aspects of her legend. On the other hand, several letters reproduced in Las más Hermosas cartas do directly address the question of Manuela’s honor, judgement, the privileged position that she held in Bolívar’s inner circle, and the often-criticized influence she wielded over him, both personally and politically.
Brazen and with Feminine Good Sense
This 2010 edition of Las más Hermosas cartas includes thirteen letters exchanged between Bolívar and various third parties about Manuela. This includes correspondence with Bolívar’s sister Antonia, Daniel O’Leary, José Antonio de Sucre, Francisco de Paula Santander, Juan José Flores, Jerónimo Torres, José Palacios, José María Córdoba and Próspero Pereira Gamba. With the exception of Santander, each author points to Manuela’s virtues, including her contribution to the military campaign, her loyalty to the cause, her role as “anfitriona de Colombia,” and her patriotism. Three letters directly address questions of honor and the malicious rumors that circulated about the pair. In a January 1, 1823 letter to his sister Antonia, Bolívar addresses concerns that she apparently had expressed in a November 6, 1822 correspondence, several months after Bolívar and Manuela’s legendary meeting in Quito: “esta señora no dará más un motivo para habladurías, pues no se lo merece. Su mayor pecado ha sido el fervor que, como patriota, se ha desbordado en atenciones para conmigo” (133). He describes her as noble, cultured, devoid of personal ambition, and dedicated to the cause. In regards to the question of honor, he assures his concerned sister that “esta señora no empaña mis virtudes; pues lejos de toda pretensión mis Generales la respetan como si fuera mi esposa, y en los círculos sociales su presencia hace son (sic.) su señorío el respeto que merecemos” (133). Another letter that addresses the question of honor is Bolívar’s August 1, 1827 correspondence to Jerónimo Torres, in which he thanks Torres for defending the pair’s reputation before Congress when others attempted to “stain” their reputations “con los colores más negros” (143). The volume also contains Bolívar’s July 6, 1828 reproach of fervent critic José María Córdoba, in which he condemns the unjust accusations against Manuela made by “some unscrupulous people” and insists that she has earned the title “Libertadora” by virtue of her own valor and audacity. He insists that she deserves respect “as a woman and patriot” (145).
Another controversial aspect of the Sáenz – Bolívar relationship was the privileged position that she enjoyed in his inner circle and the extent to which she influenced his political decisions. In this regard, this volume of Las más Hermosas cartas includes a January 23, 1825 warning from Francisco de Paula Santander in which he asks Bolívar to strip Manuela of her recently-awarded rank of colonel, cautioning that this kind of unwarranted promotion is politically detrimental (138) and an affront to the honor of the army (139). The subsequent letter in the collection is Bolívar’s prompt response to Santander, dated Feb. 17, 1825, in which he insists that the promotion was not a unilateral decision but rather based on the recommendation of General Sucre and other commanding officers. He adds that Manuela “no se ha metido nunca en leyes ni en actos que ‘no sean su fervor por la completa Libertad de los pueblos de la opresión y la canalla” (140). He makes a similar defense, again to Santander, in a letter dated September 21, 1828 in which he describes her contribution as valuable: “La que usted llama ‘descocada,’ tiene en orden riguroso todo el archivo que nadie supo guardar más que su intención y juicio femeninos.” He then gives evidence of her loyalty and insists “Si bien ‘confío en Manuela ciegamente’, no ha habido la más leve actitud en la persona de ella que demuestre desafecto o deslealtad; en fin, no ha defraudado mi confianza” (150).
“La amable loca”: Perú de Lacroix’s prologue to Las más Hermosas cartas
Louis Perú de Lacroix (1780 - 1837) was a former French soldier who joined the armed forces in New Granada and Venezuela in 1816. He eventually earned the rank of General in Bolívar’s army and served as his assistant in Bucaramanga during the Ocaña Convention of 1828. His Diario de Bucaramanga documents Bolívar’s thoughts, beliefs and daily life during that time. The Ministerio del Poder Popular para la Comunicación y la Información in Venezuela published a new edition of the diary in 2009.
The fragment of Perú de Lacroix’s Diario de Bucaramanga selected as the prologue for this edition of Las más Hermosas cartas de Amor recalls a conversation in which Bolívar shared an anecdote explaining the origin of a scar on his left ear. Once when Sáenz discovered in his bed a filigree earing that was not her own, she attacked Bolívar “como un ocelote,” leaving him with that and perhaps other wounds (11). What is noteworthy about the selection of this particular passage as prologue is the way in which it celebrates the very qualities in Sáenz that for many years inspired harsh criticism and ambivalent or even malevolent treatment by her contemporaries, historians and biographers, specifically her volatility, unwavering, even jealous loyalty, her passion and her possessiveness (12). At the same time, it presents a relatively human, deflated image of Bolívar, who according to the biographer called himself “pendejo” for the way he repeatedly pushed Sáenz away or was unfaithful, in this and other instances. Perú de Lacroix quotes Bolívar as having confessed: “[T]enía ella razón: yo había faltado a la fidelidad jurada, y me merecía el castigo” (12). The prologue thus provides the context for a separate section of the volume, consisting of five of ten original brief notes written to Sáenz by Bolívar, immediately following the confrontation known as “the earring incident.”
Although the preface authored by Labrador omits reference to the controversial aspects of Manuela Sáenz’s person and her relationship with Bolívar, the prologue by Perú de Lacroix selected for this volume celebrates the notoriously impassioned and transgressive nature of “la amable loca.” While Bolívar on numerous other occasions denied being unduly influenced by Sáenz, in this passage he is reported to having confessed, “Esta me domó. Sí, ¡ella supo cómo! La amo. Sí, todos lo saben también. ¡Mi amable loca!” (11). This passage resonates with the volume’s preface and with the language of the politics of passion as it underscores the primacy of love. According to Perú de Lacroix, Bolívar tells that Manuela returned to him, giving into “la furia de sus instintos,” to which the Liberator reportedly added “¡Esto es una clara muestra de haber perdido la razón por el amor! El gran poder está en la fuerza del amor” (12). The final passage of the prologue presents an “anguished [and] sad” Bolívar, who after a long silence, walks away mumbling “‘Manuela, mi amable loca’” (13). Here the voice of Bolívar reveals his vulnerabilities vis-à-vis his relationship with Manuela Sáenz. This is a Bolívar who fits well within a populist framework. He is human. He is approachable in his fallibility. He admits having acquiesced to emotion over reason. But he simultaneous gives the reader a basis for appreciating the “lovable” Sáenz in spite of, or perhaps by virtue of, her brazen, impassioned, “crazy” behavior. Reading Perú de Lacroix’s account within a culture of the politics of passion, one can see how this passage elevates Sáenz to a model –the primordial model– of patriotism as one in the same as Bolivarianism. In sum, while the preface and the prologue to Las más Hermosas cartas de Amor paint differing portraits of Sáenz, they both highlight her legendary passion and devotion towards both the Liberator and his political project, thus reaffirming the primacy of emotion over reason in a way that echoes and reinforces the propaganda of the PSUV.
In the July 4, 2010 edition of “Líneas de Chávez,” the former president wrote that “Es una verdadera impropiedad y hasta una iniquidad histórica […] asociar y explicar la figura de Manuela Sáenz tan sólo en referencia a la figura de Simón Bolívar” (Chávez). Ironically, the language of the Manuela Vuelve campaign in Venezuela did little to parse out Sáenz’s historical person from her as the archetypical Bolivarian. Compare this vision of Sáenz to that in recent critical works such as Pamela Murray’s 2008 biography For Glory and Bolívar: The Remarkable Life of Manuela Sáenz, 1797-1856, in which she seeks to understand Sáenz as a political actor in her own right. Accordingly, the discourse of the Manuela Vuelve campaign emerged at a time when then-president Chávez was regularly portrayed as the direct successor of Bolívar. Not surprisingly, this discourse and that of the Manuela Vuelve campaign relied on an emotionally charged language that urged the public to support Chávez and his party’s agenda with the same love, passion and loyalty that Sáenz demonstrated toward Bolívar. It is a discourse typical of the politics of passion, one that encourages hyper-attachment to national symbols such as these to gain popular support. Through its rereading of Sáenz’s life and words in terms of twenty-first century politics, and its omission of critical biographical research, the PSUV’s homage to Manuela Sáenz did more to romanticize, cloud, and confuse her legend than it did to advance a deeper understanding of who she was on her own terms and not solely in relation to the Liberator.
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4 Pamela Murray’s pivotal work examines in detail Sáenz’s relationship with Bolívar and her role in the political landscape of the time. See her article “Of Love and Politics: Reassessing Manuela Sáenz and Simón Bolívar, 1822-1830.”
5 In 2008 Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) mandated gender parity in the municipal legislative councils. According to Professor Alba Carosio, director of the Women’s Studies Center at the Central University of Venezuela, various women’s movements, with the support of then president Chávez, made strides to advance women’s participation in society and government. For more see Saggett and Carosio.
7 The most well-known descriptions of Sáenz’s transgression of gender norms are two of Ricardo Palma’s 19th-century sketches, or tradiciones, titled “La Libertadora” and “‘La Libertadora’ y ‘La Protectora,’” in which he describes Sáenz and her “manly” behaviors, comparing them in the latter piece to the normative femininity performed by fellow compatriot Rosa Campusano. More recently, Venezuelan filmmaker Diego Rísquez explores the fluidity of Sáenz’s gender performance and its political and personal consequences in the 2000 biopic Manuela Sáenz. Libertadora del Libertador.