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How Simon Bolivar's legacy reverberates in Venezuela

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Walter De Mendoza explains the attraction of the Mucuchi

As Venezuela celebrates 200 years of its declaration of independence from Spain, the BBC's Will Grant looks at President Hugo Chavez's fascination with independence hero Simon Bolivar.

Some 2,200m above sea level seems an unlikely place to build a dog-breeding kennel. But given the type of dog being bred, it makes a lot of sense.

Mucuchies are Andean dogs, whose origins date back some 400 years when Augustine friars brought their own animals, Pyrenean mastiffs, to the region. Surprised to find a similar canine in the Andes, the resulting cross-breed became the Mucuchie - the national dog of Venezuela.

Strong and hard-working animals, at one point the Mucuchie was commonly used as a sheepdog or guard-dog in Venezuela. But years of cross-breeding with St Bernards and other large dogs mean there are very few pedigree Mucuchies left.

Whereas previously Bolivar was used as a point of reference around which Venezuelans could unite, today he's become another element of political identity
Dr Carole Leal
Simon Bolivar University

Now the Foundation Nevado is trying bring them back.

"It's vital to maintain their numbers," says Walter De Mendoza, the foundation's president.

"First, because it's very sad to see a species disappear from the face of the earth through ignorance and a lack of care. But also because of the great historical legacy of this breed of dog."

The historical legacy he is referring to is Nevado, the faithful canine companion of the Latin American independence hero, Simon Bolivar. Nevado was at Bolivar's side to the last, killed by a lance on the battlefield in 1821.

"Not only was he The Liberator's best friend, but Nevado has now become a symbol of our independence himself," says Mr De Mendoza.

Bolivarian 'obsession'

Running short of money to fund the scheme, the group turned to the government of Hugo Chavez for support.

Now the Foundation Nevado has presidential backing, and some grand ideas for the future of Mucuchie breed.

Russian Prime Minsiter Vladimir Putin (left) and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (right)
Vladimir Putin was the latest guest to receive a copy of Bolivar's sword

"We want to see one or two in every Venezuelan embassy around the world," says Walter De Mendoza, "as a potent symbol of our country."

But, while there are few critics of a programme designed to save a breed from extinction, there are those who believe the Chavez government's focus on all things Bolivarian has gone too far.

"The classic example was when Mr Chavez changed the name of the country after coming to power," says Dr Carole Leal, director of the Bolivarian Institute of Venezuelan history at the Simon Bolivar University.

"It went from the 'Republic of Venezuela' to the 'Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela'."

Mr Chavez often makes a direct connection between the 19th Century struggle for independence from Spain and his own "21st Century Socialist Revolution".

Last year he said: "I am the son of Bolivar, [the Colombian President, Alvaro] Uribe is the son of the traitor, Santander" - a reference to Francisco de Paula Santander, who fought alongside Simon Bolivar before being accused of trying to assassinate him.

Mr Chavez also regularly makes a gift of a replica of the sword of Bolivar to distinguished guests, most recently to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Image

The Plaza Bolivar in central Caracas is a Chavez stronghold, with small groups of government supporters set up under red awnings at the corners of the square.

People of Caracas on whether they agree with President Chavez invoking Simon Bolivar's memory

Many of the people there echo Mr Chavez's sentiments.

"Although the imperial powers in Latin America have changed," says poet Eduardo Lopez, "we're still fighting for our independence from them. Instead of Spain, it's the United States, and the major corporations who are trying to dominate us now."

But Mr Chavez's critics say his constant invoking of Bolivar's memory, which is expected to reach a crescendo during Monday's bicentennial celebrations, is pure populism.

"Other presidents have used or even manipulated Bolivar's image for political purposes, that's nothing new," says Dr Leal.

"But whereas previously Bolivar was used as a point of reference around which Venezuelans could unite, today he's become another element of political identity. The connection that's being made by the government is: "I'm 'Bolivarian', therefore I'm a Chavista", or "I'm pro-Chavez, therefore I'm a 'Bolivarian'". That didn't exist before."

Back at the top of the Avila mountain in Caracas, dog handler Edgar Romero, dressed as another Venezuelan independence hero, the Indian Tinjaca, takes one of the Mucuchies for a walk among the tourists.

"I am very proud of my job," he says as the public crowd round the dog. "Many of these people never even knew there was such a thing as a national dog of Venezuela so it feels good to help educate people a little about their own history."

Amid the bicentennial celebrations, Venezuelans remain split on whether there is a legitimate line to be drawn from Bolivar to Chavez.

For the president's supporters the relationship is undeniable. His opponents say "Bolivarianism" is more bark than bite.



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SEE ALSO
Safeguarding history in Caracas
24 Sep 09 |  Americas
Timeline: Venezuela
01 Aug 12 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Venezuela
12 Jun 12 |  Country profiles
Venezuela guide: Key facts
01 Dec 06 |  Special Reports
Profile: Hugo Chavez
16 Feb 09 |  Americas

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