The new president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, wanted to make the military sword of the liberator Simón Bolívar one of the central axes of his inauguration. Everything was prepared: a million-dollar policy to shield her in case of risks or accidents, the glass case where he had to travel, the administrative permits and the route he had to follow. But on Saturday, a day before the ceremony, former conservative president Iván Duque warned that he would not lend the saber for the act, arguing alleged security problems.
Felipe VI takes refuge in the colonialism of the 19th century
Despite the fact that the sword had never been used before for this type of ceremonies, it had become a myth linked to the urban guerrilla movement of the April 19 Movement, where Petro was a militant in his youth, in the 1980s. On January 17, 1974, a command of five men belonging to a hitherto unknown group stole the saber from the Quinta de Bolívar mansion museum, in the heart of Bogotá.
A media coup that had been announced for days in mysterious classified ads published in Time Bogotá, the newspaper with the largest national circulation. No reader understood what the acronym M-19 meant, nor what was promoted by advertisements that read encrypted messages such as: “Parasites? The M-19 is coming”, “Decay? Memory loss? Wait M-19”.
The next day, next to the broken glass of the showcase, the police found a pamphlet in which the nascent guerrilla claimed responsibility for the assault: “His sword breaks the cobwebs of the museum and he launches himself into the combats of the present. It passes into our hands, into the hands of the people in arms”. That was the official presentation of a clandestine group made up of educated, middle-class leaders who mixed symbolism and violence to sow terror and anxiety in urban populations (unlike the FARC and ELN, focused on the rural struggle). .
The sword, which has plant decoration and the general’s three stars in relief, was kidnapped for 17 years and 14 days. A month after the robbery, the defunct magazine Alternative, leftist, published a photograph with a provocative caption that read: “Bolivar’s sword appeared. It’s in Latin America.” In the photo you can also see some objects that are still missing on a map of South America: the scabbard of the sword, the spurs and the stirrups of the liberator.
Today it is known that she was hidden in Bogotá for three or four years until, according to various press reports, she was taken out of the country in 1980 bound for Havana (Cuba) in the diplomatic bag of Fidel Castro, a historical ally and supporter of Latin American guerrillas.
Doubts about authenticity
In the following years, the rebel promise to “liberate the people” not only faded, but also translated into a project tainted by the victims of terrorism and violence. Convinced that victory was unfeasible, the M-19 signed a peace agreement with the Government of Liberal Virgilio Barco in March 1990 and, at the end of January of the following year, the saber returned to the hands of the Colombian State. Since then, rumors abound about its authenticity and serious questions about how it even came into the hands of Simón Bolívar (Caracas, 1783 – Santa Marta, 1830).
In recent decades, the piece, which was inventoried for the first time in 1924, was stored in the security vault of the Banco de la República. Later it was transferred to a dependency of the presidential palace, better known as Casa de Nariño. A chapter that should be the theoretical end of this story.
But the mess came last Sunday, with the added gesture of King Felipe VI of Spain who, unlike the other dignitaries, did not stand up to greet the arrival of the sword at the Plaza de Nariño.
In Colombia the matter has hardly had an impact. The doctor in History from the University of Oxford Margarita Garrido recalls that, despite the fact that the symbols change their meaning over time, Bolívar’s sword is closely associated with the idea of freedom and the roots of the formation of the nation: ” I do not know the rules of protocol and I do not know what the king’s motivations were, but one might think that for the Royal House all this continues to represent the crisis of the monarchy and the dissolution of an empire.
His colleague Silvia Bahamón, from the Universidad del Rosario, argues that on her Twitter account she has only seen “one publication about it.” That is why she describes as “absurd” that in Spain “events that happened 200 years ago are being politicized” around the figure of Bolívar. “I don’t know if the king was distracted or was thinking about the shopping list, but it’s still a dismissive gesture with the symbols of Latin America,” she says.
For fellow historian Jorge Orlando Melo, the attitude of the Spanish monarch is, deep down, an episode that can serve as fuel for emotional reactions. “It is understandable that he did not stand up, because it would have been a tribute to the sword that represents the defeat of Spain. But I also think it was a very simple act of courtesy that I would have been able to do without any problem.”
Growth of the myth of Bolívar
All this occurs in a continent that has witnessed in real time the recent mythologizing of the figure of Bolívar. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro have put the adjective “Bolivarian” before everything they could. Various researchers believe that there is a historical and cultural falsification in this: “Chavez, like the M-19 at the time, has tried to turn Bolívar into a socialist figure. But you have to do very little research to find an authoritarian, conservative, and militaristic character,” says Andrés Dávila, a historian at the National University.
Mel, author of Colombia: a minimal history, also recalls that the “M-19 assumed Bolívar as a hero of the popular revolution in the 70s.” For this reason, he adds, the sword is seen in Colombia as a “representation of the rebellion and the unity of Latin America.” A nuanced reading in his opinion, since “Bolívar was actually a hero of independence, but not a popular figure in the broadest sense. He was a military man of noble birth, in favor of a hereditary Senate and an oligarchic State”.
Petro’s voice was on the verge of cracking as he began his inauguration speech: “This sword to me is a lifetime. An existence. And I want her to never be buried again, I want her to never be held back. I want it to be sheathed only, as its owner, the Liberator, said, when there is justice.” According to Andrés Dávila, the symbolic use of the piece was “well thought out” by the team of the leftist Historical Pact. In his opinion, it was “solemn, but it was also groundbreaking. It was respectful of the institutions, and also inclusive.”
Petro announced this week that the sword of the general from Caracas, liberator of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, will be exposed in a place visible to the public visiting the presidential palace. Another gesture that reflects, according to the former rector of the National University, Medófilo Medina, the will to make the sword a “symbol of peace.” “This is a reminder about the cancellation of the search for power by armed means, by insurgent means.”
Historian Margarita Garrido also had the impression that the message of Petro’s strategists was well established in the speech. Along the same lines, he explains that if the robbery of 1974 gave rise to the formation of a guerrilla group that was protesting at that time over the alleged fraud in presidential elections, now the presence of the same iron has served to initiate a period in which the weapons are at the service of the republic, justice and peace.
“It is a return to the old ideals,” he concludes, “but with the message that they can be achieved through peaceful means and through popular election.”