One of the swords of Liberator Simón Bolívar will be the centerpiece attraction during the presidential inauguration of Gustavo Petro on August 7. The sword, one of six believed to be in existence in South America, may see the light of day in the same plaza that carries the name of its legendary owner.
One of the swords that will be shown to dignitaries, guests of the swearing-in ceremony, and supporters of the leftist President, rests in the Liberator’s hacienda, the San Pedro Alejandrino in Santa Marta.
The simple brass and steel double blade en route to the Colombian capital from Santa Marta, and that accompanied the Liberator at his death bed, contrasts with another kept in a glass case inside the Presidential Palace in Bogotá. This ornate silver and engraved sabre was requested by President Iván Duque in 2020 to mark the 237 years of Bolívar’s birth, and adorns one of many gilded rooms at Casa de Nariño.
Besides six originals known to have been in Bolívar’s keep during his extensive military campaigns across Venezuela’s western plains, Magdalena River basin, and Colombia’s Eastern Andes, until he secured victory on August 7, 1819, against the Spanish Royalist Army at the Battle of Boyacá, are joined by dozens of replicas circulating throughout the continent. The majority, gifts from the President of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Republic, Hugo Chávez.
The original sword that Chávez brandished during 15 years in power was given by the Liberator to the Archbishop of Caracas before stored in a vault of the country’s Central Bank.
The presence of one of Bolivár’s swords during an inauguration that promises to draw large crowds on Sunday has highly symbolic value for Petro, given that as a former combatant with the M-19 guerrilla, this revolutionary group founded by Jaime Bateman, Iván Marino, Álvaro Fayad and Carlos Pizarro, stole on the night of January 17, 1974, one of Bolívar’s swords from Bogotá’s Quinta de Bolívar.
On the night of the robbery, four members of the April 19 Movement, disguised as security guards, broke the padlock of the room belonging to Manuelita Sáenz, Bolívar’s mistress, and proceeded to paint the walls with the acronym of an organization that would go on to orchestrate high-profile kidnappings and terror acts, including the 1980 siege of the Dominican Republic’s Embassy in Bogotá and storming of the county’s Palace of Justice.
The M-19, or “Eme” as they were called colloquially, were emboldened with Bolívar’s sword, until a year after their demobilization in 1990 with a peace process, that the movement’s political leader Antonio Navarro returned the sword to the Colombian government and rightful place inside Quinta de Bolívar.
Missing for almost two decades, and critical time frame for an organization that forged an alliance with Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel to destroy extradition evidence stored inside the Palace of Justice, the M-19’s mythical sword from Quinta de Bolívar recalls one of the most brutal episodes in Colombia’s decades-old fight against drug trafficking. The November 6, 1985, assault by the M-19 on the Palace of Justice resulted in the killing of 101 civilians, among them magistrates of the country’s high courts, the majority either executed in cold blood or burned alive as the palace was set on fire.
To display this sword on August 7 – or any other – could be interpreted as the pinnacle of irony, given that Petro, known by one his guerrilla aliases “Aureliano,” took up arms against the very state he now has to defend. It is also the pinnacle of historical revisionism for those who envision Bolívar’s sword as the romanticism of the insurgency, regardless of the suffering and death caused by the M-19’s former combatants.
The sword that allegedly made its way to Cuba, was protected by Fidel Castro and passed into the hands of Escobar hours before he ordered the assassination of Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, is adorned with a relief of the coat of arms of La Gran Colombia. A coat that during the early 19th Century represented Bolívar’s dream of one Republic, consisting of modern-day Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador.
This dream will be accompanied by fanfare and pantomime inside Bogotá’s Plaza de Bolívar on Sunday. But for many Colombians, almost half of the electorate who didn’t vote for Petro, the showcase of a sword – either the one from Santa Marta or Quinta de Bolívar – symbolizes dark days of recent history, and weapon that for the country’s Marxist guerrilla, among them M-19 and FARC, idealizes the armed struggle, or justification that violence is a means to an end. The taking of power at all cost. Autocracy above democracy. And autocracy was also part of the Liberator’s dream.