Josu Landa: National Autonomous University of Mexico Reactivates the Simón Bolívar Chair

Yoselina Guevara
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de MéxicoThe reactivation of the Simón Bolívar Chair at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) was a precise moment to talk to the Venezuelan philosopher Josu Landa, professor at that university, who together with Dr. Ambrosio Velasco, a Mexican academic with a distinguished career, have taken on the task of resuming the study of the thought of the Liberator Simón Bolívar and his time.

How did the Simón Bolívar Extraordinary Chair at the National Autonomous University of Mexico come about and what was the reason for reactivating it?

The Simón Bolívar Extraordinary Chair of the Faculty of Philosophy of the UNAM was founded in July 1987. It has been a window of dialogue with Venezuela, which has suffered many ups and downs; it has had moments of important activity and others in which its dynamics has diminished. The reasons for these ups and downs have been very diverse, both exogenous and endogenous. That is to say, reasons that have to do with the Venezuelan political situation, on the one hand, and with the situation of the economic resources of the University and even with the greater or lesser importance given to the Chair by the university authorities, on the other. In recent years, we have gone through a rather long period of inactivity, due to the confluence of quite difficult situations, both in Venezuela and in Mexico. The trigger for the reactivation of the Chair, by Dr. Ambrosio Velasco and myself, was the recent change of authorities and the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the fall of Tenochtitlan, an event that gave rise to three centuries of colonial domination of what ended up being Mexico. This prompted a reflection on the emancipation processes in the Americas, including the United States, the Caribbean and of course Central and South America. Dr. Velasco is one of the most important figures in terms of political thought in the faculty and together we reached an agreement to use the Simón Bolívar Chair to reactivate it and to encourage reflection and dialogue on those processes. Of course, it is impossible to cover all that space, all the continental scope in one semester, but anyway the approach we have made is quite broad. We have covered the American independence and those of Haiti, Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Brazil, Cuba and the territories of the so-called Gran Colombia (i.e. Venezuela, present-day Colombia, and Ecuador). It is not 100 percent of the countries; although it is obvious that this is a representative review. We do not have a budget specifically allocated for the Chair, we do not have resources; however, all the participating academics have done it with a lot of dedication.

Who is it aimed at, who are the professors who participated and what is the purpose of the Simón Bolívar Chair?

The Simón Bolívar Chair is formally aimed at students studying Philosophy, History, Latin American Studies, Hispanic Letters, Cultural Management and Development at the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, who will be able to accredit the subjects corresponding to the topics taught. But it is also an open Chair for those who do not have institutional commitments, that is, there is free admission. Those who have been attending and can prove that they have participated in 90 percent of the sessions will be granted a certificate of attendance. Now we are thinking very seriously about a more ambitious projection of this initiative, such as the publication of a book, which is a little more difficult, because it requires ordering and transcribing on paper everything that has been said in the sessions, which as you know are four hours long. It is a lot of material. The teachers who are accompanying us in this project are doctors Alicia Mayer, María del Rayo Ramírez, Verónica Sánchez, Liliana Weinberg, Johanna von Grafenstein, Miguel Soto, Ignacio Díaz de la Serna, Horacio Crespo, Alan Pisconte, Hernán Taboada, Lucio Oliver and José Ramón Fabelo,

As for the meaning of the Chair, I believe that both Dr. Velasco and the colleagues who accompany us and myself implicitly share the feeling that we have undertaken our own reading of these processes; obviously, based on what other colleagues have presented in an immeasurable number of books. But we are on the path of our own interpretation and that is what, from a theoretical point of view, is most important and justifies an initiative like this, because in the end all these historical processes are nothing until the moment they are interpreted. There is nothing unquestionable in historical reality, everything is subject to interpretation. It is not only a scholarly reading that is proposed; on the contrary, at least from my personal point of view, it is more important, as Nietzsche said, to consider the benefits and prejudices of history, in the face of our present needs. So this initiative is marked by the fact that we come together, to examine historical events treated mostly by historians, but also by social theorists and philosophers. So, it is an interpretation from philosophy and social sciences, based on the background and tools offered by these disciplines, in order to better understand and face the present.

Is this reading of the independence processes inserted within the current that some analysts have called “our American philosophy”?

That is a very polemic approach; besides, it is an old one. It is not new. It is very difficult to reach agreements on this point, because there is no lack of reasons that justify opposing positions. This is normal in philosophy, we should not be surprised. To fully answer your question would require a much broader analysis. In the first place, as a philosopher, I submit to criticism whatever comes, however it comes and wherever it comes from, without mercy, without pity, without commiseration. I always have as my motto the point that “I am a friend of Plato, but I am more a friend of truth”, a phrase of Aristotle (“Amicus Platonis, sed amicior veritatis”, translated into Latin). Nowadays, we must ask ourselves questions such as: what are nation states, what does the configuration of a cultural and civilizing region such as the one we conventionally call Latin America mean today, what does philosophy mean, is it pertinent to speak of regional and local philosophies, and is it pertinent to speak of regional and local philosophies? The latter are probably the most polemic of all these questions: Once we have an estimable and shareable answer on that, we move on to see if we happen to have a field of theoretical production that reaches the levels of a rigorous philosophical demand, in accordance with what have been thousands of years of history of philosophy, which cannot be denied. And, on that basis, to determine if we have a specific philosophy of Latin America. All this is complicated for me. For me, the models of philosophical attitude, not of precise doctrines, continue to be the ancient models, not only Western ones, but also those of Mesoamerica, of India, of China. In all these places we have expressions of rigorous and profound philosophy; something more demanding than some samples of theoretical production, however suggestive they may be. In this, as you can see, I am very radical. I am very demanding in that aspect and I assume philosophy as a way of life inserted in a plural and universal tradition. I recognize and vindicate figures like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who was a poet, but she was also an extraordinary thinker and it can be said that she was a philosopher. The same goes for someone like Simón Rodríguez or even Andrés Bello, even though he channeled his thinking towards conservative positions. The attitude of this class of thinkers -I insist, not necessarily their precise doctrines- is inscribed, with its specificities, in a universal community of thought. Therefore, what they propose can be considered beyond the borders of Latin America.

Returning to the Simón Bolívar Extraordinary Lecture, the pandemic has pushed all of us to enter and manage online educational platforms. What has been the response of the participants to the four-hour duration of the sessions?

Many of those who agreed to participate in this extraordinary collective lecture initially drew our attention to the problem of holding an online class for four hours. But Dr. Velasco and I, at all times, maintained that we had to take a gamble, because otherwise we would not be able to cover all the enormous topics we had to cover. The truth is that people stay with us for the four hours. Besides, they are four really demanding hours, because we only give 10 minutes of tolerance, before starting, and 5 minutes of recess in the middle of the session, and people generally resist. From that point of view, the experience is very striking. I see that there are signs of the great interest of the students in what is being seen in the Chair. It even seems that a kind of passion for the topics we are dealing with has been awakened. They are still very young people. The pandemic has severely hit the whole university dynamics. Dr. Velasco and I are convinced that, if the chair had been in person, there would have been much more attendance. The pandemic has put a limit on us. We have a hard core of between 20 and 25 students who are permanently there. In any case, the repercussion of an activity like this, apart from the fact that it cannot be easily measured, I believe that it will be felt some time later. That is to say, in about five years, I estimate, when thesis students and research groups and samples of academic activity will appear, continuing what we are starting.

Do you believe or do you consider that in the case of the figure of Simon Bolivar there are still areas to be investigated and what are they?

Personalities as significant and relevant as Simón Bolívar or José María Morelos, in Mexico, or José de San Martín, in Argentina, or Francisco de Miranda, José Martí, offer an inexhaustible human richness. The same happens with several characters who stood out for their contributions with the pen, not with the sword, such as Alonso de la Veracruz, Simón Rodríguez, Andrés Bello himself with all that is controversial, or Servando Teresa de Mier -although he also had his facet as a man of action-, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and others. These personalities come to us by way of records, documents that have no significance until they are interpreted and there we enter, then, in the diversity of interpretations and even in the conflict of interpretations, something that by itself, whether we like it or not, has a beginning but no end. We must also bear in mind that interpretations are also conditioned by criteria and perspectives that in other times did not count, such as the gender perspective, for example. Bolivar seems to me -and I am not saying this because I am Venezuelan- a character with the historical stature of a classic, precisely because he is always open to new interpretations. When someone becomes a living reference for posterity, we are dealing with a classic. This is what happens with Bolivar, with Miranda, with Marti and some others in America. In the case of Bolivar, the relevance of his historical performance is such that, as long as the world is the world and there are people willing to an honest reading of his actions and his thought, he will always be able to tell us something new.

The interpretations that I can modestly make are different from many and are also opposed to others. Personally, to begin with, I take into account that Bolivar is a great hero -something that, in these times of supposed anti-heroism, bothers some- and heroic figures are always multifaceted. That is to say, they have several faces, they have many dimensions and some of those dimensions are positive and others are negative. In cases such as Bolivar’s, everything negative is completely absorbed, annihilated and overcome by what was his frankly unparalleled historical contribution. Moreover, in cases of classics such as Bolivar, it happens that his actions, his lives, always in accordance with the interpretations of the case, become ethical references, examples to be taken into account by posterity. Regardless of our specific ideological stance, no one can deny that the figure of Bolivar is full of greatness. He is someone who devoted his life to the fate of his Venezuelan community of reference and to a broad international community. With the impulse of that unconditional dedication to a noble cause, Bolivar tried to define new options of cultural, civilizational, ethical, political, etc., identity configuration. This is the basis of what we can characterize, without any problem, as the greatness of the Liberator. Bolivar was not a god, he was a human being and, like every human being, he had his flaws. The blunders he once committed, the mistakes he perpetrated, are completely absorbed, annulled and surpassed by the magnitude of his greatness. This means, then, that there will always be many Bolivars who will appear before us as ethical-political references. In the Chair, in addition to Bolivar, we have studied several characters of great importance for the American emancipation, but Bolivar stands out from the rest in several aspects. One of them, I think the one that condenses all that Bolivar represents, although it was not entirely original of him (Miranda had already shown in his writings his awareness of the continental character of the independence processes), was the persevering eagerness to organize the Amphictyonic Congress. We already know that the initiative ended up being unsuccessful, for several reasons that are not worth mentioning here. But the fact of conceiving it, of promoting it, of trying it seriously and of advancing considerably in that plan, speaks to us of a personality with a perspective of totality, that few insurgent patriots had in his time. For example, San Martin was an effective and courageous military man, a strategist of great merit, but he did not show to have reached the global vision, the geopolitical perspective and the political-strategic creativity that Bolivar already evidenced when he organized and set in motion the Congress of Angostura. It is enough to read the Letter of Jamaica to realize the breadth of vision that, from early on, characterized Bolivar’s project. On the other hand, it seems to me highly positive, although very polemic, Bolivar’s disposition to configure a revolutionary political order, in the sense of transforming the existing political relations in the America of his time. The political alternative devised by Bolivar responds to a radical republicanism, which is not based on pre-elaborated and dogmatically assumed models. Bolivar seems to me to be a creator in the field of defining new political structures. He is someone open to innovation without renouncing to the examination and the lessons of the past, because he was knowledgeable of the cultural traditions of the past. All this, in my opinion, makes Bolivar a truly exceptional person and, therefore, he will always be an open book for posterity.

Yoselina Guevara Correo del Alba’s Venezuelan Correspondent in Italy