An Irishman's Diary

 

Recently, Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, announced the nationalisation of the oil industry. I hadn't really noticed that it had been privatised. How Venezuela celebrated back in 1976 when the oil industry, the pillar of his country's economy, was nationalised the first time.

Foreign oil companies Shell and Esso were told their services were no longer needed, were paid off and went. Their assets were passed over to Venezuelan companies which all formed part of a new organisation called Petroleos de Venezuela SA, called PDVSA for short. We all drank scotch, the Venezuelan national drink, till the oil derricks in Lake Maracaibo seemed to bounce up and down.

But when he was elected president in 1998 Chávez felt that the contracts handed out after 1976 by PDVSA were tantamount to privatisation. These were cancelled, all duties reassumed by the state and he could proclaim another nationalistion.

There is no doubt that all the cash generated by the black stuff is going into the country's already brimming coffers. Chávez's supporters are applauding his spending of the enormous new oil wealth on health and education for his citizens and on cut-price fuel for the shivering masses in the Northern US and - under a deal with Ken Livingstone - for the poorer passengers on the big red buses of London Transport.

But what escapes many supporters and critics alike is that Chávez's clever public relations act of changing his country's name to the "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela" in honour of Simon Bolivar, "The Liberator", and national hero, was facilitated by the industry and devotion of Bolivar's aide-de-camp, the son of a butter merchant from Barrack Street in Cork.

Bolivar who worked and fought for South American independence from Spain at the beginning of the 19th century, had no more loyal helper than Daniel Florence O'Leary. He followed Bolivar faithfully for years and, despite Bolivar's own final order to burn his papers, gathered them into 32 volumes of memoirs. Without O'Leary we would know a great deal less about Bolivar and be much less able to appreciate his anti-colonialist achievements.

"He disobeyed Bolivar but he did a good job", President Chávez commented to me.

O'Leary was born in Cork in February 1801, the eighth of the 10 children of Jeremiah and Catherine. They carried on the butter business that Jeremiah's father had started when he came to Cork from Dunmanway in the mid-18th century. It made money, especially during the Napoleonic wars, but when peace came after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 the trade collapsed. This made the well-educated teenager Daniel, who had a penchant for the military life and could ride well, think about soldiering. There were opportunities aplenty in the Spanish colonies which, with Britain's discreet encouragement, were seeking independence. So at 16 Daniel was accepted as an ensign of the Red Hussars of Venezuela which an English colonel was raising in London. The colonel had no objection to Catholics like O'Leary so the young man sailed off from Portsmouth in a group of officers and NCOs aboard the corvette, Prince, with stores and equipment for the British Legion which was already in action against the Spaniards along the River Orinoco.

In Venezuela he transferred to a local unit, the Dragoon Guard of General Antonio Anzoátegui and got to know Bolivar. He was soon in battle with the Spaniards and suffered a nasty head wound which scarred him for life. His methodical nature, bravery and passion for the Venezuelan cause meant that he rose in rank meteorically - lieutenant at 19, captain at 20, lieutenant-colonel at 21, colonel and aide-de-camp to Bolivar at 25 and brigadier-general before he was 30. Bolivar meanwhile sought his advice about the most sensitive military subjects and sent him on diplomatic missions around South America to advance the idea of Latin American unity.

Frankly, O'Leary had few illusions about the majority of Bolivar's soldiers. "Victory or defeat was all the same to them", he said. "The masses...had few aspirations."

After the Spaniards admitted defeat at the hands of the rebels, Bolivar was in the very moment of victory tossed into a maelstrom of petty politicking and died a disillusioned man in Colombia in 1830.

The Irishman decided it was time to move with his wife Soledad and their child to Jamaica. They returned to Caracas in 1833 and he was sent on missions around Europe for the newly independent Venezuela. He had the chance of returning to Cork in 1834. He visited his only surviving sister and his parents' grave, going on to Derrynane to see Daniel O'Connell.

After some lobbying he persuaded the Foreign Office to employ him, first as acting British consul in Caracas and later as chargé d'affaires in Bogota.

He continued to travel, returning to Cork in 1853 to give Queen's College, now UCC, his collection of South American rocks, flora and fauna.

In the years before his death in Bogota in 1854 he pulled together the history of Venezuela's wars of independence. Venezuelan diplomats the world over have as one of their principal tasks the consolidation of Bolivar's name as a Latin American hero. Their task - and Chávez's task - is easier because of the discriminating loyalty of the Corkman from Barrack Street.