By Earl Bousquet
‘With the austerity of a monk, a vocation to seek the good of others and a bright scientific mind… [he] won the affection of those who called him “the doctor of the poor…’
The above quote is from an April 28, 2021 article by Jorge Reuda entitled ‘Venezuela Celebrates as Doctor of the Poor Beatified’ about José Gregorio Hernández, a Venezuelan doctor beatified by Roman Catholic Pope Francis for treating poor victims of the ‘Spanish Flu’ a century ago.
But I borrowed it because it’s also so very attributable to another great Venezuelan no less dedicated to his country’s poor: Aristobulo Istruiz Almeida, best known as ‘The Professor’, who died just as Hernandez was finally put on the fast-track to Sainthood by the Pontiff.
Peas in a pod
Hernandez and Istruiz were like two peas in a pod when it came to dedicating their lives to the poor.
The ‘Doctor’ was revered across his homeland after his tragic death in 1919, struck by a car in Caracas while crossing a street after buying medicines, from his pocket, to help a patient who couldn’t afford.
Then, 103 years later, just as Venezuelans started celebrating Hernandez’s beatification, ‘The Professor’ died suddenly after losing a brief battle against a sudden heart attack, leaving the entire nation honoring and mourning the two Heroes of the Poor at the same time.
The two great gentlemen had much in common.
Naturally well-schooled in the art of teaching and messaging, ‘Black Aristobulo’ (as he was posthumously referred to by Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro) exuded the confidence of a proud warrior with no fear, who offered no excuses and took no prisoners in his lifelong battles for and defense of development of his homeland and people.
Whether against the ideology that generated the US sanctions against Venezuela and Cuba irrespective of which party is in office, or in defense of the right of all of his people to a proper education, Aristobulo always stood firm, tall and defiant.
After supporting Hugo Chavez’s entry into Venezuelan politics in the late 1990s and joining his new government from 2000 as Education Minister, Istruiz virtually spent every day of the 21st Century leading the nation’s education thrust.
According to an article by Venezuelananlysis.com published on April 29, between 2001 and 2007 ‘The Professor’ was in charge of Mission Robinson, ‘the literacy and primary education program launched in 2003 with Cuban cooperation, which, in its first two years, taught almost 1.5 million Venezuelans basic literacy skills, leading to the country being declared an Illiteracy Free Territory by UNESCO in 2005.’
Over the next 15 years ‘The Professor’ became sectoral vice president for Territorial Socialism and Education and served alongside vice president Delcy Rodriguez among leading members of the popular National Constituent Assembly (NCA).
Aristobulo returned to the helm at the education ministry in 2019 –and a year later created A school in every family – an innovative television and radio program to help students continue classes during COVID-19.
President Maduro said at his funeral ceremony that ‘The Professor’s death is a great blow to the people of Venezuela’ and ‘The humblest in all the country’s schools mourn today…’
And he described his fallen friend as ‘A guide for revolutionary people.’
President Maduro announced he had posthumously awarded ‘The Professor’ with the first-class ‘Order of The Liberators’, the nation’s highest honor, embedded in a jeweled replica of Simón Bolívar’s sword.
The International Afro-descendent and African Cumbe also expressed their sorrow ‘on behalf of Afro-Venezuelans’, Tweeting: ‘Professor Aristóbulo, your fight will transcend with the Cimarrones of all times.’
It was impossible to have known, met and exchanged with Aristobulo – even once – and ever forgotten that giant of a simple man who never forgot where he came from or where he wished to walk to with his people.
Like with Saint Lucia-born captain Jean Baptiste Bideau, who also died fighting in defense of the young nation’s independence after serving as Governor of Eastern Venezuela, mortality was also snatched from Aristobulo in the midst of many battles against the US blockades and in defiance of all efforts to repeat the short-lived military coup that deposed Chavez in 1998 – only to be reinstated by his people.
Like all others who fought and died giving life to Bolivar and Chavez’s eternal legacies, ‘The Professor of the Poor’ and ‘The Doctor of the Poor’ will forever be remembered by Venezuelans, never to be forgotten by those they left in tears and broken hearts at home and abroad.
Venezuelans had been praying for Hernandez’s beatification since 1949 and it took Pope Francis – the first Latin American pontiff and also the first from outside Europe – to recognize that the ‘Doctor of the Poor’ was already a saint in his people’s hearts, many honoring him over the past century at home, in churches and at the mural established where he died in the capital city.
President Maduro – in the names of Bolivar and Chavez, in pursuit of Bolivarian Socialism and in eternal memory of his lifelong contribution to Venezuela’s freedom in the 21st century and his people’s education and liberation – has honored ‘The Professor’ with his nation’s most revolutionary beatification: Simon Bolivar’s sword.
The ‘Professor’ and ‘The Doctor’ together touched the hearts of Venezuelans in the same way at different times – and again together in the final week of April 2021, opening the way for neither to ever be forgotten by the Venezuelan poor they served and died for.
They died for their homeland to live!