The Chávez government introduced a ‘Bolivarian’ national curriculum to promote radically different understandings of Venezuelan history and identity. We place the fate of this reform initiative within the broader study of state formation and nationalism. Scholars have long identified mass schooling as the key institution for socialising citizens and cultivating national loyalties, and many states have attempted to alter the nationalist content of schooling with these ends in mind. Venezuela constitutes an ideal case for identifying the specific conditions under which transformations of official national ideologies do and do not gain broader resonance. Using evidence derived from textbook analysis and semi-structured interviews with educational officials and teachers in Caracas, we highlight a new argument, showing that intrastate tensions between the central government and teachers, heightened by a well-established cultural machinery and by teachers’ increasing exclusion from the Chavista political coalition, explain the limited success in government efforts to implement Bolivarian nationalism through the school curriculum.