Simón Bolívar: The Latin American Hero Many Americans Don’t Know

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South American revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Simón Bolívar lived a sweeping, epic life. The Latin American independence hero swanned around the salons of revolutionary-era Paris, skulked in the Guyanese jungle and enlisted the aid of roughriding cowboys and mercenary privateers, among others, in his campaigns. He wooed myriad women while remaining utterly devoted to the principles of the Enlightenment. He was born into one of the highest rungs of the Spanish colonial elite — a plantation-owning family in Caracas — but would be the man who would go on to liberate Spanish America’s slaves. He is lionized now across the continent as the courageous general who won Latin America‘s wars of independence, but he died in 1830, at the age of 47, humbled by failures and derided by numerous critics. Bolívar’s many-chambered life is the subject of a recent critically acclaimed biography, Bolívar: American Liberator, by the Peruvian-American writer Marie Arana. Arana spoke to TIME about this titan of the western hemisphere and how more people in the U.S. should know his story.

The book’s subtitle is American Liberator, a phrase that might conjure a different figure in American minds than Bolívar. How do you compare him with George Washington?
That’s hard to do. It’s like living on different planets, in a way. Bolívar’s task was far more complicated. [He fought over] an area of land that was seven times larger than the American colonies and over terrain — the Andes, the jungles — that was far more difficult than the rolling hills of New England. Just in terms of a military feat it was quite extraordinary what he did. The public regard for Bolívar wherever he went was incredible. He inspired the masses to throw over the colonial structure. And he did it republic after republic, until six emerged.

Bolívar had enormous flaws, he made terrible mistakes. He would execute one person for treason and then let a very treasonous general get away with the same thing. He was uneven and trying to make it up as he went along. When you’re operating like that — everything impromptu — it’s difficult to build anything coherent. By the end of his life, it was very incoherent. He feared he was leaving behind terrible chaos, and in fact he did. It took time for people to realize what he accomplished.

(LIST: Simón Bolívar — Top 25 Political Icons)

Bolívar is obviously well known in Latin America. What spurred you to write a book about him now?
I have a kind of mission in mind with every one of my books to put a brick in the edifice of explaining Latin America to American readers. I don’t think Americans know enough about Latin American history, and if you don’t know the history, you don’t know the people, and the characters, and their fears and their hopes. So I was looking for a figure that would actually embrace as much of the Latin American personality as I could find. There’s no question in my mind that Bolívar was that figure. He seemed the quintessential Latin American personality.

Does that personality include an authoritarian streak?
I think he got to the point where, as he was liberating countries, moving south, the operative word which used to be liberty became triumph. He didn’t have this wonderful team of rivals that [U.S. President Abraham] Lincoln had — that existed in North American history. He had warring generals who were being feisty and pesky beneath them. And he had no solidarity. And he began to feel that the only place where there was a modicum of calm was when he walked into a room, when he was on the spot. So it got to a point where he had to have absolute power to make things happen. He established a pattern unfortunately that has gone on to create havoc in Latin America — of the democratically elected caudillo who goes on to become dictatorial.

Those contradictions are very much part of who Bolívar was and who he became. We Latin Americans have learned to live with our leaders’ flaws — a messy romantic life, illegitimate children — but it doesn’t matter. A president brings [the illegitimate children] out to the balcony and people forgive you. That doesn’t happen in puritanical North America. There’s a lot more forgiveness and tolerance for human failures in Latin American and that may have been born with him as well.

Given the chaos of the time and the rivals he had, what made Bolívar such a uniquely gifted leader?
He had a tremendous talent for bringing people together and making warring generals cooperate. He would co-opt them personally, he would charm them, he would engage them. He was very bright. He was a tremendously impressive both intellectually and physically. He would do tricks to impress his young soldiers — he would leap over his horse and land on his feet, from one side to the other.

He also seemed unbelievably determined. I was astonished by the number of times his revolutions failed, the number of times he had to work his way back from defeat and exile.
He was unstoppable. He’d be thrown out and come back again, he’d be thrown out and come back again. He said we learn not by our success but by our failures. Every time there was a failure, there was a quantum learning leap for him — by the time of the third republic [a ministate in Venezuela that lasted from 1817 to 1819], he had learned some key tactics: he would have to engage all the races. He also knew the element of guerrilla surprise was going to be the way he had to fight the war, not the old-fashioned “line up and go to battle” way.

Bolívar had key allies as well. Can you describe the role played by Haiti (the largely black former French colony whose slaves revolted and won freedom in 1804)?
Yes, Latin America owes its liberation in many ways to Haiti. It was the godfather of the Latin American revolution. Bolívar washed up on the shores of Haiti when [Haitian President] Alexandre Pétion picked him up in 1815 and said, “You can do this again and let me help you.” That support and the awareness that it brought to Bolívar’s mind of the colonial structure, of racial oppression, was really quite educational for Bolívar. For the North Americans, looking down at Haiti, it was the worst thing they could imagine. Slavery was the largest part of the U.S.’s gross national product. It was anathema that the slave population could rise up against the masters. Bolívar understood it in a very different way — that no, we should all rise up against our masters.

Why didn’t a United States of Latin America emerge after Bolívar’s victories?
The Spanish colonial structure kept the colonies apart — communication between the colonies was punishable by death. You could not start a vineyard, you could not dig a mine, you could not do anything without the express sanction of the Spanish Crown. All kinds of ingenuity and originality and incentive were destroyed in the people. South Americans were separated very clearly between the aristocrats who were the governing arm of Spain and then the peons. The Spanish model was always to drain everything out of Latin America — they invested very little in the people, in the land. There was very little effort for education — the church did it as best as it could—but the Spanish colonial structure wanted to keep the population ignorant and submissive. This is very different from the American model. Democracy requires a kind of basic education, it requires you to trust the person voting next to you to have the same judgment you do. That was never achieved — and it has taken hundreds of years to get where we are now, with a modicum of literacy. It has taken a long time to break the colonial habits.

Readers in the U.S. will also be staggered by the extent of violence needed to break colonial rule.
The wars went on so long — 14 years. Whole towns were razed. Barinas in Venezuela, a beautiful colonial town, was completely gone. There was terrible violence, it was widespread. In Venezuela, a whole third of the population was wiped out. The expeditionary forces of Spain were almost completely wiped out. It was a very violent war that combined not only a revolution but a civil war as well. It was a tremendously bloody enterprise. People who read books by [Gabriel] García Márquez or [Mario] Vargas Llosa may think it’s so overwrought and dramatic — you know, about the blood trickling down the streets and the heads rolling out of the bushes — but that actually happened. It was long, costly, violent and debasing war.

In Latin America, Bolívar remains a political icon like no one else. Why is he still the idol for movements like the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s socialist revolution?
Chávez is not the first. President [José Antonio] Páez brought back Bolívar’s bones from Santa Marta, Colombia, [in 1842] and buried him in Caracas and said, “We’re all going to stand by Bolívar.” And it worked. He was re-elected. It’s what one of Bolívar’s very famous generals called the magic of his prestige. Hugo Chávez did the exact same thing: he exhumed the bones and preyed on the magic of his prestige. It’s quite ghoulish, but it works.

But why? What does Bolívar so profoundly represent?
Bolívar stands in a way for a best of what we are. Brave, principled, willing to give up everything — all your riches, your heritage — to do the right thing. He stands for the heroic Latin American spirit, willing to throw over the yoke. That is the magic of his prestige. He had everything, he was a rich man, he could have lived very happily. Yet, he put everything aside, risked everything and died poor.

In your book, he does seem a marvelous, technicolor legend of a man. Why is it that so few in the U.S. know anything about him?
We have that kind of terrible antipathy to Latin American subjects. We know the name Bolívar but not much more. There’s a kind of unwillingness that dates back all the way to the time of John Quincy Adams — to not consider Latin America relevant to us. But now we’re at the point that “they” are “us.” By 2050, something like 30% of the U.S. will be of Hispanic origin. And I think that whereas in the past we have been unwilling to look south of the border and see who these people are and what made them the way they are, now I am hoping there is a willingness to learn that history.


Sr Francisco, you seemed having an intellectual masturbation trying to argue your point whhich I belive is full of broken stars.

Spain has not recognized her errors up to this day. Sr Francisco  you are  full of broken stars by comparing the number of indigineous people living in north America and the number of indigenous people living in South america and deducting from that the cruelty created by the oppresors. For your knowledge Sr Francisco, for example, Peru at the beginning of the conquest had around 10 millions of indigenous people and by  her independencei the numbers had decreased tremendously to one million of people. If that it is not called anihilitation well then what we should call it., Sr francisco past prophecies?

That is just one example and PLEASE stop quoting some people that may sound intelliget but does not have any idea what abhors our hemisphere has inherited from the Spanish culture. With that I don't have any feelings about spain but I like to call it as it is.


now Bolivar is used as a political fetish for crooks who want to be in office forever


Before saying adios I cannot refrain from making a couple of final comments (exercising the right to reply in any civilized conversation):

First, you say that Bernard Lavallé has written about the cruelty of Pizarro, the exploitation by the Church and so on. Well, yes, and about many other things, mainly about the complexities of the new world brought about by the Conquest. To reduce Monsieur Lavallé´s extensive and nuanced scholarly work to your black and white narrative is simply to apply a very Manichaean scheme of things to him (Spaniard bad boy/ Amerindian, good boy; Pizarro, bad boy/ Atahualpa, good boy...). Furthermore, I have used his description of the battle of Cajamarca precisely to make the point that it is possible to expose the cruelties of the Conquest and at the same time to have an objective view of the historical facts that point to a multifaceted reality. Is it that difficult to understand?

Second, you mention Cieza de Leon, for whom, according to your interpretation, the Indians were just cannibals. Frankly speaking, have you read him? In his Chronicle of Peru, published in 1553 you can find a quite positive appraisal of the Inca rule together with, as you say, descriptions of a more negative tone. What is wrong with that? Accustomed as you are to a Black and White world I can understand that you have difficulties with that kind of approach, but, again, that is your problem

Finally, we come to Inca Garcilaso. You start by saying that he was the exception to the general mistreatment of mestizos because he was a nobleman. Well, I did not know that in the XVI or XVII centuries there were equalitarian societies everywhere except in Hispanic America (oppressed by those tyrannical Spaniards, of course) . But it also happens that the world of the mestizos was the more complex of all the social strata at that time in the colonial world. I will not spend time with you arguing about this point, just read, if so you like, The Forging of the Cosmic Race: A Reinterpretation of Colonial Mexico. By Colin M. MacLachlan and Jaime E. Rodríguez O. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. And by the way, your earlier affirmation that there was no industry in Spanish America (just pillaging of natural resources) is completely rebuked by another essay by Manuel Miño Grijalva (entitled Obrajes y Tejedores de Nueva España).

But let us get back to your quote of Inca Garcilaso. It is from the Historia General del Peru, the second part of the Comentarios Reales. If you read the edition of the Historia published by Emecé and edited by Anibal Rosemblat you will find there a complete exegesis of the work. It happens that the Historia was written by Garcilaso to narrate the Conquest of Peru in order to retrospectively legitimise the cause of one of the factions in the civil war between the conquistadores after the fall of the Inca. In this well-known context, the narrative of the battle of Cajamarca you referred to is precisely, by general opinion among historians, the less accurate among the different descriptions of that episode (it is not in agreement with the other sources either from the Spaniards or from the Amerindians). But not only that: if you wanted to use that quote, and the figure of Atahualpa, to buttressing your particular agenda – Inca good guy/ Spaniard bad guy- here is what Inca Garcilaso had to say about Atahualpa´s behaviour during the Inca´s civil war in his Comentarios Reales (Chapter XXXVII): 

    “ Atahualpa usó amabilisimamente de la violencia, porque disimulando y fingiendo que quería restituir a Huáscar en su reino mandó hacer llamamiento a todos los incas que por el Imperio había (…) que dentro de cierto tiempo se juntasen en el Cuzco, porque dijo que quería capitular con todos ellos para que viniesen en toda paz y hermandad (…) Cuando los tuvieron recogidos, envió Atahualpa a mandar que los matasen todos con diversas muertes, por asegurarse de ello, porque no tramasen algún levantamiento”.

Well, here you have your beloved and peaceful Atahualpa behaving like one of those cruel conquistadores. No wonder that Pizarro, who was extremely well informed about the civil war among the Incas, was already prepared in case Atahualpa would decide to use the same trick against the Spaniards. Also, in case do you not know, Inca Garcilaso´s mother was one of the few Incas of the rival faction who was not murdered by Atahualpa because she managed to escape from the trap by disguising herself like a poor young lady.

Inca Garcilaso dedicated his worki to the “Indios, mestizos y criollos de los Reinos y Provincias del Cuzco, del Inca Garcilaso, su hermano, compatriota y paisano” his books were sanctioned by Royal Authority (signed Yo el Rey), and published in Lisbon ( then a part of the Hispanic Monarchy), in 1609, and in Cordoba in 1617. It seems that your oppressive and obscurantist Spanish Monarchy had no problem in accepting the publication of both works (including the Inca's description of the battle of Cajamarca).

Well, if you so agree, I also see no point in following this debate. It has been a pleasure and I wish you the best. 


Those countries you mentioned one and again (México, Bolivia, Guatemala, Perú, plus another one, Colombia) have 87 % of the Amerindians living in Latin American countries today (UNICEF), but only in Bolivia and Perú they are over 10% of the population (CEPAL). The percentage in other countries, particularly in those where they were replaced by black slaves, is a lot lower: Venezuela, 0.8 %, Paraguay 1%, Argentina 1%; Uruguay, 0.2%; Chile, 4%: Costa Rica 2%. Not to mention Cuba, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean isles, where the diseases killed the few that did not die by exhaustion, even when De las Casas said they were there over 300.000 Tainos by the time of the Conquest.

You mentioned Cieza de Leon, the same cronista that accused every Amerindian people resisting the invasion of cannibalism, even of eating their own children, because -coincidentally- the Cannibals could be legally enslaved, without even the benefit of preserving their families. But that is not a surprise after observing how selectively you have read Bernard Lavalle -an author that has vivid descriptions of the cruelty of Pizarro and his men, that has studied the role of the Catholic Church in the exploitation of the Indians and that has proven how the Amerindian resistance was a constant menace for the colonial order-. Given this, I am not going to discuss with you anymore. It has no point. But I find really interesting that you mention so much to Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (one of the few mestizos with ample rights during the Colony due to be high born , which is why he should be seen as the exception instead of the rule), but give no credit to his version of the "battle" of Cajamarca. So, I finish with a quote of Inca Garcilaso himself:

"A este tiempo los españoles, no pudiendo sufrir la prolijidad del razonamiento, salieron de sus puestos, y arremetieron con los indios para pelear con ellos y quitarles las muchas joyas de oro y plata y piedras preciosas que, como gente que venía a oír la embajada del monarca del universo, habían echado sobre sus personas para más solemnizar el mensaje. . . .

Aquí dice el Padre Blas Valera que como Dios Nuestro Señor, con la presencia de la Reina Esther, trocó en mansedumbre el ánimo enojado del Rey Asuero, así, con la presencia de la Santa Cruz, que el buen Fray Vicente de Valverde tenía en las manos, trocó el ánimo airado y belicoso del Rey Atahuallpa, no solamente en mansedumbre y blandura, sino en grandísima sumisión y humildad, pues mandó a los suyos que no peleasen, aunque lo matasen o prendiesen. . . .

El general español y sus capitanes escribieron al Emperador la relación que los historiadores escriben; y, en contrario con grandísimo recato y diligencia prohibieron entonces que nadie escribiese la verdad de lo que pasó, que es la que se ha dicho; la cual sin la tradición de los nudos historiales de aquella provincia Cassamarca, la oí a muchos conquistadores que se hallaron en aquella jornada, y el Padre Blas Valera dice que uno de ellos fué su padre Alonso Valera, a quien se la oyó contar muchas veces. En suma, decimos que pasaron de cinco mil indios los que murieron
aquel día; los tres mil y quinientos fueron a hierro, y los demás fueron viejos inútiles, mujeres, muchachos y niños, porque de ambos sexos y de todas edades había venido innumerable gente a oír y solemnizar la embajada de los que tenían por dioses". (Historia General del Perú)


( Continuation in reply to Agar 77)

Finally, you said that the transition to Independence was less traumatic and more fluid in the North than in the South American republics, implying that it was so because of the softer British model of colonization ( again the same old myth). Sorry to say, but the independence of the US was the result of a very bloody  war that Britain intended to fight to the end ( by the way, enlisting entire armies of mercenaries from Central Europe ) in order to subjugate the rebels. Unfortunately for Britain, the rebels got  a good command, a resilient army and also had the help of France and, yes, Spain ( Bernardo de Galvez defeated the English in Pensacola, Mobile and, in general, pinned them down in the southern front). The British did not let the colonies go happily, or fluidly as you suggest, quite on the contrary. And do not forget that the deal over slavery and other issues that the rebels had to strike among themselves in order to create the new Republic would lead almost a century later to one of the bloodiest civil wars registered in history. No, the history of the US was not that rosy either ( just tell the Amerindians remaining in North America).

PS. As to the mita being a system to organize collective labour ( one of those benighted institutions later corrupted by Spain, in your own words), well, it is a nice way to describe what was plainly and simply a system of forced labour, not talk about that other  Inca policy which consisted in forcibly removing entire populations in recently conquered lands ( something that Empires normally do, but in your view the Inca state was not an Empire, but paradise on earth, of course). This said, I am not denying that the Inca developed a quite complex and in some regards advanced system of government ( just read the description of their rule by Cieza de Leon, a Spanish conqueror, who had no problem in saying so, or the fascinating books by Inca Garcilaso on the history of the Inca rule).


A reply to Agar 77 and his peculiar reading of history ( when in doubt, blame it on the Spanish, should be his motto)

  First, as to the battle of Cajamarca, I really do not know about your source of information, but what I can say is that it is just one among many and by no means is it stamped with the seal of absolute truth. Mine is the biography of Francisco Pizarro by Bernard Lavalle, a professor at the University of La Sorbonne, considered one of the most balanced and well informed to this day. According to his reconstruction of events, based on both Spanish and Indian sources, after the first encounter between Hernando de Soto, Pizarro's envoy, and Inca Atahualpa, the latter ordered his general Rumi Ñahui to prepare an indirect assault against the Spanish position in the city ( the idea that the Incas were just a group of physicians, farmers and noblemen at that encounter is simply false, by most accounts Inca Atahualpa was backed by an army of thousands of warriors). On the following day, when the encounter between the Inca and Pizarro was to take place, Atahualpa, instead of entering the main plaza as agreed, decided to encamp off its walls.  The Spanish, who already doubted the intentions of the Inca, decided to put in place a plan in case they were subject to an attack, that is, to use the plaza as a mousetrap to entice the Inca army into a narrow place where the less than 200 Spaniards could have their only advantage. And so it happened. Inca Atahualpa, convinced of the superiority of his army completely misread the situation, he was captured and his army decimated and disbanded. It was a battle in which the enormous superiority of the Incas was defeated by the superior tactics and arms of the Spaniards ( who had by all accounts less than 50 horses, which by the way, were already known by the Indians since Pizarro and his men had been in Inca territory for at least seven months already). Was it an unprecedented massacre?, well, as battles go in history, the number of casualties was relatively minor. take also into account that the Inca Empire was  at that time in the midst of a bloody civil war ( which played to the advantage of the Spaniards) so the rosy idea of a peaceful Inca Empire confronted by those bloodthirsty Spaniards is another of your myths.

   You can of course ask what the hell were the Spaniards doing in Peru? fine, but then, what the hell where the Romans doing in Iberia or in Germany or in Britannia or what the hell was Alexander the Great doing in Persia and India or what the hell were the Incas doing in large parts of the Tahuansintsuyo, which had previously been occupied by other people whom they vanquished and subjugated. Well, sorry but that is what history is about, take it or leave it.

   As to the number of Amerindians. Again, without denying the shock of the Conquest, can you tell me from where do you get that in  South American countries pure Amerindians are now less than 1-3% of the population? Again, wrong. Just take a look at the most recent censuses which will tell you that in Peru they are 30 to 45% of the population, in Bolivia 55% or in Ecuador 25%. In Mexico, the overall figure is about 13% ( in regions like Yucatan is 59%).

   The idea of a British America populated by free colonialists is another myth ( just read American Colonies by Alan Taylor to see the enormous differences between the different colonies, from instance between Rhode Island and the Carolinas or the West Indies, where most of the population was slaved or bounded, included people coming from England)

   As to the offspring of mixed marriages in Spanish America being deprived of their rights. Please, just read the history of Inca Garcilaso, son of a conquistador and an Inca woman who was entitled to all of his father inheritance and actually went to Spain, to Cordoba, to be more precise, to claim it , which he legally did and got it. Again, where have you studied? The first decrees issued by Queen Isabella, not by the Church, were the ones which encouraged the marriage between Spaniards and Amerindians to create a mix civilization. 

  And no, I am not talking about a enlightened Spanish colonization, I am telling you facts. 


A reply to Francisco regarding his "enlightened" Spanish colonization.

You don't need supermen to organize a massacre. On November 16th 1532, in Cajarmarca, 180 Spanish soldiers plus a few Amerindians aides (according to the Conquest cronistas) killed 5.000 Incan people and captured 7.000. Almost all the Amerindians were unarmed and most of the deaths were caused by cavalry charges. The Spanish soldiers did not need to be supermen, because they were fighting against people who had never seen a horse, did not know powder and have no other use for metal different to ornamentation. According to their own chronicles, the Spanish only had one death (a black slave) during the "battle". Stone and wood against steel armors are not winning weapons, especially when you are attacking a group of people mainly comprised by noblemen, physicians and farmers. Even so, the Spanish armies needed 40 years to submit the last remnants of the Inca Empire.

You add mestizos to Indians to tell that that they both comprise about 80% of the total population of Latin American countries. But the huge mestizaje in Latin America speaks of 750.000 white Spanish immigrants, who came to Latin America during the Colony mostly without wives or families (a situation very different to the usual English colonist in North America, given that family was the main form of social control there). The Catholic Church tolerated the marriage with Amerindian women, because many Spanish males had taken the custom of collecting harems of slaves. That was getting out of control and was saw as sinful. But their kids did not have the same rights of their white parents until the Independence (and in several countries many years later, given the weight of a racist History and social organization that I will never qualify as “Enlightened”).

If you compare using the same rule (purity of ethnic heritage), you will find that pure Amerindians are only 1-3% of the total population in most Latin American countries, excepting those where black slaves were never used extensively due to climatic or orographic considerations, or had large previous Indian population who could be employed in forced labour (Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia). In fact, many of the surviving Amerindians in Latin America lived in areas that were never fully controlled by the Spanish due to natural barriers (a consideration that did not exist in New England, by the way). In the case of Mexico and the Andean countries there were also previous Empires, whose institutions were corrupted to become a colonial system where most of the richness was exported. A good example is the mita that, from a system of collective organization that allowed the building of all the roads and most of the cities of the Incan Empire, was transformed to a system of forced labour whose main end was to enrich the encomenderos and the Crown. Given this, the encomienda caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in the mines and was the main reason of a large number of Indigenous rebellions. The three you mentioned are just the big ones, but there were many more.

And there was also an ideological directive. The richness in the Hispanic New World were mostly associated to precious metals or jewels, the main concern of the Spanish Crown, who never was really worried for developing a strong industrial or agricultural complex (to be truthful, this happened not only in Latin America, but also in Spain, where there were many disastrous policies until the late XIX that allowed an almost total concentration of lands in the hands of noblemen and rich people).

By the way, I have never defended the British colonization or said that they were “tolerant”, in North America or elsewhere, because that would not be true. If you read my postings, the only thing I said was that the British employed a less-controlled-by-the-State colonization, that allowed the colonists a higher degree of personal initiative and that this was one of the many reasons why the transition to Independence was less traumatic and more fluid in the North. It was you who said, regarding the Spanish colonization ,“the vices of empire were tempered by enlightened principles and remarkable prosperity and stability” and who said that the yellow-fever-mosquito had more responsibility in the Independence than Bolivar and his troops. I find that this is a total lack of respect, since you are talking about conflicts that were the bloodiest Independence wars in human history until the second half of 20th century, almost 150 years later.


"I have a kind of mission in mind with every one of my books to put a brick in the edifice of explaining Latin America to American readers."

As far as self-important, self-righteous, insulting and profoundly annoying utterances go, this one is way up there. No wonder so many reviewers outside the US hate the book. "Putting a brick in the edifice of explaining ... "? How about just writing a clear account, and let us benighted, "puritanical" Nortenos make up our own minds?

wrongpassport 1 Like

The author says "Bolívar stands in a way for a best of what we are. " Unfortunately, the interview paints an appalling picture of the "best": a dictator and a killer. The romantic appeal of this type of hero is obvious, but they are dysfunctional, destructive, and can only be useful to society under brief and exceptional circumstances, if ever. I find it disturbing  that the author is in admiration of her subject, and repeating the words "liberty" in contradiction of the facts she is stating. In the US we had impressive leaders such as Al Capone and Boss Tweed (the corrupt mayor of NY depicted in Gangs of New York), but they are not the beacons we look to for leadership.



I sincerely believe that comparing Bolivar to Al Capone is an oversimplification. To negate all transcendence to Bolivar because he decided to choose becoming a dictator in order to try to maintain united the Latin American countries is the same extreme posture that take those who negate all transcendence to Washington because he was a slave owner. 

The situation of the Spanish colonies in South America was not the same than the situation of the British colonies in the North. Everything in South America was controlled by the State, which was ordered by a very repressive colonial power, so after Independence there was was total chaos --in fact, today it is easy to find similar examples of traumatic births to democracy in the Middle East. 

Bolivar had to make hard choices, because every regional leader was trying to take his slice of the land. It was probably a big mistake at the end, but regarding his reasons I believe the only thing comparable in U.S. history was the extraordinary -dictatorial- powers that Lincoln took for himself in order to preserve the Union. It was without a doubt the biggest error made by Bolivar, but you have to contextualize before making such comparisons.


@Agar77 @wrongpassport 

It seems that Agar 77 follows the same simplistic vision of the Spanish presence in Latin America as Ms Arana. To say that Spain was a very repressive power when compared to Britain is simply laughable. Just walk the streets of New York or Boston to see how many Amerindians are there left. The British and then the US simply exterminated, removed or confined to reservations the original populations ( as it happened in Australia or New Zealand or in Canada). There was hardly any attempt to integrate them. Just look at some of my comments below to see the enormous difference with the Spanish colonial policies regarding the Amerindians. If you want to follow the Black Legend to the letter of the law it is your problem, but do not try to present it as the historical truth because it is not. 


@Agar77 @Francisco @wrongpassport 

Again you get it all wrong. I was having an issue with your proposition that Spain was a more repressive power than England and I still can confidently say that I stick to my words. Again, just name one equivalent of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega or Antonio Badiano or Chimalpahin or of the Universities of Mexico, Santo Domingo, Lima or Cuzco ( where the Indians could study) in the history of colonial Anglo/America, or just tell me the equivalent there of Father Las Casas or Montesinos. You simply can not because there were none. To reduce the history of 300 years in the history of Spanish America to just your narrative of murder and exploitation is simply off the mark and contrary to all available evidence. Was there murder and exploitation?, yes, as any any other major episode of empire building. Was there just murder and exploitation?, simply and plainly no. 

And yes, I have walked the streets of Medellin, and Cali, and Mexico and Cartagena and Cuzco and Asuncion and Quito and I can assure you that I have seen there far more pure Amerindians than in North America or in Australia or in New Zealand or in Canada. in Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay or Bolivia the Amerindians and Mestizos are 80% of the population, in the US just less than 1,4%, so my question is if there was a genocide, where was it committed, north or south of Rio Grande? .  Besides, are you going to tell me that a thousand conquistadores in Mexico and less than 200 in Peru wiped out dozens of millions of Indians and raped a similar amount of women? what were they, supermen? Please, let us be serious here....

Apologies or not the Indians in the US, where I live, were granted citizenship only  in 1924 and if you want to see those alive you better go to the reservations, which were conceived of as concentration camps for those who were not forcibly removed or exterminated. As to the slavery of the Amerindians in Spanish America, sorry to say, but their slavery was forbidden by the Leyes de Indias, actually Colon was sent to prison by Queen Isabel because he had sent her several enslaved Amerindians thus ignoring her decrees ( Elisabeth I the English Queen, by contrast, personally benefitted from the slave trade business of his favorite pirate Hawkins). In Spanish America there was the encomienda ( a sort of bonded labour as it existed at that time in many parts of Europe and also in Anglo-America) and the mita, which, by the way was an institution created by the Inca before the arrival of the Conquistadores. 

As to the casta system, I think that you understand absolutely nothing. The so called casta system was a method to organize the duties and rights of the different coloured and mixed peoples (in anglo-America they simply had no rights, only duties) . The pure Indians lived in the Republicas de Indios and the mestizos moved between the Republica de Espanoles and the Republica de Indios. In AngloAmerica this system was was not existent because most English colonialists were racists who considered it impure to marry the natives ( they of course also raped them, but the offspring was not legally recognized). So, please do not talk me about the superiority of the English model of colonization ( have you heard of the Pequot war and what happened to the survivors? if not get back to school and learn).

As to the brutality of the conquest, just tell me an instance of empire building which has not been brutal ( including the imperial experiences of the Aztecs and the Incas, by the way. And remember  that the few Spaniards who fought in the Conquest were actually assisted by hundreds of thousands of Amerindian allies like the tlaxcalas who were enemies of the Aztecs, who their considered to be their oppressors) 

Regarding the revolts and repression of the Amerindians, again, sorry to say but after the conquest there were just three instances of major Indian revolts in three hundred years, the one of the Mayas in Guatemala, the Pueblo indians and the one by Tupac Amaru. I can assure you that during those centuries there were far worst revolts and repressions in Europe and in fact in most parts of the world. Just ask the Irish about their repression by those tolerant English.


@Francisco@Agar77@wrongpassportFrancisco, have you ever heard about the colonial caste system? The tens of thousands of deaths just in the Potosi mines due to exhaustion? The systematic rape of indigenous women? You can also walk the streets of Caracas and Medellin, just to give two examples, to see how many pure Indians you can find there. In both cities the Indians chiefs were sentenced to death during the first stage of the Conquest for opposing the invasion: Tamanaco was mauled to death by war dogs (in fact, since it was one of the prefered methods of punishment, there was even a verb: "aperrear") and Buritica was burned alive. Two centuries later, in 1781 not only Tupac Amaru II but all his relatives were sentenced to death and their bodies dismembered, all because he was the leader of an Indian rebellion. And most of those Native Americans who survived in the Latin American countries and had not the fortune of living in the jungle, the desert or a frozen moor had to forget all their traditions and cultural heritage, because there was just only two possibilities: the cross or the sword.

If you believe that forcing the Amerindians into slavery to produce money, raping their women, burning their cultural legacies and exterminating the indigenous peoples who didn't surrender to the desires of the Conquistadors is integration, well, I guess it is your right to call it so. I am sure that if you are decided to believe the Golden Legend about the Conquest there is nothing I can do to change it. But I also believe there is a big debt with the indigenous people. At least here, in the U.S., there was an official apology to the Native Americans. Something Spain has never done and I suspect will never do.


@Agar77  Hi Agar, I see your point and I don't mean that Simon Bolivar is a thug or a gangster. Also, I am not at all knowledgeable of the history of South America so I don't have anything to say about whether Simon Bolivar's legacy is overall good or bad. My comment is only that when one admires the charisma and excuses the dictator, that is what you get: a dictator. As a counter example, I have no doubt that Churchill is a hero, but he didn't get elected by the British after the war.


I do not know how the reviewer can say that this book has been received with critical acclaim. It has not. The most serious scholars and historians of the Spanish world have very severely criticize the use of the Blank Legend by Ms Arana as a backdrop to her narrative. I invite the readers to take a look at what Enrique Krauze, a leading Mexican intellectual has said about the book in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books.

But, above, all, there is the following critique by Felipe Fernandez- Armesto, one of the foremost historians of our times, it was recently published in the WSJ, I quote:

"Yet the book disappoints. Ms. Arana, the author of well-received novels such as "Cellophane" (2006) and "Lima Nights" (2009), tells us that she challenged her agent by choosing to "leap" to history from fiction. The decision was unfortunate, as she has discovered no new evidence, formulated no new problems and proposed no new theories. The book opens with a terrible howler: an epigraph supposedly from a Spanish "coronation ceremony" of 1550. But Ms Arana's quotation is from a royal investiture oath in Aragon, where the last coronation took place in 1414.

The same haplessness wrecks her account of the late-colonial background: She ignores contemporary sources and recent scholarship in favor of the Black Legend of Spanish cruelty, tyranny, racism and mismanagement. She writes, for example, that Spain "ignored the road to modernization," that the Inquisition "called for penalties of death or torture" and that "the crown moved to enforce strict divisions between the races"—all long-exploded falsehoods. In reality, the vices of empire were tempered by enlightened principles and remarkable prosperity and stability.

The author's fidelity to the anti-Spanish narrative blinds her to, among other things, the real reasons for the Hispanic civil wars of the 19th century. She repeats the old myth of a revolution launched for liberty without grasping the roles of factionalism, particularism, Creole ambitions and the vast transformations that were taking place across the Atlantic world. She mentions Bolívar's famous threat to rebel against nature—uttered in exasperation at popular fears of divine punishment during the Caracas earthquake of 1812—but her account of his wars virtually omits environmental history and overlooks important recent research on the role of disease: Venezuela should dethrone Bolívar as the nation's hero and replace him with the yellow-fever-bearing mosquito, which did far more to defeat Spanish armies"


@FranciscoPlease. It was a really bloody conflict. Several of my greatgreatgratparents were there, fighting in opposite sides. One was a relative of the last General Captain of Venezuela. Other was shot on his bed by Spanish troops after surviving a firing squad. I have heard all kind of justifications for the Spanish defeat, but yours is the most insulting, really. The truth is that Spain has never been able never to look at its own history in the face -- a good example is what happens today with those who dare to investigate the murders during Franco's dictatorship.. This is why Spain has not been able to recognize that Latin Americans won their independence with great effort and courage and that they fought mainly by good reasons --even when in every war in History someone has profited from it. 

Enlightened principles? Look what happened with the slavery in Cuba until its independence almost a century later, just to give an example.  I believe Spain has always had a very big problem to recognize its historical errors,and  does not matter if the victims are Muslims or Jews or Latin Americans. I have many Spanish friends who treat Latin Americans as equals, but I believe Spain as a country has never been able to recognize their Latin American offsprings as equals. And you will have to invent a lot of explanations to explain a defeat if you do not believe that those who defeated you are your equals.


@Agar77 @Francisco 

 Sorry to say but I do not know from where you are insulted. I think you are simply using this conversation to convey your very personal opinions about how Spain deals with its history ( which is no more or less complicated or biased than in most other nations, particularly those with a colonial past) . The quote I mentioned from Fernandez Armesto simply says that the reality of the wars of emancipation was far more complex than the one-sighted account given by Ms Arana. Is there something wrong with that? Is that really insulting? 


The Liberator - what a life he lived and he lived to liberate others. Latin America is home to many revolutionaries including Simon Bolivar and Che Guevara.

Francisco 1 Like

Was the Spanish model of colonization a failure when compared with the Anglo/American model? Ms Arana thinks so and she blames of Spain the evils in the last 200 years of Latin American history ( so it does Niall Ferguson in his book on Civilisation, which responds to the same mindset: when in doubt blame it on Spain). 

Well think twice: 

In 2007, the British historian of the world economy Angus Maddison published his Contours of the World Economy, which included a list of countries and world regions ranked according to their per capita income from 1 to 2003 AD as measured in 1990 international dollars. In 1700 New Spain (a territory far bigger than today’s Mexico that included a large part of what is now the United States) had a per capita income of 568 while the Anglo-American colonies lagged behind with 527 (both in 1990 international dollars). See

Was Spanish America lagging already behind from Anglo-America at the beginning of the XIX century? It does not seem so, neither materially nor intellectually. Ah, those facts....

Francisco 1 Like

The Spanish model was always to drain everything out of Latin America — they invested very little in the people, in the land. Ms  Arana says in the interview. 

Well, what about the basic fact that from 1492 to 1579 more than 200 cities were created in the New World by Spain, including Santo Domingo (1494); La Habana (1514); Panamá (1519); San Juan de Puerto Rico (1521); México (1523); Guatemala (1524); San Salvador (1525); Quito (1534); Lima (1535); Buenos Aires (1536 and 1580); Asunción (1537); Bogota (1538); Santiago (1541); La Paz (1548); San Agustin (1565, which is by the way the oldest continuously inhabited city founded by Europeans in the territory of the US); Caracas (1567) and Tegucigalpa (1579). Across the Pacific Ocean, Manila was founded in 1571, also by Spain ( by the way, the oldest European style university in Asia is the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, also founded by Spain).

What about the basic fact that the first printing house in America was founded by Spain in Mexico City in 1538? 

What about the basic fact that the first Chair of the Quechua language was founded by Spain in 1551 at the Cathedral of Lima, or that in 1608 was published the Vocabulary of the Quechua Language by González Holguín, who recognized that the authorship of his imposing work was equally due to “the many Indians of Cuzco, to whom it must be attributed all the positive things that can be found in it”. In between 1550 and 1640 Spaniards and Amerindians together wrote hundreds of bilingual dictionaries and grammars in Spanish and the native languages, including Nahuatl and Quechua....but according to Ms Arana Spain invested very little in the people, in the land.

Quote from Alexander Humboldt ( 1803):  “no city of the new continent, without even excepting those of the United States, can display such great and solid scientific establishments as the capital of Mexico” And science was not the only field where Mexico excelled. Humboldt also extolled the virtues of the School of Fine Arts in Mexico City, where, in his own words, “instruction is communicated gratis”, and “rank, colour and race are confounded: we see the Indian and the Mestizo sitting beside the White, and the son of a poor artisan entering into competition with the children of the great lord of the country

Does Ms Arana really knows history? And what about the interviewer? And what about the editors at Simon and Schuster?

Francisco 1 Like

The level of ignorance and prejudice displayed by Ms Arana is amazing. She says that Spain kept the people of its colonies in ignorance and that it did not invest in them. In her book she also affirms that Spain maintained a racist policy in its colonies and that the Spanish monarchy was essentially anti-modern. Really? 

To start with, how does it come that the majority of the population in Mexico, or Peru or Ecuador or Paraguay are either Amerindian or mixed? Does she know how many Amerindians are there left in her admired Anglo-America, that model of integration and tolerance? Less than 3%. To her knowledge,  the first laws by any European colonial power designed to protect the indigenous peoples were passed by Spain, the Leyes de Indias, in the XVI century. Has she heard about the Debate of Valladolid or about Vitoria, the founder of modern international law before Grotius? From the very beginning, contrary to what happened in Anglo-America, the Spanish Monarchy actually encouraged the marriage of Spaniards and Amerindians and the Spanish laws did recognize the offspring of those marriages. 

About the accusation of ignorance. Well, it happens that Spain created more than a dozen universities in Hispanic America even before Harvard was founded. In most of them the Amerindians were allowed to study, and so the did. Already in 1534 Spain founded the Imperial College of Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, in Mexico. In 1550, one of its Aztec students, baptized as Antonio Badiano, wrote in Latin the first modern botanical treatise in the history of the Americas, North and South( the Codex Badiano, now in the Vatican Library). In 1576 Francisco Hernandez, the physician of King Philip II, was sent to Mexico to conduct the first modern scientific expedition in the history of America. He was helped by a team of Aztec naturalists and the book he wrote,which can still be consulted, was written in Spanish, Latin and Nahuatl. The same goes as to the first anthropological studies conducted by Bernardino de Sahagun, also in the XVI century, with the help of Aztec savants ( the resulting book was the Codex Florentinus). 

As to the stifling of creativity in Spanish America, well It also happens that In Peru, the native country of Ms Arana, was born in the XVI century Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, the son of a Spanish conquistador and an Inca princess. He was taught in Cuzco Spanish, Latin and Quechua. He wrote a History of the Inca Empire, a narrative of the conquest of La Florida and a translation of the Dialogues of Love by Leon Hebreo, a sephardic Jew. 

Can Ms Arana mention any Algonquinian Indian who in colonial North America could have done the same? 

Could she mention someone in colonial Anglo-America like Chimalpahin or Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, or the painters of the School of Cuzco ( most of them Quechua or mestizos). Can she identify in colonial Anglo/America any buildings equal to the National Palace in Mexico or the colonial quarters in Cuzco or Lima or Cartagena de Indias? 

Has she read the memoirs of Humboldt, the German naturalists who at the beginning of the XIX century demonstrated that at that time Mexico was far more advanced materially and intellectually than any of the North American former colonies of England? 

Does she know that in the XVIII century Spain conducted more than 60 scientific expeditions to America and the Pacific?. Does she know the name of Celestino Mutis, who in the late XVIII century led the most extensive botanical expedition of the times in Colombia and Venezuela ( she can consult the results of this expedition by accessing the webpage of the Royal Spanish Botanical Garden in Madrid). By the way, Mutis founded the first modern astronomical observatory in Bogota in 1803. 

Does Ms Arana know that the first world wide vaccination expedition was financed by the Spanish Monarchy also at the end of the XVIII century ( the name is the Balmis expedition). 

I could go on and on and on, but what I find really incredible is that both Times magazine and Simon and Schuster, the publishing house of Ms Arana book, left unchecked the most basic factual mistakes that she keeps on repeating

Finally, for those who really want to know the reality of Spanish America during the Vice-regal times I recommend the following books:

    Arciniegas, Germán, Latin America: A Cultural History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966.

Bernier, Oliver, The World in 1800. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000.

Burkholder, Mark A. and Johnson, Lyman L. Colonial Latin America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Chang-Rodríguez, Raquel (edited by), Beyond Books and Borders, Garcilaso de la Vega and La Florida del Inca. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2006.

Elliot, J.H. Empires of the Atlantic World. Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

EFernández-Armesto, Felipe, The Americas. A Hemispheric History. New York: Modern Library Edition, 2003.

Gruzinski, Serge, Las cuatro partes del mundo. Historia de una mundialización. México D.F: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2010.

Humboldt, Alexander von, Selections from the Works of the Baron de Humboldt Relating to Mexico, with notes by J. Taylor. La Vergne: General Books, 2010.

Ishikawa, Chiyo (edited by), Spain in the Age of Exploration, 1492-1819. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2004.

Kagan, Richard L. Urban Images of the Hispanic World. 1493-1793. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000

Katzew, Ilona (edited by), Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Kelemen, Pál, Vanishing Art of the Americas, New York: Walker and Company, 1977.

Leonard, Irving A., Books of the Brave: Being an Account of Books and Men in the Spanish Conquest and Settlement of the Sixteenth Century New World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1949.

MacLanlan, Colin M. and Rodriguez O., Jaime E., The Forging of a Cosmic Race.  A Reinterpretation of Colonial Mexico. Berkley: University of California Press, 19080.

Reyes, Alfonso, Letras de la Nueva España. México D.F: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2000.

Sanz Camañes, Porfirio, Las ciudades en la América Hispana. Siglos XV al XVIII. Madrid: Silex, 2004.

Stein, Stanley J. And Stein, Barbara H., Apogee of Empire. Spain and New Spain in the Age of Charles III, 1759-1789. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2003.

VVAA, Pintura de los Reinos. Identidades compartidas en el mundo hispánico. Mexico D.F: Fomento de Cultura Banamex, 2010.


@Francisco This is such a perfect reply to this article. I don't know if Mrs. Arana's book lacks of historical data as much as her answers do in this interview, but I can't even imagine how this has been published without checking. To me, it seems to be another proper example of how Anglo-American (and most of Southamerican) history distort or twist the Spanish role in the continent, and how they disregard their own colonial past (I mean... democracy and literacy for cherookee, creek, chotaw, chikaasaw?... Trail of Tears, acculturation...). Spaniards were, in fact, brutal conquerors at first, but their rule over the Americas was not. Anyone who say that Spain just sucked up the natural wealth of Southamerica without any kind of contribution is falling in a cliché misconception and prejudice. Just as Francisco said: the number of universities founded (which accepted local natives and dismiss Mrs. Arana's quotation on Spanish intentions to keep population ignorant), civil laws (which actually protected the natives from exploitation), cultural mixing, technology, etc. show up that Spain model was not to drain everything out of America, as the author suggest. The investments in infrastructure, politics, trade and education were not, in fact, little.

I mean... this is simply wrong. It heavily lacks of historical accuracy and just reproduce the same misconceptions on Spanish/Southamerican history that always have been  going round and round in Anglo/American/Protestant historiography over the last 400 years.
The instance I submitted earlier about the mistaken conception of the "Queen of Spain" in Bolivar's time, is just the examples of what Francisco and I have been saying all along.

Anfidamante 1 Like

I can appreciate the irony when a Peruvian writer who talks about their liberator, doesn't know the ruler he was fighting against. I think most of the answers are biased, and lack of historical accuracy. 

Anfidamante 1 Like

It was not the Queen of Spain at Bolivar's time (if you're refering to Isabella II, who reigned between 1833-1868). It was Ferdinand VII when the Latinamerican revolutions took place. Also, Spain hadn't have a ruler Queen since Isabella I of Castile, who reigned between 1474-1504, at a time when, if it's true Columbus had already discovered the Americas, the spaniards still hadn't reach the continent. So "you could not do anything without the express sanction of the Queen of Spain" is pretty wrong. It would have been accurate to say "King", instead. Just for the record.