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

  • Share
  • Read Later
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.