Our South American Cousin
A stylish introduction to the extraordinary life of Simón Bolívar
The City Journal, 4 October 2013
Simón Bolívar’s life, a story unfamiliar to many Americans, is the subject of Marie Arana’s hefty new biography, Bolívar: American Liberator. The book’s two-word subtitle only hints as its subject’s accomplishments: Bolívar was a revolutionary jack-of-all-trades, equal parts Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, with dashes of Hannibal and Napoleon as well. He laid the groundwork for revolt with his eloquent rhetoric, led ragtag armies across thousands of miles, freed six nations, wrote their founding documents, and attempted, with mixed success, to lift their fledgling governments off the ground.
Deeply researched, and a clear labor of love, Bolívar offers a stylish introduction to this great historical figure. Arana’s biography reads like a novel. It seems ready-made to be turned into a movie. Bolívar was undoubtedly a swashbuckling warrior and visionary intellectual, but Arana’s romantic portrait of El Libertador, while thrilling, is at times overly florid. Bolívar strides across the pages, galloping shirtless through triumphant arches into liberated towns where virginal girls await to place crowns of laurels on his head.
Bolívar has been compared in many quarters with George Washington. Both were figureheads and heroes to their respective revolutions, both rid the Americas of empire, and both took on the task of founding new republics. But, as the author explains, the men, the wars they fought, and the Americas they fought for, were by no means identical. Great Britain’s colonies, largely white and Protestant, were attached to an industrializing and benevolent empire. Spain’s, in contrast, were an ungainly meld of races, ethnicities, and classes, purposely cut off from each other and the outside world, and kept uneducated and impoverished by the cruel design of the economically primeval mother country. Bolívar sought to, and for a time did, unite disparate pieces of the continent into a centralized state. To get there he led one of the longest, most expansive, and arguably most difficult wars in history.
The scion of an aristocratic Venezuelan family, Bolívar was orphaned at an early age and raised by his nurse. He inherited his forefathers’ hostility toward the Spanish, wandered Europe as a young man, reading Rousseau, Locke, and Voltaire, making love to noblewomen, contemplating ancient Rome and Greece, and, ultimately, vowing to liberate his homeland. His voyage home in 1807, which detoured in the United States, firmed his resolve. There, as Bolívar recalled, he “saw rational liberty at first hand” and found inspiration for the struggle ahead.
The revolution that followed came in fit and starts. Venezuela declared its independence in 1811; Spain snatched it away two years later. In 1813, leading what was known as the “Admirable Campaign,” Bolívar reestablished the country’s sovereignty, only to see it collapse the following year. After exile in Jamaica and Haiti, Bolívar regrouped, lit through and liberated New Grenada (Colombia) before moving on to free Venezuela once again. The territory encompassing much of modern day Ecuador, Panama, Peru, and Bolivia followed.
Arana persuasively makes the case for Bolívar’s greatness as a military leader. He was flexible and savvy, equally adept at managing squabbling warlords and inspiring his men, who affectionately referred to him as “Iron Ass” due to his stamina in the saddle. He led astonishing marches through dangerous swamps, across flooded plains, and over ice-capped mountains. Rounding out the romantic picture was Bolívar’s way with the fairer sex. After the death of his young bride Maria Teresa Rodríguez del Toro y Alayza in 1803, he developed an alternating aloofness toward and need for female companionship. As Arana explains, “he was irresistibly attracted to them, but would find them surprisingly easy to win and discard.” Of the lovers who came and went, none meant more to Bolívar or is more central to this biography than Manuela Saenz. Vividly brought to life here, the colorful Saenz, often called “the Liberatrix,” shared her paramour’s passion for freedom, and thwarted an attempt on his life in 1828.
Unlike Washington, Bolívar’s battlefield successes were not matched by his political accomplishments. His fondest hope—putting the newly freed nations united under the flag of one republic—was realized in 1821 when the Congress of Cucuta created the Republic of Gran Colombia, and elected Bolívar, their liberator, president. But the union was torn apart by provincial resentments, which Bolívar sought to manage through increased power, culminating in a decree of dictatorship in 1828, which led to his resignation from the presidency two years later. Racked by infirmities, Bolívar, 47, died before he could even begin his exile.
Bolívar’s political legacy may not sit well with American readers, but as Arana stresses, his ideology was calibrated to the political sensibilities of the Spanish colonies. In his “Letter from Jamaica,” a note to a sympathetic Englishman, written during his exile in the Caribbean, Bolívar articulated with great clarity the reality facing a freed South America. Latin Americans were neither “Indian, nor pardos [people of mixed descent] nor Europeans, but an entirely new race,” writes Arana. Bolívar saw that neither monarchies nor “Philadelphia style” democracies could govern “a population cowed and infantilized by three hundred years of slavery.”
Bolívar is a fascinating figure of vast importance; Arana’s work is worthy of her subject. But Bolívar, like so many historical biographies, is overly embroidered. While her descriptions of the South American landscape are elegant and lyrical, passages such as “suffering the pain of inflamed hemorrhoids, he couldn’t help but burn, too, with a consuming fury” stretch the graceful limits of metaphor. And the occasionally drifting and repetitive narrative gives the biography, at times, a soft focus. Bolívar is a fine book, but it could stand some pruning.
Regardless, there are some powerful passages here, in particular Arana’s thoughtful coda, which explains the evolution of Bolívar’s reputation. Disgraced at the time of his death, history has been kind to El Libertador, and cunning politicians (most notably the late Hugo Chavez, who exhumed Bolívar’s corpse in a bizarre political stunt) have rushed to embrace the man and shamelessly suggest themselves as his reincarnation.
The admiration, though self-serving, is well-founded. Despite the ultimate failure of Gran Colombia, and the political and social turmoil of the continent since his time, Bolívar freed not one but six nations and guaranteed that, as Arana reminds us, “the Spaniards never returned.” No wonder the people of South America revere him and the citizens of Mudfort chose him as their namesake.