Bo­li­var: The revo­lu­tion­ary who lib­er­ated Latin Amer­ica

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

Sev­eral Sun­days ago, the New York Times pub­lished a pho­to­graph that was at once hu­mor­ous (un­wit­tingly, to be sure) and pa­thetic. It showed a col­umn of a “cit­i­zens’ mili­tia” or­ga­nized by Pres­i­dent Hugo Chavez to fend off what he claims is an im­mi­nent in­va­sion of Venezuela by the United States. Lead­ing the march of th­ese “vol­un­teer sol­diers” was a with­ered 74-year-old wo­man. As I glanced at this photo, I thought, “And Chavez as­serts that he is the suc­ces­sor to Si­mon Bo­li­var?”

Mr. Chavez’s ab­surd at­tempt to don the man­tle of Bo­li­var, along with a sim­i­lar self-ap­point­ment by his pal and men­tor, Fidel Cas­tro of Cuba, dis­gusts the Bri­tish aca­demi­cian John Lynch. In a stir­ring new bi­og­ra­phy, “Si­mon Bo­li­var: A Life,” Mr. Lynch writes, “By ex­ploit­ing the au­thor­i­tar­ian ten­dency, which cer­tainly ex­isted in the thought and ac­tion of Bo­li­var, regimes in Cuba and Venezuela claim the Lib­er­a­tor as a pa­tron for their poli­cies . . .

“Thus the Bo­li­var of lib­erty and equal­ity is ap­pro­pri­ated by a Marx­ist regime, which does not hold lib­erty and equal­ity in high es­teem but needs a sub­sti­tute for the failed Soviet model. And in Venezuela a pop­ulist regime of the twenty-first cen­tury, look­ing for po­lit­i­cal le­git­i­macy, is drawn to Bo­li­var as to a mag­net, an­other vic­tim of the spell.”

Make no mis­take about it: Bo­li­var could be cruel, and his fol­low­ers com­mit­ted atroc­i­ties, against civil­ians and pris­on­ers alike, that are sick­en­ing, even on the printed page. He felt that the Latin char­ac­ter needed strong-man lead­er­ship — Par­lia­ments? What a nui­sance! — which he was cheer­fully will­ing to pro­vide.

Yet Bo­li­var was also the leader who rid the north­ern tier of Latin Amer­ica of the last rem­nants of Span­ish colo­nial­ism, and­who freed what would ul­ti­mately be­come five coun­tries.

His vic­to­ries did not come easy. When he launched his cru­sade for in­de­pen­dence, the Span­ish “em­pire” was a hol­lowed husk whose de­cline as a world power was largely due to a cou­ple of Brits named Nelson and Welling­ton. Po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic power in the colonies segued to a cre­ole class that was quite happy to keep the bulk of the pop­u­la­tion in ab­ject poverty, even slav­ery. His strug­gle was against fel­low Latin Amer­i­cans as much as the rem­nants of Span­ish power.

Bo­li­var­was bornin 1783 into the rul­ing class, the sev­enth-gen­er­a­tion scion of a line that orig­i­nated in Spain. Or­phaned as a pre-teen, he was reared by un­cles more in­ter­ested in his in­her­i­tance than his well-be­ing. Bo­li­var showed re­bel­lion early, declar­ing that his guardians “could do what they liked with his prop­erty, but not with his per­son.” He left Spain at age 15 for more for­mal stud­ies than avail­able in his na­tive land.

His po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ment was heav­ily in­flu­enced by the writ­ings of Mon­tesquieu and Rousseau. The for­mer main­tained that laws should be suited for the peo­ple for whom they were made. Rousseau main­tained that con­sti­tu­tions “must take ac­count of na­tional char­ac­ter.” This prag­ma­tism ap­pealed to Bo­li­var, whose strat­egy is best sum­ma­rized by what he wrote in one of his first revo­lu­tion­ary man­i­festos: “Do not adopt the best sys­tem of gov­ern­ment, but the one that is most likely to work.”

Mr. Lynch’s ac­count is, on ne­ces­sity, a com­pli­cated one, re­plete with com­pet­ing in­trigues — brief at­tempts by the Bri­tish and the French to feast on the re­mains of Spain’s for­mer em­pire; an eco­nomic elite who wished to con­tinue their con­trol; rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who con­tested Bo­li­var for con­trol of the move to­wards in­de­pen­dence. The ter­ri­to­ries in ques­tion were the present Venezuela, Guayana, Ecuador and Colom­bia (then known as New Gre­nada), Peru and Bo­livia.

As Mr. Lynch ac­knowl­edges, “Lib­er­a­tion was a rolling en­ter­prise. One con­quest suc­ceeded an­other from Venezuela on­wards, and a fur­ther tar­get was al­ways in sight . . . fif­teen years of slow but sure ad­vance against the Span­ish em­pire.” Bo­li­var’s spe­cial tal­ent was for “big think­ing and de­tailed im­pro­vi­sa­tion.”

And he cer­tainly needed the lat­ter. The “army” mus­tered by Bo­li­var was not de­serv­ing of the name. It con­sisted of na­tive brig­ands and thugs, cast-offs from Euro­pean armies left un­em­ployed af­ter the end of the Napoleonic wars, and fel­low zealots for in­de­pen­dence.

Yet Bo­li­var suc­ceeded in a mul­ti­fronted cam­paign, de­feat­ing not only the rem­nants of the Span­ish forces, but also do­mes­tic ri­vals for dom­i­nance. Mr. Lynch gives vivid de­scrip­tions of cam­paigns waged in jun­gles and moun­tains, surely the most de­mand­ing ter­rain on earth. The slim Bo­li­var of­ten fell ill, but he staunchly marched with his fol­low­ers.

Un­for­tu­nately for Bo­li­var, forg­ing po­lit­i­cal co­he­sion was more frus­trat­ing than the bat­tles. His orig­i­nal scheme was for a grand fed­er­a­tion of the An­des states — and with him firmly in charge, as pres­i­dent-for-life. He scorned pop­u­lar elec­tions, call­ing them the “the great­est scourge of re­publics.” He claimed that they “pro­duce only an­ar­chy.” The pres­i­dent-for­life would ap­point the vice-pres­i­dent, who would be his suc­ces­sor.

Such was the key fea­ture of the con­sti­tu­tion he crafted, first for Bo­livia, then for other coun­tries. But as Mr. Lynch notes, un­der such an ar­range­ment, other politi­cians would see “their prime am­bi­tion snatched from them.” Dur­ing one de­bate over the con­sti­tu­tion, he stormed, “Throw it in the fire if you don’t want it. I don’t have an au­thor’s van­ity in mat­ters of hu­man con­cern.”

In the end, Bo­li­var’s quest for a uni­fied Latin Amer­i­can state failed, the na­tions opt­ing for in­de­pen­dence. And when he fi­nally ad­mit­ted fail­ure, Bo­li­var left pub­lic life a sad man, say­ing, “I am ashamed to ad­mit it, but in­de­pen­dence is the only ben­e­fitwe have gained, at the cost of ev­ery­thing else.”

In­de­pen­dence so con­sumed Bo­li­var’s life that he had lit­tle time for per­sonal mat­ters. Dur­ing his first trip abroad, he met and mar­ried a Span­ish wo­man from a fam­ily of con­sid­er­able means. She died af­ter only eight months.

Bo­li­var there­after had a suc­ces­sion of paramours du jour. The most se­ri­ous was a dash­ing wo­man named Manuela Saenz. And, at the risk of gross po­lit­i­cal in­cor­rect­ness, I state that her photo shows her to be . . . well, quite a dish! But she was also mar­ried, to a wealthy but dull Bri­tish mer­chant two decades her se­nior, and she re­fused his en­treaties to leave Bo­li­var and go to Eng­land with him.

Her brush-off let­ter says much about her tem­per­a­ment: “You are bor­ing, like your na­tion, which makes love with­out plea­sure, con­ver­sa­tion with­out grace, walks slowly greets solemnly, stands up and sits down care­fully, jokes with­out laugh­ing.” Ouch! Al­though many other women flit­ted in and out of Bo­li­var’s bed over the years, she was fore­most be­cause of the in­tense eroti­cism of their re­la­tion­ship.

In a later tes­ta­ment, Bo­li­var was eerily prophetic. “Those who serve a revo­lu­tion plough the seas . . . The only thing one can do in Amer­ica is to em­i­grate . . . This coun­try [Latin Amer­ica] will fall in­evitably into the hands of the un­bri­dled masses and then pass al­most im­per­cep­ti­bly into the hands of petty tyrants.” He died in im­pov­er­ished ex­ile is an iso­lated cor­ner of Colom­bia at age 47.

Con­tem­po­rary Latin Amer­i­cans are tu­tor­ing Venezuela’s Mr. Chavez in a ba­sic les­son of hemi­spheric pol­i­tics: Don’t med­dle in the af­fairs of other coun­tries. Mr. Chavez was slapped down­when he backed fel­low far-left­ist Ol­la­nia Hu­mala in the Peru­vian pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, threat­en­ing to break diplo­matic re­la­tions if Alan Gar­cia won. (He has yet to carry out the threat af­ter Gar­cia’s vic­tory.)

In Mex­ico, left­ist can­di­date An­dres Manuel Lopez Obrando led con­ser­va­tive chal­lenger Felipe Calderon by 10 per­cent un­til Mr. Chavez be­gan med­dling, both with hard cash and pub­lic state­ments. En­raged Mex­i­can pub­lic opin­ion forced Lopez Obrando to dis­avow Mr. Chavez; none­the­less, his lead evap­o­rated and dis­puted re­sults show him los­ing by a ra­zor’s edge mar­gin.

And as of this writ­ing, in Nicaragua, Mr. Chavez’s back­ing of San­din­ista Daniel Ortega “may be start­ing to back­fire,” ac­cord­ing to the Econ­o­mist.

In sum: Bo­li­var’s legacy was purg­ing Latin Amer­ica of out­side con­trol. In the end, Latin Amer­i­cans were left to their own des­tiny. The ver­dict re­mains open as to the va­lid­ity of a state­ment he made shortly be­fore dy­ing: “Once we have been de­voured by ev­ery crime and ex­tin­guished by ut­ter fe­roc­ity, the Euro­peans will not even re­gard us as worth con­quer­ing. If it were pos­si­ble for any part of the world to re­vert to prim­i­tive chaos, it would be [Latin] Amer­ica in her fi­nal hour.”

Joseph C. Goulden re­ported from Latin Amer­ica in the 1960s as an Ali­cia Pat­ter­son Fund fel­low. His e-mail is Joseph

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