Bolivar: The revolutionary who liberated Latin America
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 G894@aol.com.