“My doctor often has told me that for my flesh to be strong my spirit needs to feed on danger,” the Venezuelan Simón Bolívar once wrote a friend. “This is so true that when God brought me into this world, he brought a storm of revolutions for me to feed on…. I am a genius of the storm.”
The greatest of these geniuses in the Western Hemisphere, known as The Liberator, certainly had the advantage of living in interesting times. Bolívar first saw the light of day on July 24, 1783, weeks before the terms ending the American War of Independence were agreed upon in Paris. And when that city itself witnessed the onset of the most iconic of history’s revolutions, he was a 6-year-old running wild with slaves’ children in the streets of Caracas. By the time his extraordinary life was drawing to a close at age 47, he had freed from bondage his old wet nurse, Hipólita, the “only father I have ever known.” Death came on Dec. 17, 1830—just a few months after Paris experienced an upheaval almost as strong as that of 1789.
Bolívar was the youngest surviving child of María de la Concepción Palacios y Blanco, 23 at the time of his birth, and Don Juan Vicente Bolívar y Ponte, a 55-year-old former military officer. They were not just Creoles, the local white caste atop the colonial social structure; both of their families were from the privileged class of Mantuanos that formed the empire’s backbone in Venezuela. When María died in 1792 of tuberculosis, which had killed her husband six years earlier, she left behind four very wealthy orphans.
The patria madre was not yet the “wicked stepmother” of the Liberator’s epithet, but Spanish America’s frustration had been building during Don Juan Vincente’s last years with the tightening of Madrid’s control. Crucially, a new policy would permit only peninsulares—those born in Spain or the Canary Islands—to hold key colonial positions.
When Simón Bolívar was 14, his tutor and mentor, Simón Rodríguez, was forced abroad following a failed conspiracy against the crown, and the future Liberator went to study in a military academy.
We learn, though, from Marie Arana’s stirring biography Bolívar: American Liberator that the young Simón had no particular interest in public affairs until the death from yellow fever of his young Spanish-born bride (he never remarried). As a grieving 21-year-old he made his second trip to Europe and was in Paris with Rodríguez on Dec. 2, 1804, for what Wordsworth called a “sad reverse for all mankind.” Napoleon placed on his head, the Venezuelan later recalled, a “miserable, outdated relic.”
The Emperor Napoleon’s subsequent adventure in Spain in 1807 would, nonetheless, open the door for Venezuela and Latin America’s republicans. In 1810, a junta deposed the colonial administration in Venezuela, and a formal declaration of independence followed the next year. Anti-crown forces would then fight Spain over the northern half of South America through the mid-1820s.
In 1819, Bolívar became the president of the Republic of Colombia (aka Gran Colombia), encompassing the territories of today’s Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama as well as parts of Peru, Guyana and Brazil. The Liberator was also for a time president of both Peru and Bolivia, which was named for him (the first and last thing many Europeans and North Americans know about the Venezuelan).
The young Mantuanos who started Venezuela’s revolution had much to lose; Bolívar’s early pre-eminence among them was helped by his declared willingness to die rather than live under the yoke of Spain.
A British traveler who attended a meeting of the Patriotic Society in Caracas in 1811 called him a “commanding presence.” That writer went on to describe him as “small of stature, thin, lightly tanned, with angular brow and sunken temples, small hands and feet, and the dress of a European gentleman.”
The Patriotic Society was the creature of Francisco de Miranda, a long-time exile who had been brought back to Venezuela by Bolívar in 1810. The young revolutionaries had hoped that the 60-year-old Miranda would bring the sort of military experience they lacked. He proved, however, to be much too hesitant a general. His failure on one occasion to press his advantage in battle, even though his 6,000 troops greatly outnumbered Spain’s, was the last straw for Bolívar, who then, in the first great controversial act of his career, delivered the old commander to the enemy.
Arana understands Miranda’s caution. “For all the pugnacity and determination of his officers,” she writes, “the republican soldiers were unproven, skittish. Many were farm boys, recruited with swords to their hearts, brought to the barracks in manacles.”
For its part, Madrid unleashed the likes of the terrifying José Tomás Boves, an independent-minded general who recruited a multiracial army of soldiers fearful of Creole-led independence.
Among Boves’s 80,000 republican victims was the Liberator’s uncle-in-law, José Félix Ribas. “They dragged Ribas into town,” Arana writes, “killed him, dismembered him, fried his head in a vat of bubbling oil and transported it in an iron cage to Caracas, where it was displayed—with his customary red cap perched jauntily on top….”
Bolívar had already countered the Royalist extermination policy with his “war to the death.” Arana writes, “brutality was met with brutality. The countryside was strewn with dead, towns razed or abandoned. Lakes delivered up carcasses. Skeletons dangled from trees. Fugitives huddled in hill and forest, fearing the rumble of hooves, the cloud of dust on the horizon.”
Ultimately, the revolution that began in polite society, Arana writes, would halve populations.
If the novelist turned historian’s thrilling, sympathetic account has a flaw, it is that she plays it safe with perfunctory critiques of such violence. The real question is: Would someone else have acted much differently when facing the same set of circumstances?
But her magnificent portrait is of such detail and depth that her readers can decide for themselves whether, for instance, the father, of sorts, to six modern republics, including Arana’s native Peru, was a Napoleon or a de Gaulle or the prototypical Latin American dictator.
It is true that the Liberator struggled mightily to find a form of rule that might work in the medium term, and relinquished the presidency of Gran Colombia the year of his term. He believed that backward, ignorant, divided, heterogeneous and long-subjugated Spanish America was not ready for the U.S. model, which he greatly admired. He thought that Britain’s system, on the other hand, with its inbuilt checks, had something to offer. Rejecting the Monroe Doctrine, he proposed that country as a protector.
As it happened, help from that quarter would tilt the balance in favor of independence. After Napoleon’s defeat, Spain’s troops balked at endless war, but soldiers who had fought alongside them opted for more adventure abroad rather than the poverty and famine that faced them in both England and Ireland.
Bolívar said his recruiting agent in London was the real Liberator of Spanish America. One problem was that these mercenaries drank prodigiously; another that they could not march in their bare feet. But after the crucial Battle of Carabobo in 1821, he hailed his Irish, English and Scottish soldiers as the “saviors of my country.”
Bolívar could inspire armies and also forge enduring alliances with people like Gen. José Antonio Páez, for decades afterwards the dominant political figure in Venezuela. But others he charmed in person would plot against him as soon he was out of their sight. Arana calls this the “deep, fratricidal impulse” of Spanish America.
The Liberator’s last long-term mistress, the colorful and eccentric Manuela Sáenz, famously saved him from an assassination attempt. His favorite general, the brilliant young Antonio José de Sucre, had no such protector when they came for him.
When the Liberator relinquished the presidency of Gran Colombia not long before his death, it was already cracking apart.
Penniless, exiled and dying almost certainly of the tuberculosis that killed his parents, Bolívar advised the doctor treating him: “Go back to your beautiful France...eventually you’ll find that life is impossible here, with so many sons of bitches.”
Latin America would produce many more in that category. Arana’s fine work was published this past spring, just a few weeks before the death of Argentine junta leader Lt. Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, who conducted the notorious “dirty war” of kidnappings and torture.
Yet now, 200 years after its struggle for liberty began, the continent seems finally to have made its peace with those other Enlightenment ideals of justice and democracy.