I became interested in South American historical figures while I traveled Colombia earlier this year, and after I read about Hugo Chavez's regime in Rory Carroll's book: Comandante, I became curious about the great liberator, Simon Bolívar, who Venezuela named its socialist Bolívarian Revolution after. I vaguely remember being taught about him in elementary school in Venezuela, but I was 8 or 9 years old, so I can't remember any details.
In my last 15 years in Canada, I can't recall hearing anyone mention Bolívar, neither in high-school classes nor in university—maybe I took the wrong classes—nor on TV nor in movies. But to understand Bolívar's legacy you need to look at contemporary South America.
Bolívar is revered in Venezuela—his place of birth—where the socialist revolution, currency, schools, streets, hospitals, and plazas bear his name. Bolivia is named after the liberator, and Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru also named provinces and universities after him.
Whenever I'm interested in a historical figure, I search Google and Amazon for the definitive biographical book on the subject.
I picked Marie Arana's biography Bolívar: American Liberator because Walter Issacson—author of Steve Jobs—said of the book: "reads like a wonderful novel but is researched like a masterwork of history." I was immediately hooked and downloaded the Kindle version.
What impressed me most about Bolívar was his determination and endurance—the liberator endured multiple trips across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, the United States and throughout the Caribbean, and rode back and forth on horseback across the South American continent as he liberated Venezuelans, Colombians, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, and Bolivians from Spanish colonial rule. Venezuelans from the plains known for riding long distances called him "Iron Ass." Bolívar often persisted through war and governed while sick from diseases he was exposed to during his travels. He continued to ride to states who begged for his presence during power vacuums caused by his departure—even when tuberculosis that eventually killed him percolated in his veins. *
Bolívar would be known as the George Washington of South America, as Arana writes that both were ardent defenders of freedom and heroes of war. Nonetheless, Arana writes that Bolívar's military action doubled Washington's in time, and covered territory seven times as large. Most importantly, Arana writes that Bolívar's won with the help of black and Indian troops, as he rallied all races to the patriot cause. I admire that Bolívar included the abolition of slavery as part of his liberation process—decades before the United States began its own Civil War for the abolishment of slavery. After Bolívar lost to the Spanish at Cartagena, he refuged in Haiti, where Alexander Petion—the first president of Haiti—asked Bolívar to free the slaves of the countries he liberated in exchange for supplies and personnel for his subsequent expeditions against the Spanish.
Despite Bolívar's legacy of liberation and a vision of a republic amongst the countries he liberated—Bolívar was the president of Colombia, Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia at different points in time—Arana writes that Bolívar died young, poor and in exile, as he contracted tuberculous, gave away his fortune during the revolution, and was banished from all the countries he liberated. Only decades later would Venezuela and Colombia begin the process of honoring the liberator—Venezuela buried his body in a pantheon in Caracas and Colombia kept his heart.
Bolívar failed to realize his vision for a united continent, though not entirely his own fault. His peers in government were jealous of him and he was back-stabbed by his former allies, while Arana writes that societies living under Spanish rule didn't have the systems in place to govern the newly created states effectively. Nonetheless, I think Bolívar made a crucial mistake in assuming democracy couldn't work in the Americas—he installed a dictatorship in Venezuela and appointed a president for life in Bolivia, while simultaneously holding the presidency on and off in Peru and Colombia. Without planting the seeds of intention for a democratic system with protections against tyranny, Bolívar may have set the stage for military despots to emulate him, as the hemisphere was dominated by them for the next two hundred years.
He was probably right though; the enlightenment hadn't reached the uneducated South American population accustomed to a patriarchal society dominated by the Catholic church and colonial overlords. Who knows if democracy would have been immediately accepted in a land of feudal lords and anarchy created from the departure of the Spanish. Even if he was right, a messy democracy is a better start than the rule of military despots. We're still haunted by despots today—Chavez, coño tu madre!!!
Despite the freed slaves during the Independence War and the abolishment of slavery through constitutions fathered by Bolívar, remnants of Spanish colonial racism are still evident throughout my travels in South America. I've noticed that people of clear aboriginal descent tend to be workers in the informal economy—street workers who sell produce, candy, cigarettes, souvenirs etc.—while white European looking South Americans tend to be politicians, business owners, celebrities, media personalities, and rich snobs who inherit wealth and seem averse to interracial dating. In the middle are Mestizos, mixed race, who make up most of populations and generally are the working class. Throughout my travels, the only European looking people I noticed to struggle were Venezuelan emigrants.
I would rate Marie Arana's book an 8/10. Walter Isaacson was right, the book does read like a novel, but at points, it felt too long and detailed—a plus for history nerds—which may turn off casual readers, although you're probably somewhat a history nerd to make it through this book.
*After writing this article I found one study that claims Bolívar did not die from tuberculosis but perhaps Arsenic intoxication. https://doi.org/10.1093/cid/ciq071