During his glorious military career he logged 75,000 miles on horseback. Some might slyly suggest he also logged 75,000 lovers.
But as "The Liberator" that his admirers call him, or as the libertine that his detractors call him, Simón Bolívar’s life was epic – and so were the paradoxes that marked that life. Was South America’s 19th-century independence hero, best known to Americans as the George Washington of Latin America, the founder of his continent’s democracy? Or was he the archetype of its long line of dictatorial caudillos?
Bolívar was both – a reality that Marie Arana has powerfully captured in her new biography, Bolívar: American Liberator. As a South American native, the Peruvian-born Arana knows all too well how both deified and demonized Bolívar was during his lifetime and is even today.
Latin American leaders like Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chávez still evoke the Venezuelan-born Bolívar as a demigod. And that makes an analytical but vibrant biography like Arana’s all the more welcome and important to our understanding of a neighboring region that the U.S. chronically and foolishly ignores.
“What fascinates me,” Arana tells me in a WLRN interview, “is that people don’t rally shouting George Washington’s name today, but they rally in Venezuela and other [South American] countries shouting Simón Bolívar’s name. It’s really quite astounding.”
And so in many ways is Bolívar’s story. Born in Caracas in 1783 as a scion of Spanish-American (or Creole) aristocracy, he died in Colombia in 1830 at age 47 “a poor and ravaged man,” Arana writes. “Few heroes in history have been dealt so much honor, so much power – and so much ingratitude.”
Bolívar was at heart “a man of the Enlightenment,” Arana says. Especially after his student days in Paris, he became a devotee of the liberal ideals he would later summon not only to drive the Spanish Empire out of its South American colonies, but to free its black slaves as well.
But his idealism, which galvanized heroic campaigns over the freezing Andes and torrid llanos, or plains, could turn dark: Arana makes it clear that Bolívar shared responsibility for the horrific brutality that all sides committed during the wars of independence.
Arana, a writer for the Washington Post, says such compelling contradictions are a large part of why she tackled Bolívar’s biography. “I wanted to bring his story alive in a more dramatic way,” she says, noting that many Bolívar treatments tend to be academic. “And so much of that story is in his own words, because he was a marvelous writer.”
In fact, Bolívar’s prolific letters and democratic manifestos – in particular his 1815 Letter From Jamaica, in which he called the hope of independence “a prediction, if justice decides men’s conflicts” – changed the Spanish language itself.
They also reflect the fact that Bolívar, like most of history’s outsize characters, had outsize talents and appetites. He was a gifted dancer as well as a brilliant and inspirational field general. And he had a libido as enormous as the continent he liberated.
A widower at age 19, Bolívar swore to never marry again – and then proceeded to conquer women as ardently as he conquered territory. (Gabriel García Márquez made memorable use of that lust in his 1989 historical novel about Bolívar, The General In His Labyrinth.) The payoff, as Arana writes, is Bolívar’s last paramour, “the beautiful, irreverent and irresistibly magnetic” Manuela Sáenz, who fought more ably than many of El Libertador’s own officers and once rescued him from assassination.
But if Arana shows us what a richly complicated man Bolívar was, she also confronts us with the chaos of early 19th-century South America. This was a far messier and bloodier revolution than the one Washington had led in North America.
Bolívar wasn’t just prosecuting wars of independence, says Arana: “To win that independence, he also had to fight civil wars” resulting from the baroque racial and class system Spain had set up in the Americas as well as the plague of warlords it spawned.
It was much harder, as a result, to unite South America and plant democracy’s flag in its soil – and that brought out the worse angels of Bolívar’s nature. “He began to feel that Spain had so infantilized its colonies that they really had no concept of how to be responsible democratic citizens,” says Arana. “He became quite hardened.” Or as she writes: [H]e was dangerous to anyone who would press [for] full democracy.”
Bolívar became a dictator – and, by the time he died, reviled in many corners of the same continent he’d freed. His famous parting words: “Those who served the revolution have plowed the sea.”
He was wrong, of course, and his more heroic image was revived not too long after his death. But whether he was a democrat, a dictator or something in between, Arana serves us a timely reminder that we can’t understand Latin America without understanding Bolívar. And her Bolívar makes that task worth the 75,000 miles.
The Latin America Report is sponsored by Espírito Santo Bank.