In the Complete Works of Simón Bolívar appears a prose poem so unusual that some historians have questioned its authenticity. Entitled “Mi delirio en Chimborazo” (My Rapture on Chimborazo) and dating from around 1822, it describes the ascent (certainly only partial and perhaps completely imaginary) of the Ecuadorian volcanic peak of that name. Bolívar writes that, on his “march of liberty” in South America, he had crossed “infernal regions, plowed the rivers and the seas, climbed to the giant shoulders of the Andes” until he reached this “watchtower of the Universe.” Possessed by the “God of Colombia”—the immense and promising nation that, after a series of victories, he had recently established in what is today Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama—“Time himself,” a “venerable elder, the son of Eternity,” suddenly appears before the Liberator to remind him of the insignificance of his achievements. But Bolívar responds that he has “surpassed all men in good fortune, because I have raised myself above all of them.”
He was certain that he had “demonstrated to Europe that America has men who are equal to the heroes of antiquity.” More and truly impressive accomplishments would follow: the defeat of the pro-Spanish royalist forces in Peru, the creation (in the Peruvian province known as Alto Perú) of a nation that would bear his name: Bolivia. By then his military campaigns had covered tens of thousands of miles but he wanted more: “the demon of Glory will take us to Tierra del Fuego.”
Bolívar as hero has been a theme for hundreds of writers across the years. And it is the perspective adopted by Marie Arana, a Peruvian-born novelist and a former editor in chief of The Washington Post Book World, in Bolívar: American Liberator, her biography of Bolívar as the Homeric saga of an American Ulysses. She describes her objective as a popular history—“a sweeping, engaging narrative, more a cinematic epic than a scholarly tome”—and she has accomplished what she set out to do. The book does not offer important new information or original interpretations but it reads like a novel, filled as it is with portraits, landscapes, and memorable scenes and composed with great brio and colorful detail. Arana succeeds in conveying the passion and consummate energy of a man who, at the very beginning of his military career, while walking through the ruins of his native Caracas after an earthquake that took 20,000 lives, could exclaim: “If Nature itself decides to oppose us, we will fight and force her to obey.”
We see the origin of that intensity, self-confidence, and rage in Arana’s description of Bolívar’s childhood. Born in 1783 to the highest Creole aristocracy (Creoles, or criollos in Spanish, were American-born Spaniards of pure Hispanic ancestry), he was heir to an immense fortune: twelve houses and estates in Caracas and La Guaira, a copper mine, sugar and indigo plantations, herds of cattle, and hundreds of slaves. He lost his father when he was two and his mother at nine, and he was a fiercely independent child: “willful, irascible, in obvious need of a stern hand, he became progressively ungovernable.” According to a relative, he
is always wandering the streets alone—by foot as well as on horseback. What’s worse is that he’s always in the company of boys who are not of his class. The whole city has taken notice.
In 1799, he was sent to study in Madrid where he met the first great love of his life, María Teresa Rodríguez del Toro, whom he married when he was just eighteen. Bolstered by the huge family fortune, the young couple settled in Caracas, but their happiness together was brief. Only five months after their arrival, María Teresa died of yellow fever.
“I was suddenly made to understand that men were made for other things than love,” Bolívar wrote to a lady friend in 1804, during a voyage to Europe that he began in 1803. He spent five years in the major European capitals, where he lived a fashionable life, improved his knowledge of classical and Enlightenment thinkers, and observed with admiration the ascent to power of Napoleon, who would greatly disappoint him by accepting an imperial crown in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in 1804.
On the Monte Sacro of Rome, in 1805, accompanied by his Rousseauan teacher, Simón Rodríguez, Bolívar made a vow to liberate America from Spain. Arana vividly describes this period in Europe, but she too easily accepts anecdotes that historians have shown to be later fabrications, like the specific words of his vow or his supposed acts of insolence before the pope and the royal court of Spain.
An emphasis on the concept of “the hero,” such as we find in Arana’s book, has its problems. It tends to discount or underrate significant social, cultural, and historical circumstances and to undermine the necessary distance between biography and biographer. Arana falls into this double bind from the moment she fully accepts Bolívar’s own reading of history, according to which the upheavals that shook Latin America between 1810 and 1820 were entirely provoked by what Arana terms the “fundamental incompatibility” between the old, decadent but still powerful Spanish Empire that had oppressed its overseas colonies for three hundred years and the drive of the Americans for liberty and independence. As modern historical research has demonstrated, the situation was far more complicated than this analysis, which derived from the “Black Legend” of Spanish domination as total cruelty.
At that stage, the war of independence was really a complicated civil war between various Venezuelan factions, with Bolívar as one of the major leaders rapidly rising to eventual supreme prominence. Bolívar’s Creoles (as well as some mixed-race brigades) resented Spain, which had long denied them control of their own government. They fought for change. Confronting them were 12,000 ferocious warriors led by the Spanish sailor and former businessman José Tomás Boves. They were mostly pardos—“browns” or “half-breeds”—who formed half the population (then 400,000) of Venezuela. Boves’s forces were willing to fight against independence largely because their resentment and hatred was directed not toward Spain (whose laws and direct representatives were not completely oppressive) but against the affluent Creole minority that owned the cattle ranches and cacao and tobacco plantations and was obsessed with titles of nobility and protecting the “purity” of their blood. Perhaps worst of all for the pardos, the Creoles were thoroughly contemptuous of the mixed-race “promiscuous multitude.”
Except for Haiti, where there had been a war of extermination against the French slave-owners that haunted the collective memory of the Creoles, no American region experienced an ethnic and social conflict (known in Latin America as a “war of colors”) that was so extensive and so brutal. After the collapse of the First Venezuelan Republic in July 1812 Bolívar launched his “Admirable Campaign,” liberating much of Venezuelan territory and assuming dictatorial powers for himself. But the victory was temporary as Boves’s forces—further encouraged by promises that the lands of the Creoles would soon be theirs—advanced on Caracas and drove Bolívar and the city’s Creole population into an exodus of biblical proportions.
Arana describes in grim detail the atrocities unleashed by Boves, the throat-cuttings, widespread rapes and mutilations, and killing of pregnant women and newborn babies. She condemns Boves’s pardos, who “hadn’t understood the true pyramid of oppression…that the roots of misery were in empire, that Spain had constructed that unjust world carefully.” But this doesn’t take into account the historical responsibility of the Creoles, which Bolívar himself did not recognize. Instead, Bolívar, referring to the pardos, bemoaned “the unbelievable dementia of the American peoples who took up arms to destroy its liberators and restore the scepter of its tyrants.”
Arana, much to her credit, does not flinch from describing the “brutal” response of Bolívar, with his “Decree of War to the Death.” In February 1814 he ordered the execution of eight hundred Spanish prisoners, including wounded men in the hospital of La Guaira. At the time he defended his action as a valid response to the barbarism surrounding him but lamented having become “the Nero of the Spaniards” and their “unfortunate accomplices.” The war among Venezuelans at that time cost around 25,000 lives (most of them civilians) and destroyed much of the area’s resources.
“Nothing remains of what was,” said Bolívar in September 1814. The experience of the “War to the Death” left a permanent mark upon him. He had convinced himself of the inadequacy of the pure republican principles he had earlier espoused. A period of exile in the Caribbean, first in Jamaica and then in Haiti, gave him time to outline a new constitutional architecture for the future nations of Latin America. His plan was meant to establish “a middle ground between democratic anarchies and monocratic tyrannies,” through the patriarchal dominion of the Creoles over (in his view) the otherwise uncontrollable masses. Modern historians of Venezuela have extensively analyzed and evaluated Bolívar’s theories and prophecies about Latin America, classically expressed in his “Letter from Jamaica,” but Arana does not consider their views. She only offers a summary synthesis full of admiring phrases: “a brilliant distillation of Latin America’s political reality.”
Bolívar’s commitment to a Creole viewpoint, barely recognized by Arana, explains much about his actions and ideas. In July 1816, he abolished formal slavery, but limited manumission to those who would serve his cause:
The new citizen who refuses to take up arms to fulfill the sacred duty of defending his freedom will remain subject to slavery, like his sons less than fourteen years old, his wife and his elderly parents.
Unlike the American War of Independence (in which freeing African slaves was never a serious consideration), both the South American and Mexican independence movements did abolish slavery (Bolívar asserted a belief in natural equality); but Creole prejudices remained alive. For Bolívar, an example was his decision to execute the brave (but pardo) insurgent leader Manuel Piar, who had been a rebel against Spain since the end of the eighteenth century. Piar was not traitorous but he was unwilling to accept some of Bolívar’s orders.
By 1817, Bolívar—through both a display of camaraderie and substantial material incentives—had won the commitment of his former enemies, the pardo lancers of the plains whose cavalry charges, under their chieftain, José Antonio Páez, were to be a decisive force in the final victory against 10,000 Spanish troops sent to Venezuela in 1815. But Manuel Piar’s men, whom Arana deplores as “illiterate pardos,” gave their primary obedience to Piar himself. (In the case of the less recalcitrant Páez, Arana presents the obedience of his “herds” as a merit.)
Bolívar punished Piar’s insubordination by having him executed. (The pardo commander refused a blindfold as he faced the firing squad.) Bolívar’s manifesto justifying the sentence rains epithets down on Piar (monstrous, fratricidal, stupid, a tyrant) but above all it reveals the Liberator’s Creole perspective. Piar, writes Bolívar, was proclaiming the “odious principles of the war of colors,” so he deserved to die. Arana predictably agrees: “Piar had led brilliantly, fought bravely, not for the glory of the Liberator, but for the advancement of his own burning ambitions.” Another insurgent chief, Santiago Mariño, had been insubordinate to the same degree but he was a Creole and Bolívar pardoned him.