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Bolívar: What Price Glory?

Enrique Krauze, translated from the Spanish by Hank Heifetz

A cinematic epic obviously has no space for the analysis of ideas. In the midst of a torrent of constant movement and action, they can seem tedious, almost intangible; and Arana’s book is loaded with action and sparse on reflection. The fascinating evolution of Bolívar’s political ideas is almost entirely omitted, though their content greatly affected those future Latin American nations.* Just before the major campaigns that would lead to the liberation of Colombia and Venezuela, Bolívar, in his impressive Discourse of Angostura (delivered on February 15, 1819), assumes the role of lawgiver, under the influence of his favorite classics: Plutarch’s Lives, the final chapter of Machiavelli’s The Prince, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, and of course Rousseau’s Social Contract.

Like Bolívar himself, the discourse is clearly republican but not at all democratic. His proposed constitution (rejected by the legislators he addressed) included the division of powers and support of civil liberties but his inspiration is the more aristocratic English political model rather than the American. He calls for an elected and powerful president, a hereditary senate, an elected lower house, and a fourth power, which he calls the Moral Power, inspired by the Areopagus, the highest Athenian court of appeal, and entrusted with the civic education of the American peoples in the forms of liberty. This education is to be imparted little by little, in gradual dosages, to a populace he considers not only insufficiently wise or virtuous but “prone to licentiousness, vengeance and treason.” He asserted that “absolute liberty, absolute democracy are the shoals against which republican aspirations have been shattered.”

Arana’s greatest strength, her epic flow, reasserts itself in perhaps the most impressive chapter of the book, “The Hard Way West.” Especially powerful is her description of “one of the most remarkable feats in military history,” Bolívar leading an army of 2,100 fighting men (including English and Irish volunteers) plus “medics, auxiliary forces, women, children, and a herd of cattle” across the Andes in 1819, emulating (over much more difficult and dangerous terrain) the achievement of Hannibal and his elephants crossing the Italian Alps. Following years of fighting the Spanish forces, Bolívar had conceived a secret plan to march his army across the mountains during the rainy season, changing the theater of war from Venezuela to New Granada.

The Venezuelans from the grassy plains waded for a month through flooded savannas and past dangerous animals to reach the mountains. And once on the heights:

Slipping and sliding over the wet, icy rock, the army kept on the move, ascending to thirteen thousand feet, knowing that to stop and lie down at those bone chilling heights was to give up and die. By the time they had scaled the Páramo de Pisba, their shoes had no soles, their clothes were in shreds; hundreds had died of hypothermia.

Then came the descent into what would later become the Republic of Colombia: they were “weak, famished, in tatters” but completely evaded the Spaniards, who had never expected them to take so difficult a route. It was the first week of July 1819. The exhausted and depleted army had time to recover its strength and, joined by a stream of enthusiastic volunteers, would (at the Battle of Boyacá on August 7) effectively end Spanish rule in what is now Colombia.

Bolívar was a man of the eighteenth century in his reading and political ideas, but in love he was a nineteenth-century Romantic. All his life (literally to his last day) he mourned the death of his young wife but sought consolation by collecting amours like laurels of victory. Most of them were casual, some more serious, usually begun at the celebratory processions and especially the dances following the liberation of a city. Bolívar loved to dance.

The most serious of his attachments was likely Manuela Sáenz, the young wife of James Thorne, an English shipping merchant. He had met her in Quito. She was described by a contemporary: “A face like a pearl, lightly oval, with strong features, all of them beautiful; entrancing eyes, very full breasts and a wealth of hair.” Manuela fell in love with Bolívar and became not only his lover but his companion on campaigns and even his councillor. She would eventually become known as the Libertadora, his feminine counterpart. No cinematic scene in the life of the Liberator can surpass the episode in Bogotá in September 1828 when she saved his life by hurrying him out through a window and then confronting, with remarkable presence of mind, conspirators who had come to assassinate him. (They would savagely beat her for her courage.)

And yet, despite all his loves, Bolívar was a solitary man. Disease had swept away his parents and his beloved young wife. His brother Juan Vicente died in a shipwreck, and the storms of war had separated him from his sisters and killed his brother-in-law and his nephew. “I belong,” he said, “to the family of Colombia, not of Bolívar.” This state of inner solitude may partially explain his desperation toward the end, when he came to feel that even his adopted family of nations was disintegrating around him.

The final chapters of Bolívar: American Liberator are suffused with an empathy that recalls Gabriel García Márquez’s novel The General in His Labyrinth. They deal with the fall of a hero who, as in classical mythology, cannot escape the forces of destiny unleashed, in great measure, by his own actions. Bolívar’s third and most controversial vocation (after warrior and legislator) was his role as a founder of nations. Exhausted, full of anger, and in failing health, suffering from the tuberculosis that would kill him in December 1830, the Liberator struggled to maintain the territorial integrity of his major creation: Great Colombia.

He had already begun to be wary of two independent currents that had grown up under his protection but opposed his commitment to territorial unity and his tendency toward personal domination. (His exercise of such dictatorial power in Peru had already drawn considerable censure.) The currents moving against him were the military leadership (caudillismo) of Páez in Venezuela and the constitutional legalism of Francisco de Paula Santander in Colombia. Arana denigrates both men, Páez as a “truculent plainsman” and Santander as one of the “small-minded obstructionists…the general who had never led a battlefield victory.” They are evaluations that follow her preferred dramatic line, sketching in the villains and exalting the hero, but they distort the complex political realities of those different societies, and contradict the accomplishments of Páez and Santander as documented in the book itself.

Bolívar’s Great Colombia was in danger of splintering. His answer, in 1826, was to propose the constitution of Bolivia that would make him president for life with the right to choose his vice-president and successor, a legislature of three chambers, and elections restricted to financially solvent and educated citizens, avoiding those “elections that produce the great calamity of republics, anarchy…and the most immediate and terrible danger of popular governments.” With this covertly Napoleonic project, Bolívar lost many admirers at home and abroad, including the French intellectual Benjamin Constant, who accused him of becoming an “outright despot,” and his strongest supporter in the United States, Senator Henry Clay. Santander’s response was thoroughly republican. He rejected the proposed constitution as “absurd, a dangerous novelty.” Páez’s response was monarchic. He urged Bolívar to crown himself emperor of Great Colombia. The Liberator did not take the crown though, for a time, he pacified Páez and restrained Santander.

Nor did he consolidate his greater hope for a far more inclusive achievement at the Congreso Anfictiónico de Panamá (named after the Anfictionic League of ancient Greece) where he intended to create a confederated government of American nations. The assembled delegates balked at the prospect and were content, Arana feels, to remain “provincial patches with little influence in a larger world.”

Bolívar knew himself to be a soldier and not a politician. He was bored by all the small problems of civil life. And he was genuinely “exhausted from exercising this abominable, unrestricted power.” But he was not prepared to give it up because, in his eyes, he was the only person with the strength and legitimacy to rise above factions, avoid tyranny and anarchy, and maintain the great confederation that he had created. It must have been unbearable for him to give up those dreams of glory.

“Glory” is a word that constantly appears in his writings. Not wealth, or power, or recognition in the moment but “glory” as an eternal achievement, earned by his sacrifice of all material gain (he died in poverty), by his exploits and his moral and physical sufferings.

He was always haunted by a fear of revolution and the coming of a “pardocracy.” Projecting onto all of Latin America the social and ethnic specifics of Venezuela and his military life onto the life of civilians, he saw America as cursed by the flaw of its varied ethnicities. He continually raged against the federalist inclinations of the Great Colombia legislators: “With such physical mixtures, such moral elements…we will witness the beautiful ideal of Haiti; and the new Robespierres will be the worthy magistrates of this terrible liberty.”

And so he wrote to Santander, “I am convinced to the marrow of my bones that only a skilful despotism can govern Latin America.” But history immediately proved him wrong. The “rude plainsman” Páez initiated republican institutions in Venezuela, which would always be fragile but not always anarchic. Santander, without despotism, established the constitutional life of Colombia that, in spite of cyclical violence, has lasted 183 years.

Bolívar wrote almost three thousand letters. He is a surprisingly modern writer, not only for his strong, clear prose (the product of immediate reactions and not of contemplation). He is also modern because his complex concerns about political legitimacy and constitutional design continue to be Latin American problems. How can republican legitimacy be consolidated with efficient checks and balances that will avoid both tyranny and violent ethnic or social revolutions? Later readings of his thought have distorted his ideas. Bolívar was not a romantic prophet of a Latin American nationalism that was opposed for reasons of race and culture to the Anglo-Saxon world, which in fact he admired. Nor was he a precursor of Italian Fascism or Francisco Franco’s dictatorship (both of which tried to claim him as their ancestor).

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, veneration for Simón Bolívar in Venezuela has developed into a cult, which the late Hugo Chávez raised to an extreme level of propagandistic deification. He maintained that history itself had stopped in 1830 (when the Liberator died) and begun again in 1999 with the coming to power of the new Bolívar—Chávez himself. Chávez changed the name of the country to the República Bolivariana de Venezuela and pronounced Bolívar to have been an ancestor of his own “21st Century Socialism,” an enemy of imperialism, and even a descendant of African slaves. During his cabinet meetings, he always set an empty chair next to his own, symbolizing his claim that he governed in tandem with the spirit of Bolívar. Along the streets of Caracas it became common to see murals of Chávez together with Jesus Christ and Bolívar, the Holy Trinity of the Bolivarian Revolution.

Bolívar would have shuddered at the ascent of a demagogue who also incarnated the kind of social revolution that Bolívar always feared and repudiated. And the attempt to link the Liberator with the socialist tradition is quite simply false, as well as anachronistic. (Karl Marx himself would attack Bolívar as having been dictatorial and—with unfair, only partially informed, and almost personal animosity—as “dastardly, most miserable and meanest of blackguards.”)

Nevertheless Chávez was genuinely Bolivarian in two of his perceptions and values: his military perspective on civil society and his dream of being president for life. And Chávez, for all his excesses, arguably stood in one respect for an improvement on his hero. He increased the political participation of the nonwhite majority in Venezuela, though unfortunately, in his oratorical use of the race card, he frequently fell into the opposite temptation, feeding prejudice against the “modern Creoles”—Venezuelans of pure Spanish descent along with those descended from European immigrants.

Simón Bolívar remains a figure whose dimensions cannot easily be grasped, a man caught in a web of contradictions, a person drawn to the world of classical antiquity lost in the strange and hostile landscape of Latin America, and a republican hero hungry for glory. In that prose poem of his youth, he had written of being recognized by “Time, the son of Eternity,” a typical poetic hyperbole and abstraction of his era. And yet, within time as we really know it, few public figures can lay a stronger claim to that recognition.

  1. *

    An excellent scholarly (but also capably narrative) presentation of these ideas and Bolívar’s life can be found in John Lynch, Simón Bolívar: A Life (Yale University Press, 2006), reviewed in these pages by J.H. Elliott, July 13, 2006. 

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