Private Collection/Archives Charmet/Bridgeman Art Library

Simón Bolívar; nineteenth-century chromolithograph

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.


Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez unveiling a 3D reconstruction of Simón Bolívar, based on his recently exhumed bones

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.