Thesis Question: Should Simon Bolivar still hold a presence in the political spectrum of South America?
Simón Bolívar is a name that has often been heard in South America. Often considered an idealist and named “El Libertador” (The Liberator) for his valiant efforts, he was responsible for the sovereignty of Venezuela, Columbia, Panama, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. Many statues, streets, currencies, buildings and even a nation have honored his name and a lot of modern South American political figures have revered the impact that Simon has left on the continent and plan to continue his legacy. The post-mortem fame that this military leader has obtained certainly holds itself in regard to the history of his career in South America. Though with the immense culture around Simón Bolívar, it is very much likely that half-truths and factoids have emerged, thus turning the plights of the leader into a device for politicians to use as they please. The implications of the truthiness surrounding Bolivar would then have to signify that he no longer is relevant to the political construct, and that he should be held as part of an ancient era rather than a timeless relic. On the other hand, with the grandiosity of Bolívar’s campaign in South America, there must still lay sections of his life that should remain relevant for the years to come. Before one can consider either alternative though, one should acquaint themselves better with the life of Simón Bolívar.
Simón Bolívar was born Simón José Antonio de la Santísma Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios to wealthy Creoles in Caracas, Venezuela on July 24th, 1783. His father was a colonel, his mother was the daughter of a noble and he had two older sisters and a brother. At age three, his father died, and at age nine, his mother followed suit. Because of this, he and his siblings were taken under his uncle, who gave them a tutor to help with their studies. His tutor introduced Simón to Voltaire and Rosseau, who were Enlightenment thinkers, and fueled his craving for knowledge. This provided him with the reasoning and tools that would establish his abilities at becoming a verbose and educated leader. When he was 13 years old, his tutor, Simon Rodriguez, fled the country since he was under suspicion of treason. Simón entered into a battalion that was previously held by his father and by the age of 15, he became the Second Lieutenant. At a young age, Simón is showing that the has the ability to become so much more, building himself up as a person that can be looked upon either by his willing nature to fight for his nation or by his highly educated background (both of which are essential aspects of an impactful politician)
A year later, when he was in Vera Cruz, he had given way to his revolutionary spirit by praising the French and American’s struggles for independence. In 1802, he married a Spanish nobleman’s daughter and took her back to Caracas, only to have her die from yellow fever a year later. He travelled across Europe, meeting up with his old tutor and Alexander Von Humboldt, who told him “I believe that your country is ready for its independence. But I can not see the man who is to achieve it” (Scott S. Smith, Simon Bolivar: Liberator of Latin America). Three years later, he swore to Rodriguez that he would fight to liberate South America. Proving that he has a man of his word, he returned to his country in 1807, he plans to map out his revolution. In April 19, 1810, the Spanish governor was taken from his position and replaced with a junta. Simón Bolívar went to London to ask the British to support him in his mission to help the colony but they refused. This did not dissuade him as he was then able to go to Francisco De Miranda (who previously attempted to liberate Venezuela) and seek his aide for the independence movement. In March of 1811, Simón Bolívar became one of the speakers to defend the ideals of Independence, remarking “"Let us lay the cornerstone of American freedom without fear. To hesitate is to perish.” (S. Smith). By this point, he has not only proved his perseverance, but also his dedication to the ideas that he holds so dear to him. Simón has shown himself as a leader, willing to go through any lengths to revolutionize his homeland and change it for the better.
On the 5th of July in the same year, Venezuela finally obtained it’s freedom from Spanish forces, becoming the First Republic of Venezuela, and Simón Bolívar served under Francisco De Miranda as a Lieutenant Coronel, despite not having much experience. Whilst Simón Bolívar had slaves, he eventually freed them and called for the abolition of slavery, which at the time was incredibly progressive, thereby accentuating his bold nature and ability to strive for better change. Spanish forces were still present in Venezuela and Simón was present in the first few battles to fend them away. Although he was able to show his abilities in the battlefield, he was forced to capitulate on August 19th in Valencia. Simón also found himself disagreeing with Francisco towards how to treat counter-revolutionaries and citizens who were born in Spain. Francisco was more willing to compromise, whilst Simón had become incredibly hostile towards the Spanish, threatening execution and mass expelling. While one can see this as Simón being overtly passionate for his cause, it also serves to work against him. Despite there being more reason to push counter-revolutionaries, especially ones that enact plans to counteract his movement, there is a hypocrisy of a Creole wanting to punish Spain-born citizens. Matters worsened with Francisco’s battle strategies were not good enough to overwhelm the Spanish loyalists and when Puerto Cabello was overwhelmed by the prisoners that were freed by a traitor. Even though he and a few other men barely survived, Bolívar was upset that Miranda had not helped him and turned him over to the Spanish.
Bolívar then fled to Cartagena, New Granada, writing El Manifiesto de Cartagena (The Manifesto Of Cartagena), “in which he attributed the fall of the First Republic to the lack of strong government and called for a united revolutionary effort to destroy the power of Spain in America” (Michael Levy, Simón Bolívar). Rounding up other revolutionaries in the area, they formed a force that would be destined to take back Venezuela for good. In 1813, he created the Second Republic of Venezuela, and assumed his position as a dictator. Simón is able to realize the mistakes of his plans, which is hard for many politicians to do, and instead change his tactic for the better. Many other revolutions after Bolívar have had revolutionaries take over office, particularly in Venezuela where various coup d’etats (1945, 1948, 1958 and attempts in 1992 and 2002) have taken place. Unfortunately, this only lasted a year since royalists led by José Tomás Boves took back Venezuela in the name of Spain, causing Simón Bolívar to flee to New Granada and later to Jamaica. There he wrote a letter whereupon he signified his dream of constitutional republics from the far south of South America all the way to Mexico. He restarted his plans of revolution by getting the help of Haiti, who provided him with money and equipment, once more proving that he was willing to continue with his idea. For dedication marks the strength of a leader.
Moving to the Orinoco region, he established his base there and had 500 men by his side. He received support from Antonio Jose Paez, who was essential to his movement, allowing for him to maintain a presence in South America, and through Bolívar’s communication skills, he was able to increase his support to 6000 troops. In February 15, 1819, him and the Venezuelan congress in Angostura create a draft for the constitution. The spring of the same year also unleashes his plans to liberate New Granada and in August 7th, he wins the Battle of Boyacá, leading “Congress, with Bolívar’s proposal in mind, [to] issue the Fundamental Law of the Colombian Republic on December 1819” (Manuel Pérez Vila , Simón Bolívar) which involved combining four republics (Venezuela, Ecuador, Columbia and Panama) to join together into one nation called Gran Columbia. After becoming the president and military dictator of Gran Columbia, he freed Venezuela of all Spanish control in 1821, took over Peru with the help of Antonio José de Sucre in 1824, later becoming its dictator and also created Bolivia in 1825. Simón Bolívar used the unity of the nations he took over to signify the strength that they can if they work together to better each other. Creating more dialog among each other, Gran Columbia was a new horizon in South America. Rather than be seen as colonies, they could be seen as their own territories and expand upon themselves for their own betterment.
Simón Bolívar still had to face many battles during the construction of his republic, but the build up to this state showed his verisimilitude at being a great leader. He knew the right times to fight against the Spanish (being able to surprise their forces, capturing half of 3000 troops the Spanish had in Boyacá), ensuring victory over them and was able to pull himself through the troubles that he faced (such as the defeat in Puerto Caballo, and when Spanish troops had overwhelmed him in previous engagements). A refined scholar, Bolívar was able to use his education to create evocative speeches in Congress to convince those around him to continue pushing forward and to continue his fight forward and also saw the importance of a strong centralized government. Another factor that needs to be considered is that he was bold in his idea of breaking the Spanish hold on South America, let alone creating a new political system that involved the unity of various republics that he had established a presence over. Furthermore, his bold attitude towards the idea of abolishing slavery and being more protective of the indigenous around him (“The poor indians are truly in a state of lamentable depression. I intend to help them all I can. First as a matter of humanity, second because it is their right and finally because doing good costs nothing and is worth much” (Andy Brown, The Real Simón Bolívar)). These factors cannot diminish the importance that Simón Bolívar holds to South America as a whole.
Much of the sacrifices that Simón Bolívar had made in order to change the face of South America came with a great cost. Not only did he lose many men, but he also had lost a lot of the starting battles due to his inexperience. Whilst he considered himself a liberalist, Gran Columbia’s structure was beginning to crumble significantly. He needed stronger control, which caused him to turn to more authoritative measures, thus causing him to bend on his philosophy. Many times he had to assume the role of a dictator including in 1828 when much of his movement began to crumble over issues of the economy and class disputes. He figured that it would be a temporary measure to reassume control of the regions that he had control over, but that proved to cause further disruption. Some of his previous acquaintances went over to fight against in battles during his strengthening of Gran Columbia and others would agreed with his methods (such as Sucre) were either soft-spoken, run out or killed because of such. Matters would be made worse when he was almost assassinated by conspirators and one of his most revered generals tried to assassinate him. Countries began to declare their independence from Gran Columbia, including Venezuela, which forced him to go to Columbia. Much of his dream was crushed and before he his death as a poor man ridden with tuberculosis in Santa Marta on December 17th, 1830, he cynically said about himself, “I have ruled for 20 years and from these I have gained only a few certainties: America is ungovernable, for us; Those who serve a revolution plough the sea; The only thing one can do in America is emigrate; This country will fall inevitably into the hands of the unbridled masses and then pass almost imperceptibly into the hands of petty tyrants, of all colours and races; Once we have been devoured by every crime and extinguished by utter ferocity, the Europeans will not even regard us as worth conquering; If it were possible for any part of the world to revert to primitive chaos, it would be America in its final hour” (Brown).
Bolívar was ambitious, but met with failure to properly implement his ideas. His ideas were radical for the time and place that he was in. They were a step in the right direction, providing that more nations in South America were willing to be unified under a common goal of more prosperity. Indeed, at times he showed the ability to take on the reins and push forward, establishing himself either as a speaker for a new movement or as a dictator to cement his stature. There was no doubt that Simón Bolívar carried a fervent passion for the ideals that he hoped to establish, but the system that he implemented did not stand to hold his vision to the height that he desired. Even though he continued to learn from his mistakes and build from them, his inexperience continued to creep through, especially when his concepts grew more abstract and foreign to implement. That is not to say that the people around him are free from being blamed as part of the problem. His visions required the aide of others, and there were not enough times where he and the people were not only in agreement, but were also a majority and able to build the new future. Ultimately, his accomplishments had proven an ability that was squandered, both by his ineptitude in higher office and lack of strong support. Had he been in a friendlier environment, the flaws in his philosophy and methods would have been fixed with a public more inclined to strive for change.
His importance in South American politics is prevalent in the doctrine that carried his military campaign and to the image that the man himself built up over the years. Those who praise the work of Simón Bolívar stand to unify relations between other South American leaders, envisioning much the same that he did with Gran Columbia. Others view his propositions of governmental structure to be essential in ensuring better results. Perhaps one of the greatest reasons that Simón Bolívar is looked upon by others is that he represent a risk-taker and a dedicated force. Despite his limited success at creating Gran Columbia, he was willing to do whatever it took to create the image that he had in his head, fighting for many years to uphold his idea. Those who use his name in politics try to use it to symbolize their determination and perseverance towards their campaign and how they stand to change the current state into something grander in scale and importance. Though all of these aspects are likely, one must not forget the tragic reality of Simón Bolívar’s situation. The idealism in the proclamations of one who relives the memory of Simón Bolívar can make one wary of whoever uses it to get themselves in power in South America, giving the idea of terrible control and even worse strategies. Furthermore, it can also be argued that instead of representing the positive aspects of Simón Bolívar as an exemplar of a vision to come, that the simple association of one political figure with him ensures victory. Marie Arana replied in an interview on TIME Magazine when asked why other leaders (most notably Chávez) use Bolívar as a figurehead with: “Chávez is not the first. President [José Antonio] Páez brought back Bolívar’s bones from Santa Marta, Colombia, [in 1842] and buried him in Caracas and said, “We’re all going to stand by Bolívar.” And it worked. He was re-elected. It’s what one of Bolívar’s very famous generals called the magic of his prestige. Hugo Chávez did the exact same thing: he exhumed the bones and preyed on the magic of his prestige. It’s quite ghoulish, but it works.”
Few people today see the divisive nature that Simón Bolívar truly would hold in regards to South American politics. Whilst he was a great driving force in freeing a multitude of nations from Spain, his own ambitions were too costly and complicated to be executed properly. It would be egregious to believe that Simón Bolívar should not have any position in the modern politics of South America, but it would be equally as outrageous to consider him as some sort of a shining beacon of political strength. His stature was great enough to free nations, but not enough to unify them. His dreams were headed in the right direction, but lacked the proper structure to stand. Even in regards to his nation of birth, where he spent his time ruling Gran Columbia, he was eventually betrayed by his own people, which prove to create greater holes into his myth as the saint of South America. Despite this, the broken remains of his legend reveal a glowing truth that his impact on the nations he went through allowed for them to expand further beyond the limits that Spain left on them. Perhaps if Simón Bolívar had lived in modern times, he could better implement his concept, as by now, more people would be willing to do their part.
Pérez Vila, Manuel . "SIMÓN BOLÍVAR." . Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Web. 12 Jan 2014. <http://www.embavenez-us.org/kids.venezuela/simon.bolivar.htm>.
S. Smith, Scott. "Simon Bolivar: Liberator of Latin America." n.pag. Military Heritage. Web. 12 Jan 2014. <http://www.militaryheritage.com/bolivar.htm>.
Levy, Michael, ed. "Simón Bolívar." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, 5 Aug 2013. Web. 12 Jan 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/72067/Simon-Bolivar>.
Brown, Andy. "The real Simon Bolivar." . Internation Socialism, 12 Oct 2006. Web. 12 Jan 2014. <http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=254>.
Arana, Marie. Interview by Ishaan Tharoor. "Simón Bolívar: The Latin American Hero Many Americans Don’t Know Read more: 'Bolivar: American Liberator': Q&A With Author Marie Arana | TIME.com http://world.time.com/2013/05/31/simon-bolivar-the-latin-american-hero-many-americans-dont-know/