Bolívar's Botched Bequest

Latin America's Liberator and the Tyrants Who Love Him


A figurine depicting South American independence leader Simon Bolívar is seen in Caracas ahead of the inauguration of a new 160-foot high mausoleum to cradle the independence leader's remains, 2012. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/ Courtesy Reuters)

Bolívar: American Liberator BY MARIE ARANA. Simon & Schuster, 2013, 544 pp. $35.00.

When he died of tuberculosis in 1830, the Venezuelan revolutionary Simón Bolívar -- a military leader and politician who guided Latin America to independence from colonial Spain and who is known throughout Latin America as El Libertador -- was buried in the Cathedral of Santa Marta, in what is now Colombia. But Bolívar has enjoyed little rest since then: the Liberator's bones have been dug up several times, ultimately finding their way to present-day Venezuela. The most recent exhumation was carried out in 2010, at the behest of Venezuela's then president, Hugo Chávez. Throughout his career, Chávez had sought to link himself to Bolívar in ways large and small, even renaming his country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Chávez had his hero dug up so that forensic scientists could test whether the Liberator had been poisoned by Colombian oligarchs, whom Chávez saw as the ancestors of his own rivals.

The somber business of disinterring human remains could not quell Chávez's enthusiasm for appropriating Bolívar's image, nor, for that matter, did it affect his unique sense of propriety. Watching as the Liberator's remains were brought up, Chávez took to Twitter. "That glorious skeleton must be Bolívar, because his flame can be felt," he declared. "Bolívar lives!" The tests offered no proof of foul play. But no matter; Chávez declared that Bolívar would once again be reburied, this time in a new $150 million mausoleum in downtown Caracas, the city where Bolívar was born in 1783.

Even in death, Chávez seemed to be trying to connect himself to Bolívar. Less than a week after Chávez passed away from cancer, in March, his political heir apparent, Nicolás Maduro, the interim president of Venezuela, intimated that Chávez himself had been poisoned and announced that he would invite "the world's best scientists" to investigate.

Chávez was only the latest in a long line of Latin American ideologues who have sought to appropriate Bolívar for their own ends. The Argentine dictator Juan Perón cast himself as Bolívar's heir as he tried to build a unified Latin American front against the influence of foreign powers in the region. Cuba's Fidel Castro, well to Perón's left, likes to quote the poet Pablo Neruda to suggest that Bolívar's message was one of populist solidarity: the Liberator, Neruda wrote, "awaken[s] every time the people regain consciousness."

But Bolívar's would-be inheritors span the region's ideological spectrum. Indeed, the sheer range of purposes to which leaders have sought to yoke Bolívar's memory raises an important question: How can the most seminal figure in Latin America's political history have such an elastic legacy? Why has bolivarismo come to mean such different things to different people? One reason might be that even during Bolívar's own lifetime, his role changed dramatically, as Bolívar transformed from an anticolonial populist into a dictator. On a deeper level, though, the explanation might be that what Bolívar left behind was less a coherent set of ideas or a political program than an abstract vision of Latin American unity -- a vision that has, again and again, proved less potent than the forces that have historically pulled the region's states and peoples apart. Unity is the great elusive dream of Latin America, and Bolívar is its Don Quixote. The fact that Bolívar failed so miserably underscores why his legacy is so important: it is the source of a pan-Hispanic quest that remains impossible.


Bolívar was the product of an age of imperial collapse. By the early nineteenth century, Spain's kingdom in the New World had grown sclerotic and retrograde. The caste system was rigid. Illiteracy was rampant. The Catholic Church lorded over the population. Meanwhile, an educated elite was quietly absorbing liberal ideas from France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and an air of rebellion began to spread from Mexico to Argentina. Most dissidents agreed that they could not transform their societies through peaceful politics, because Spain would never compromise. Only a populist rebellion would do. Revolutionaries sought out a leader with a commanding personality, an iron will, and maybe even a hint of Moses, to take them to the promised land.

Bolívar came from an aristocratic family, which had fostered in him a sense of individualism. In his young adulthood, he traveled to Europe and the United States, immersing himself in the democratic currents that had begun to flow. Bolívar identified most strongly with the idea of national self-determination and set out to achieve it in Latin America, an area most Europeans had come to think of as peripheral. In addition to winning independence from Spain, Bolívar's goal was to prove that Latin America deserved a role in world affairs. 

In the rather melodramatic version of this tale that Marie Arana presents in her new biography of Bolívar, the Liberator emerges as the itinerant hero of a magical realist novel. Arana is herself a novelist, and she renders Bolívar's life as a dramatic tale of political intrigue and heroism. But the narrative is overwrought and reductive, and Arana fails to present a broad argument about Bolívar's legacy and continued relevance.

This is a pity, especially for readers in the United States, who would be well served by an examination of the role that Bolívar's legacy has played in the troubled history of U.S.–Latin American relations. When Chávez and other Latin American populists reach for Bolívar's mantle, they often do so to vindicate their defiance of the United States, casting Washington as the present-day incarnation of imperial Spain. This insurrectionary view of Bolívar is bolstered by a good deal of Latin American historiography, which interprets the essence of bolivarismo as a reaction to what historians sometimes call monroismo. That term derives from the Monroe Doctrine, issued by U.S. President James Monroe in 1823, which announced that the United States would not interfere with existing European colonies in the Western Hemisphere but would treat any new attempts to colonize it as acts of aggression against the United States. In the view of most Latin Americans, Washington was only pretending to support Latin American self-determination: what the United States really wanted was the region for itself, a desire made clear in 1848, when, after the Mexican-American War, Washington held on to large portions of Mexican territory in what is now the southwestern United States. Ever since, bolivarismo has often been defined as a corrective to Washington's hypocrisy, a rejection of foreign meddling and an authentic assertion that Latin America is for Latin Americans alone.

But Bolívar himself was more ambivalent, or at least more realistic, when it came to the issue of foreign influence in Latin America. He convinced the United Kingdom and other European countries to persuade Spain to withdraw from its colonies, and he requested that Spain's European rivals send mercenaries to join his struggle, which they did. Bolívar was a cosmopolitan member of the colonial elite, and his worldview was grounded far more in the European Enlightenment than in any belief system indigenous to Latin America. His political ideals, his conception of constitutionalism, and his understanding of the role of government were based in large part on the thinking of Thomas Jefferson and the broader principles of the American and French revolutions. He studied the histories of ancient Greece and Rome and admired the political ecosystem of Athens; he was a devout reader of Rousseau; and, in 1815, he praised the United Kingdom as a place where people "were born to rule and be free."

To replace the colonial rule of imperial Spain, Bolívar sought to create something like a United States of South America, a union of republics that would resemble the welfare state of the contemporary era, devoted not just to the security of its citizens but also to their well-being. He believed in representative democracy, and he found slavery abominable and attempted to abolish it almost 50 years before Abraham Lincoln did so in the United States. But Bolívar recognized that democracy needed to be adapted in order to accommodate the extreme economic, geographic, and racial diversity of Latin America. In part to overcome this potential obstacle to unity, Bolívar imagined that his union of states would have a president even more powerful than the one in the United States: "an individual isolated within society, yet charged with restraining the impetus of the people toward rampant license and the proclivity of judges and administrators toward abuse of the law." Bolívar believed that if the office of the president were not given enough authority, whoever held it would "inevitably fall into insignificance or be tempted to abuse his power." (Of course, in his career, Bolívar himself would prove that enjoying plenty of authority is hardly a defense against the abuse of power.)

One thing that clearly separated Bolívar from elites across the Atlantic and in North America was his views on race and ethnicity. Born into a family of upper-class criollos -- the Latin American–born offspring of Spaniards -- Bolívar rejected the racial prejudices that shaped his society. He argued that political progress would arrive only when leaders came to value Latin America's ethnic diversity instead of using it as an excuse to maintain a repressive social hierarchy.

And yet he was realistic when it came to the prospects for a fully unified Latin America. The idea of merging the entire region into "a single nation with a single unifying principle to provide coherence to the parts and to the whole is both grandiose and impractical," he wrote in 1815. Considering what would become of the former Spanish colonies, he was quite prescient: "A few will constitute themselves as conventional federal and centralized republics; almost inevitably the larger territories will establish monarchies, some so wretched that they will devour their natural and human resources in present and future revolutions." Still, Bolívar demanded equal political rights for all. He never recanted this belief in the importance of equality, even toward the end of his life, when he had grown skeptical about whether Latin Americans would ever be able to govern themselves.


As he himself seems to have predicted, Bolívar failed in his quest to unify postindependence Latin America. He was right in recognizing that the region was a sum of incompatible parts, too large to march behind a single unified banner. But that hardly diminishes the truly remarkable military and political campaign he led to rid the region of its Spanish overlords.

Given his dual role as military commander and political leader, Bolívar, unsurprisingly, is frequently compared with George Washington. Their similarities are obvious: like Washington, Bolívar was a thoughtful man who also enjoyed the thrill of battle. Like Washington, he assumed the presidency of a new republic by rejecting the temptation to become something closer to a king -- at least at first. But there the similarities end. Washington was physically imposing but modest, self-effacing, and reasonable, and he agonized over major decisions. Bolívar, by contrast, was short in stature and had a volatile temper. A master improviser with a charismatic personality, he adopted and discarded ideas with astonishing speed. Such was his tendency to leap to emotional extremes that some historians believe he might have suffered from bipolar disorder.

Perhaps the greatest difference between the two men was that although Bolívar was a shrewd military strategist, he turned out to be an incautious statesman whose instincts often led him astray. He had the stamina of a warrior, but his political judgment was flawed. Aware of this defect, Bolívar acknowledged it without hesitation. In his 1826 address to Bolivia's Constituent Congress, in which he proposed a governmental structure for that country, he confessed that he was "overwhelmed by confusion and trepidation" and admitted that he had "no talent for making laws."

Such uncertainty might explain why, following his military victories against the Spanish, Bolívar tended to delegate power to local warlords, even though they often undermined his long-term plans. But it does not explain why Bolívar, over time, became increasingly imperious, even despotic. Although he resisted the idea of becoming "the Napoleon of these lands," his ideal conception of a strong president devolved into something far more autocratic.

In 1828, faced with challenges to his authority, Bolívar dissolved the constitutional convention he had helped establish and declared himself dictator of the Republic of Colombia, giving himself the title "supreme leader." In a speech delivered in Bogot· announcing the decision, Bolívar made clear his loss of faith in democratic rule: "Colombians! I will not speak to you of freedom, because if I keep my promises, you will be more than free, you will be respected." In a startlingly frank aside, he added, "Besides, in a dictatorship, who can speak of freedom?"

Embracing the powers of a tyrant represented a dramatic reversal for a "liberator" who had once taken books by Voltaire and Montesquieu with him into battle. Indeed, perhaps the strongest link between Bolívar and his most vocal admirers in the contemporary era, such as Castro and Chávez, is the contradiction between their early appeals to liberty and their later authoritarian impulses.

Yet it remains unclear why, exactly, Bolívar gave up on democracy. Was it an emergency measure, taken to save his revolution? Or an expression of some deep-seated dictatorial leanings? Perhaps wisely, Arana does not try to solve this riddle.

By the end of his life, it seems that Bolívar was something of a mystery even to himself. Pushed from power in 1830 by uprisings against his authority, he decided to exile himself to France. But before he could set sail, tuberculosis overcame him. According to one apocryphal account that is almost certainly untrue but nonetheless revealing, Bolívar's last moments were spent reflecting on his own troubled path, and his final words were "Damn it, how will I ever get out of this labyrinth?"


After centuries of troubled politics, Latin America finally seems to be enjoying some stable democracies. Their rise has produced an economic bonanza, at least for a handful of countries. These developments are no less a part of Bolívar's legacy than was Chávez's demagoguery. But in a strange historical irony, perhaps the most Bolivarian trans-formation of the past two centuries has emerged in the least likely place: the United States, where bolivarismo and monroismo have come together in the heart of the country's Latino population, which today numbers some 57 million people. It is in North America that Bolívar's unrealized dream of a pan-Hispanic identity has come closest to fruition. Latinos in the United States are hardly monolithic in terms of class, politics, or national origins. But the mere fact that such a diverse array of people is considered a group at all -- not to mention one that is courted by political parties, catered to by big business, and relied on by the national economy -- is a distinctly Bolivarian triumph.

Of course, it is in Latin America where Bolívar's troubled legacy still resonates most directly. His loudest champion, Chávez, is now gone. Soon, however, another Latin American leader is sure to claim the title of Bolívar's true heir. The Liberator's bones will not likely rest in peace for long.