I noted a recent review of Bolivar, realized how little I knew of “The George Washington of South America,” put it out on my Christmas wish list, and the most literary of my lovely granddaughters made my wish come true.
Marie Arana’s lively version of Simon Bolivar’s life, a life with peaks high as the Andes’ loftiest and as low as the valleys in between, sings with inspired prose and clarifies as tangled a web of alliances and betrayals as the history of any revolution in the world can offer. Born rich and privileged in Caracas, Bolivar the youthful playboy wandered Europe, consorting with royalty and flitting from woman to woman like a hummingbird skips from flower to flower (a habit he never broke). He finally married, but lost his Maria Teresa to yellow fever soon after the wedding:
Spiritually depleted, physically exhausted … everywhere he looked, there were only shards of an imagined life. … He [was] forced to rethink every ambition of his hope-filled youth.
This impulse toward triumph and depression marked Bolivar’s personality and created some of the greatest victories and most horrible mistakes of any revolutionary in history. Robbed of his love and suddenly uninterested in managing his vast landholdings, he turned to the question of the 300 years of Spanish domination over the countries of South America. The time was ripe. Both the North Americans and the French had thrown off their yokes. Spain was involved in a long and depleting war with England, and its royal house was in severe disorder. In 1803, the region of Colombia (countries at the time were ill-defined) was aching for an uprising, lacking only a leader. Bolivar became the man.
Since his sobriquet compares him to George Washington, Arana properly outlines the similarities and differences between the two leaders and their situations. Washington led a revolt of men who shared a relatively common faith, race, educational background, and political philosophies. The geography he traveled does not match South American extremes–the Appalachians are no Andes, after all. Bolivar insisted throughout that all slaves be freed and invited to join his armies despite the fears of many of his class that they’d end up like the dead slaveholders of Haiti’s recent uprisings. Washington held no such ideal, finding it somehow impossible unto his death to free his slaves despite declaring his wish to do so.
Both men were consummate generals who fought bravely alongside their troops. Bolivar was known as “iron ass” for his ability to stay in the saddle day and night for as long as it (whatever “it” happened to be) took. Arana estimates his travels at around 75, 000 miles of jungle and mountain trails. He led armies from East Coast Venezuela cross-country to West Coast Peru, back again, and back and forth once again with a ton of side excursions in between. At various times he united forces of landowners and field hands and slaves to throw off the oppressors who had ruled and divided the countries along race and class lines since Pizarro’s time in 1516. Along the way, he wrote and wrote and wrote. Not the reasoned, logical missives of our George, but always passionate, if sometimes intemperate proclamations. Speaking of the view from Mount Chimborazo :
Tread if you dare on this stairway of Titans, this crown of earth, this unassailable battlement of the New World From such heights will you command the unobstructed vista; and here, looking on earth and sky–admiring the brute force of terrestrial creation–you will say” Two eternities gaze upon me: the past and the yet-to-be; but this throne of nature, like its creator is as enduring, as indestructible, as eternal as the universal father.
But also unlike Washington, he had no notion of governance. To his credit, he knew it. He declared himself a general only, “a man …. dangerous to a popular government, a threat to national sovereignty.” But also, unlike Washington, he had no one else to assume political leadership. No Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, or any of the enlightened others. What he had surrounding him were a collection of squabbling generals and politicians, each anxious to secure his fiefdom, whether political, geographical or both. No one of any great influence was interested in his vision of a united states of South America. He didn’t help his own cause with some of his more drastic moves. He once directed the slaughter of hundreds of political prisoners in the public square of Caracas. He went from advocating popular rule and elections to the notion of appointing presidents for life, each president empowered to appoint his successor. Thus, he opened himself to the charge of tyranny and robbed his cause of the support of key figures in the United States–Henry Clay among them.
His flagrant sexual affairs didn’t help his reputation either, especially since he insisted on keeping the notorious Manuela Saenz (married, cigar-smoking, cross-dresser, probably sexually involved with her two black slave/maids) at his side whenever possible.
By the end of his life in 1840, he was widely reviled and disowned. It was only in death that he eventually became the sainted figure whose statues graces so many plazas and whose name and writings became political tools for public figures as disparate as Allende and Chavez.
Bolivar was a powerhouse of a man and as deserving of historical canonization as any I’ve read about. He created and/or made possible Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, and Peru. Having done a little traveling in South America helped me envision what he accomplished and what he went through to do it, though I can’t pretend to truly understand the depth and scope of it all. However, if you ever wondered about Pogo’s “we have met the enemy, and they are us,” you will find it profoundly illustrated in Marie Aranas’ account of this great and horrible life.