- - Monday, April 29, 2013


By Marie Arana
Simon & Schuster, $35, 603 pages

A time-honored cliche of historians is to refer to Simon Bolivar as the “George Washington of Latin America.” To be sure, the 19th-century patriot was instrumental in the nationalist uprising that drove Spanish colonialism off the continent. With a ragtag army of ill-armed peasants, many often shoeless, he stood down a major European power. Ultimately, he held sway over what are now known as Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Bolivia (named for him) and Peru.

But any comparison with Washington ended when the guns fell silent. Washington resisted calls to proclaim himself “president for life.” He left the presidency after two terms, a precedent that lasted until 1940. But Bolivar insisted on nothing less than absolute power. “Let me say this as clearly as I can,” he proclaimed to an assemblage in Bogota in 1827, as he claimed victory. “The republic will be lost unless it gives me the fullest authority.” Only death would remove him from office, the presidency passing to his chosen successor. His scheme failed, and “The Liberator” died in impoverished exile, politically discredited and disowned by many supporters.

However, Bolivar’s unseemly end does not distract from his triumphs in the name of freedom. Born into a wealthy Venezuelan family in 1783, Bolivar from his early years chafed under the heavy Spanish rule. To maintain power over their holdings on the continent, “divide and subjugate” was the rule. Education was discouraged, and in some provinces, outlawed. Individual colonies were not allowed to communicate with one another. Like spokes in a wheel, they reported directly to the Spanish king. Yet these impoverished millions were “hungry for liberties.”

From his early years, Bolivar sought out like-minded dissidents, both in South America and in Europe. Although physically slight (five-foot-six, 130 pounds) he was blessed with charisma and stamina, so adept at horsemanship that followers called him (to put it politely) “iron butt.”

He began his campaign in 1813 with the immediate goal of acquiring freedom for the provinces of Colombia and Venezuela. Marie Arana, a native of Peru whose ancestors fought on both sides of the war of liberation, describes his 14-year struggle in gripping prose. We read of Bolivar leading untrained recruits over the Andes, “cutting a path to the high, windswept cordilleras, where desolate plateaus stretched as far as the eye could see. His soldiers carried what food they could; there were no villages along the way, nor any sign of human habitation.” Alliances and loyalties were made and discarded over the years.

There were gruesome cruelties and massacres on both sides. One Spanish commander ordered his men to slit prisoners’ throats, cut off their ears, and wear body parts as trophies. As Ms. Arana writes, “No one could deny the chilling effect of seeing a Spanish soldier ride by with ears flapping from his hat, or the sight of a body part nailed to a patriot’s door.” Bolivar’s soldiers beheaded captured Spaniards by the score.

Bolivar was adept at deception, dispatching letters with misleading information about troops’ dispositions that were designed to fall into Spanish hands. He offered bounties to Spanish soldiers who went months without pay, luring them into his disheveled ranks.

Given that neither he nor any of his “soldiers” had any military training, Bolivar happily accepted British mercenaries, veterans of Lord Wellington’s army left unemployed after Waterloo. The British Foreign Office, technically neutral, gave Bolivar’s agent in London a covert “pension” of 500 pounds annually, likely from the intelligence service cash box.

Ms. Arana, a former books editor for The Washington Post, portrays Bolivar as one who was as vigorous in the bedroom as on the battlefield. An early marriage ended with the death of his wife. Thereafter, Bolivar found pleasure at random, his specialty being late-teen maidens and married women. (One of them, Manuela Saenz, a cross-dressing lesbian, saved him from being killed in an assassination plot.)

In the end, the Spaniards realized they could not suppress a revolt that had spread through the entire continent and withdrew.

But other than sloughing off a colonial master, what did Bolivar achieve? Racial difference meant that a nation modeled after the United States was impossible. Ms. Arana is blunt in an assessment that might offend many Latins, but is nonetheless accurate. “Independence had been achieved — enlightened forms of government considered — and yet the victors had emerged with no singleness of purpose, no spirit of collegiality. Warlords still wanted to rule their little fiefdoms, their undersized dreams a match for undersized abilities . The colonies were dead, but the colonial mentality was very much alive. The new republics were as insular and xenophobic as Spain had encouraged its American satellites to be . No one seemed to want the dream of an amalgamated America.”

The cost of liberty was staggering. “Vast, populated regions of Latin America had been devastated.” Two decades of catastrophic losses rivaled “in carnage the twentieth century’s more heavily armed conflicts. Populations had been cut in half. Regional economies had come to a rumbling halt.” Indeed, the republics Bolivar liberated were far worse off economically than they had been under the Spaniards.

Imperfect as the continent might be politically, the people of Latin America now choose their own rulers. Perverted use is made of Bolivar’s name and fame, most notably by the late wacko Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. Ms. Arana found it ironic that Bolivar was “touted by a military despot as the apotheosis of liberal thought.”

Joseph C. Goulden reported from Central America in 1966 as an Alicia Patterson Fund fellow, on leave from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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