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His Reach Exceeded His Grasp

Getting to know Simon Bolívar.

By From the June 2013 issue

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Bolívar: American Liberator
By Marie Arana
(Simon & Schuster, 603 pages, $35)

Although he stood only five and a half feet tall and weighed a scant 130 pounds, Simón Bolívar was one of history’s giants…and with an ego to match. He was both extraordinary and extraordinarily flawed, a vain voluptuary who was also a Spartan warrior of heroic determination and endurance, a man of sincere, enlightened ideals who seldom applied them in practice, and a hater of tyranny who coveted dictatorial power. Above all, he was a monumentally tragic figure, able to topple an oppressive colonial order that spanned most of a vast continent, but incapable of building on the ruins of his conquest. 

Without knowing it, Bolívar diagnosed his own future problems as a leader when, as a wealthy young fop visiting Europe in 1804, he became disillusioned with Napoleon Bonaparte, the brilliant man on horseback who had saved revolutionary France from its foreign foes only to crown himself emperor, replacing one form of tyranny with another: “I admire his gifts as a soldier,” Bolívar had declared. “But how can one fail to see his single-minded pursuit of personal power? He is turning into a despot…Is it wise for the nation to entrust its fate to a single man?”

By the time Bolívar had liberated Spain’s sprawling South American empire and attempted to set himself up as a dictator for life with the power to choose his own heir, many of his followers were beginning to ask the same questions. Eventually driven from power, he died a broken exile, victim of his own ego as well as the tuberculosis that wracked his weakened frame. In the end, he famously concluded that “He who serves a revolution ploughs the sea,” and that South America would “eventually fall into the hands of the unbridled mob, and will proceed to almost imperceptible petty tyrannies of all complexions and races.” He doubted that Europeans would “go to the trouble of conquering us”; if it were possible “for any part of the world to revert to primordial chaos,” he thought South America was the place.

Not quite, but almost. Until independence came to Europe’s former African colonies in the last half of the 20th century, no region of the world could match Latin America for the sheer sanguinary wackiness of its dictators and the bloody futility of its internal strife and border wars. With the expulsion of Spanish authority, power initially fell to the white creole minority of wealthy landowners, military men, and a very small middle class of merchants, doctors, and lawyers, all riding on the backs of the vast majority: Indians, blacks, mestizos, and mulattoes who, when not actually enslaved, were kept in poverty, ignorance, and feudal servitude. As recently as the early 1900s, for example, if you bought an estancia in Ecuador, the Indian peasants living on it were part of the package, mere human chattel. The few South and Central American countries that achieved civil, relatively stable societies tended to be those with largely European populations, such as Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, and Costa Rica, and the special case of Brazil, whose Portuguese heritage has made it a less histrionic, more pragmatic country than its Spanish-speaking neighbors.  

All this may have been inevitable and certainly was neither the intention nor the fault of Simón Bolívar. But his name and twisted versions of his beliefs have been used to confer a spurious legitimacy on some of the continent’s most rotten regimes, including that of the late Hugo Chávez in Bolívar’s native Venezuela. This does not diminish Bolívar’s very real heroism in the struggle for independence he led, but it does cast the story of the man and his monumental mission in a rather melancholy light.

NONE OF WHICH has deterred Marie Arana, a talented Peruvian American author and journalist, from producing a gripping if occasionally melodramatic life-and-times biography of Latin America’s greatest son. Ms. Arana has ancestors who fought on both sides in the independence struggle—Peru being the power center of Spain’s colonial empire—and her empathy and enthusiasm for her subject make her book a stirring read as well as an accessible introduction to Simón Bolívar for English-language readers. To be sure, this book has its flaws. Perhaps unavoidable in a work of this length that draws on so many documents written in foreign languages, there are times when the text reads like a clumsily paraphrased, hasty translation from original sources. We read that Francisco de Miranda, an early independence leader first idolized by and then betrayed by Bolívar, “stepped” rather than “set” foot in Venezuela, and he is identified as having previously served as a field marshall in the French army when the highest rank he attained was that of maréchal de camp, a mere brigadier general. Brazil is referred to as a kingdom when, in fact, it was an empire from its declaration of independence in 1822 until the abolition of its monarchy in 1889. A demoralized patriot unit defects to the Spaniards “in all of its entirety,” a timid commander has a “reticence” rather than a reluctance to attack. José San Martin—Latin America’s other great liberator—leaves Lima in charge of his “subalterns” rather than his subordinates, and Bolívar meets with a rival Spanish commander “on a muddy road, far from the medullas [nerve centers?] of political power.” 

Such mistakes, while embarrassingly numerous, should not detract from Ms. Arana’s overall achievement. She has delivered an epic account of stirring deeds and brings to life the magnetic power of Bolívar’s heroic personality:

A general betrayed by his officers; a strategist who had no equals on whom he could rely; a head of state who oversaw nothing that resembled a vigorous, unified team of rivals. With stamina that is arguably unmatched in history, he prosecuted a seemingly unwinnable war over the harshest of terrains….From Haiti to Potosi, there was little that stopped him. On he rode, into the void, fighting against unimaginable odds. Until he remade a world.

Actually, his heroics unmade a world: the old Spanish colonial order. Bolívar’s tragedy was his inability to replace it with anything substantially better. In the end, the great man’s reach had far exceeded his grasp. 

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About the Author

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan and writes frequently on politics, history, gastronomy, and the arts.