The real Simon Bolivar

Issue: 112

Andy Brown

A review of John Lynch, Simon Bolivar: A Life (Yale University Press, 2006), £25

The Communication and Information Ministry of the Bolivarian Government of Venezuela has recently published a short pamphlet called Simon Bolivar: Liberator of Nations, Homeland Creator. It is in English and for free distribution. The foreword is two quotes, one from historian Guillermo Sherwel:

‘Those who studied Bolivar feel at the end of their task the same reverence one feels on leaving a sacred place, where the spirit has been under the influence of the supernatural and the sublime.’

The second quote is from the hero of Cuban nationalism, Jose Marti:

‘One cannot speak calmly of someone who never lived in peace; of Bolivar one can speak with a mountain as a rostrum, or in the midst of thunder and lightning, or with a bunch of free peoples in one’s grip and the tyranny beheaded at one’s feet!’

The legacy of Bolivar is key to the rhetoric of Chavez’s government in Venezuela, yet in reality little is known of his real life or his political ideas. These were fundamentally important in Spanish America, but translate into the 21st century only with considerable difficulty. John Lynch’s new biography, Simon Bolivar: A Life, is very significant, being the first major work about him in English in decades. It is an excellent and exhaustive account of his career, especially the military campaigns. It also reveals the political ideas of Bolivar’s generation and the eventual failure of his project in his own time.

Spanish America at the turn of the 19th century was a society under pressure and ripe for change. The Spanish Bourbon state had reasserted a heavy-handed control of its colonial possessions in South America. Its political character was absolutist. Its economic function was, in the words of Simon Bolivar, ‘to satisfy the insatiable greed of Spain’ through the export of primary products from agriculture and mining. This was done mainly through imported black and indigenous labour, which was inefficient in production and low in consumption. There was a Spanish elite in charge, from the mainland and sometimes from the Canaries, with its local royalist collaborators.

There was also dissent among the local elite. A creole (American born) faction had considerable wealth with some European and university learning and commercial links, especially with the British West Indies. There were the beginnings of manufacturing for export and trade and with it increasing autonomy from the centres of Spanish colonial rule. Deprived of political representation, these people found themselves with a growing identity but without power.

Dangerous ideas from abroad were knocking at the door of South America. In North America the colonists had revolted against the taxation without representation of the British and fought their war of independence in 1776. From Europe and North America came the ideas of the Age of Reason. Most important was the French Revolution of 1789 which struck terror into the crowned heads, the religious leaders and the political establishment, and reverberated across the Atlantic. Directly in its wake came the massive slave uprising in St Domingue, where the ‘Black Jacobins’ ended slavery in the island and inspired black rebellion from New York to Sao Paolo. The simmering cauldron of hundreds of thousands of slaves along with free blacks and mixed race descendants threatened to boil over anywhere.

Simon Bolivar was one of the new generation in Venezuela, which did not accept the absolutism and centralism of Bourbon Spain. Born into the white elite as a seventh generation descendant of Basque migrants, he enjoyed the privilege of wealth and the status of his race. He followed a fairly typical upper class education, including the grand tour to Spain at the age of 15. He returned to Europe in 1803 to visit France and Italy, there to witness the march of republican France and the maelstrom of new ideas. John Lynch says ‘it was the French authors of the Age of Reason who unlocked the minds of Americans and infused the thinking of Bolivar’.

Bolivar himself summarised his ideals like this:

‘A republican government: that is what Venezuela…should have. Its principles should be the sovereignty of the people, division of powers, civil liberty, prohibition of slavery and the abolition of monarchy and privileges. We need equality to recast, so to speak, into a single whole, the classes of men, political opinions and political custom.’

As Lynch comments, these words not only state his ideas for Venezuela, but describe the model of revolution evolved in the Western hemisphere since 1776. But Bolivar was not an idealist. His ideas were a guide to action and he stressed pragmatism as well as ideology. As much as ideas, he saw American interest as a motivator for change. The idea of colonial independence was not integral to the ideas of all Enlightenment thinkers. Spanish liberals, for example, often saw the possibility of a liberal government running a more enlightened empire. There was no agreed vision either of equality between peoples or of colonial wars of independence. Some were indeed passionate advocates of colonial liberation. Abbe Reynal and Thomas Paine were outstanding in this. Paine fiercely defended the right to American independence with the blinding logic that ‘there is something absurd in supposing a continent to be perpetually ruled by an island’ and Reynal prophesied the imminent separation of Spain from its American colonies. These, however, were the exception.

Bolivar’s fusion of the ideas of the Enlightenment with a distinctively pro-independence position took him further than many in Europe and indeed in Venezuela. Some there wanted more autonomy from Spain but, fearing the social upheaval which this might bring, drew back from support for independence. His whole-hearted commitment made him a figurehead in the South American independence movement and marked, I think, a genuine advance in the logic of Enlightenment ideas.

It was Spain’s collapse as a major European power which opened the door to revolt in South America. Thoroughly eclipsed by a vibrant commercial Britain and an aggressive and confident republican France, it lost the ability to hold its colonies as the new century began. The growing prominence of the US as a market and producer also loosened ties between South America and Europe. The British fleet cut links to Spain and threatened territory. Revolts of autonomy-minded Venezuelans and freedom-minded slaves showed what was to come. In 1810 independent juntas sprang up in various parts of Spanish America, confused and divided among themselves about autonomy, independence or loyalism. Bolivar acted as unofficial ambassador in London and became more and more convinced that only outright independence would safeguard both the interests of his country and of his class. Meanwhile the Spanish reasserted control and the junta in Caracas fell.

Returning to America in 1812 Bolivar operated from New Granada (now Colombia) from which Venezuela was ruled. His Cartagena Manifesto declared roundly for independence, but in an interesting precursor of his moves away from mainstream liberal ideas, also for strong central government in order to secure military survival and social peace. With a small army of around 700 he moved down the Magdalena River and began raiding Spanish positions and invaded Venezuela. Entering Caracas in August 1813, he was granted supreme power in January 1814. His favourite occupations, history records, were ‘being in the company of his numerous mistresses and lying in his hammock’. His struggle with the Spanish was ruthless and bloody on both sides, including the execution of prisoners. The Venezuelan elite was divided between the republic and the monarchy as to how best to protect its interests. The new republic was threatened not only by the colonial power but also by the possibility of slave revolts and attacks by the llanero warlords of the interior, also mainly black. The republic fell and Bolivar went into exile in British Jamaica in 1815.

Once there Bolivar developed and reconstructed his vision of colonial emancipation. It was an exercise in applied liberalism, featuring natural rights, resistance to oppression, and economic and political opportunity. It also argued for strong central authority, in the belief that:

‘Events…have proved that wholly representative institutions are not suited to our character, customs and present knowledge. In Caracas this led us back into slavery.’

In 1816 he moved to Haiti, where he was promised aid in return for a pledge to free the slaves in Venezuela. A thwarted invasion from there was followed by another from Guyana. Bolivar widened his base this time, incorporating the main llanero leaders into the republican army and co-opting the aspirations of many mixed race (pardo) Venezuelans. Offering freedom in return for military service, he also neutralised the threat that slaves could be used against the republican cause. A new assembly was called to combine politics with his military strategy. He demanded an explicitly Venezuelan model of government, with legal equality between races, and a two chamber parliament with a strong and centralised executive. The army grew, including up to 6,000 British and Irish volunteers, and crossed the Andes in one of Bolivar’s epic marches. Routing the Spanish at Boyaca he entered Bogota in August 1819 and declared a joint republic of Colombia, Venezuela and the as yet untouched Ecuador. By 1821 the Spanish Empire was crumbling across the continent—in Buenos Aires, Chile and Guayaquil. Bolivar mopped up along the Caribbean coast and re-entered Caracas to establish the joint republic.

Bolivar’s republic had in theory a strong central government with provincial governors. It was torn from the very start between centralisers and federalists. Bolivar himself was strongly centralist and also believed in the use of the army as an agent to unify and to impose national identity. A rstricted franchise left power firmly in the hands of the elite. The indian tribute was abolished, but slavery was not. Liberation released a flood of incompatible interests, over land, power, race and slavery. Wealth replaced hereditary status as the key to access to power, with a shift in favour of wealthy agricultural producers and traders (though much trade was dominated by foreigners). The republic defended the interests of the creole elite. Beneath was a volcano of social tension.

In his section on Bolivarian society, John Lynch states the following:

‘Bolivar conceived the American Revo-lution as more than a struggle for political independence. He saw it also as a great social movement, which would improve as well as liberate.’

However, the project of improvement had very severe limits. Bolivar aspired to a society of property owning citizens. Land was given to the soldiers of liberation, but largely in the form of bonds, which were promises of land. There was anyway an inequality between grants made to officers and those to men, but the ordinary soldiers often sold their bonds for cash, resulting in a concentration of granted land in the hands of the officers. Independence produced greater land concentration than before. There was little economic development or investment and a systematic attempt by the rich to avoid taxes. Bolivarian society did not materially benefit the poor. Nor did it break from the dependence on trading raw materials for manufactured goods. Arguably those who benefited most from the post-colonial economy were the British, who dominated trade in the region.

Bolivar was an abolitionist and never a racist. He stressed that it was ‘madness that a revolution for liberty should try to maintain slavery’. However, no abolition legislation was passed. There was some manumission in return for military service, but it was not until 1854 that abolition came to Venezuela.

Bolivar had a paternalistic regard for the indigenous people:

‘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.’

The indian tribute was abolished, but paradoxically this tended to work against indigenous people. Tribute had at least conferred some implied entitlement to communal lands. Now the land was privatised and generally taken over by creoles. For the indigenous there was a cycle of debt, sale and encroachment.

Bolivar was frustrated by the faction fighting among the creole elite in Colombia and still had ambitions for a greater vision, so he headed south in 1822 to incorporate Quito, only nominally part of the republic, and Guayaquil, now under a republican junta. He met considerable resistance but the royalists were defeated at Pichincha by General Sucre, advancing from Guayaquil. Peru was largely royalist and hostile and the Bolivar bandwagon moved down in 1823. Fighting first on the coast and then again crossing the Andes, the multinational republican army of Colombia defeated the Spanish first in Peru at Junin and Ayacucho and eventually in 1825 in Upper Peru, now Bolivia.

Bolivar was now the figurehead of a liberated territory stretching from Potosi to the Orinoco. Sucre had done much of the crucial fighting in the later southern campaigns. His military brilliance was matched by his unswerving loyalty to Bolivar and his insatiable desire, like so many of us, for early retirement. Bolivar was usually acclaimed in office by a local creole elite, which sometimes had not even fought for liberation. Here he devised his political constitutions, with the Bolivian one thought to be the culmination of his political thought.

His commitment to his original liberal ideas was matched by a desire for strong central control. The aide de camp and chronicler Daniel O’Leary records that:

‘He sought a system of controlling revolutions, not theories which might foment them; the fatal sprit of ill-conceived democracy which had already produced so many evils in America had to be curbed.’

Bolivar himself echoed this:

‘The sovereignty of the people is not unlimited, because it is based on justice and constrained by the concept of perfect utility… How can the representatives of the people think they are authorised constantly to change the social organisation? What then will become the basis of rights, properties, honour and the life of citizens?’

The constitution was a liberal document. It held commitments to legal equality, civil rights, security and property. It had an independent judiciary and an elected legislature. The slaves in Bolivia were declared free. But it also provided for a president for life who could appoint his successor. The vice-president was also selected and acted as prime minister. Thus, as Bolivar put it, ‘elections would be avoided, which are the greatest scourge of republics and produce only anarchy’. The British consul claimed it was based on the British model of ‘useful liberty but obviating any mischievous excess of popular power’. The faithful Sucre was left running Bolivia in what Lynch describes as ‘a model of enlightened absolutism’.

In fact, Bolivia and the rest of the liberated territories suffered the same fate. The economy stagnated. Progressive initiatives were either unaffordable or strangled by the ruling class, who fought among themselves and agreed only in preserving their own self-interest against the volcano beneath. The identities which had galvanised the revolt against the Spanish fractured against each other. Bolivar himself undoubtedly had a vision of continental unity, even attempting a Congress of the Americas in Panama in 1826. This was not shared by most of the creoles. Bolivar returned to Bogota to preside over internecine strife and to hear of revolts in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela and parts of Colombia itself. By 1830 Venezuela and Ecuador had declared independence. Bolivar, unable to contain a fractious Congress and a homicidal vice-president or resolve the political problems, left for exile and died en route.

Bolivar’s most famous quote is from 1830 as he surveyed the wreckage of his dream. As self-assessments go, it is not very positive:

‘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.’

It should be said that this was followed by a final message of stubborn commitment to republican Colombia.

So what about our own assessment of Bolivar? He was the pioneer of the independence movement first and foremost, but also the most important figure in establishing the political ideas of the Enlightenment in the continent. In his attachment to colonial liberation from empire, he pushed the logic of those ideas further than many. In his implementation of them in constitutions and political regimes he was pragmatic before being idealistic, especially in his commitment to (some would say, his obsession with) strong, centralist government. Lynch says he advocated ‘not the best system of government, but the one most likely to work’. However, his influence was still behind the establishment of modern notions of governance such as constitutional government, the sovereignty of the people and the rule of law. He was the bearer of the most important ideas of the French and North American revolutions into South America, as well as some advanced views on education, literacy and social improvement. He was a man of his time and a man of his class, the privileged creole elite which defended its economic interests through new, modern political means in the early 19th century. His ignorance of the mass of the people in his political vision makes him part of the mainstream of liberal ideas of the time, not a betrayer of them. We should neither be surprised nor disappointed by the limitations of his project.

Bolivar’s legacy is being claimed by all and sundry in Latin America and has been for decades, if not centuries. His body was returned to Venezuela from its grave in Colombia to help a president in trouble in 1842 and transferred in 1867 to a suitably impressive pantheon. His legacy remains a subject for debate, appropriated by many and shaped to fit their political needs.

The Chavez government’s biographical pamphlet assesses him thus:

‘Rather than a valuable American historic symbol, he is the citizen who changed the course of our history; he is the Caracas man whose glory is immortalised in each of the main squares of Venezuela and other countries. Whether on horseback, in bust or standing, he looks to the North as a rule, without losing sight of victory; living in the memory of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, the Fifth [Chavez’s] Republic that dignifies the memory and puts into practice the thought of Simon Bolivar, The Liberator.

‘That is why, at this historic moment, the Venezuelan people honour The Liberator, not only by calling themselves Bolivarian, but also by giving continuity to his anti-imperialist struggle for the integration and vindication of the peoples.’

Most of this notion that Bolivar’s ideas are a model for modern political processes is at best insubstantial and at times, frankly, bogus. In a process which seeks a new socialism for the 21st century, Bolivar’s notions of democracy, sovereignty, even equality, are not models or ideas to be put into practice. Even in his anti-imperialism this is questionable. James Dunkerley has pointed out that Bolivar’s hostility to colonial powers is restricted to Spain. His view of Britain’s government and empire is much more generous.

There remain, however, two central parts of Bolivar’s dream which are still valid and explain the attraction of his mantle. The first is the vision of unity, common interest and solidarity, which is shared by millions of ordinary Latin Americans. The second is the vision of liberation in which the resources, sovereignty and political mastery of the continent lie firmly in the hands of Latin Americans themselves.