Saturday, March 21, 2009

Simon Bolivar: El Libertador O El Dictador?


The Spanish Conquest of the New World officially began in 1492 when Christopher Columbus reached Hispaniola on his first voyage across the Atlantic when looking for a shorter route in order to tap into the Indian spice trade. The conquest of Latin America by Spain began in 1502 on Christopher Columbus’s last voyage to the Caribbean where he explored the Chibcha empire, located on the northern coast of modern Colombia. The first permanent settlement of Spaniards was established at Darien in 1510, Santa Marta in 1525 and Santa Fe de Bogota in 1538. Eventually, the Spanish created audiencias where their royal rule was established throughout Central and Southern America by the seventeenth century. The lack of economic progress in combination with both social and political discrimination against the indigenous populations led to out right hostility to Spanish rule.
Three hundred years of this hostility came to a boiling point in 1810 when the independence movement began in Latin America. Influenced by both the American fight for independence against the British (1776-1783) the French Revolution (1789-1799), and the revolution in Haiti, the fight for independence in Latin America would be an arduous struggle where different cultures clashed and attempted to unite against their common enemy of Spain. The leaders of the revolution “utilized the concepts of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment as well as the American and French revolutions, they made frequent references to terms such as natural rights, popular sovereignty, separation of powers, and liberty” according to Blanchard.
The Creole leaders such as Simon Bolivar were successful initially in their fight for independence; however, this struggle was doomed to failure in the long term due to political, social, and economic divisions in Creole society. In this paper, I will argue that Simon Bolivar demonstrated consistency in his efforts to promote centralized, quasi-dictatorial regimes and his in his reluctance to end slavery, and the legendary man known as El Libertador should be contrasted with the revolutionary who exhibited authoritarian, aristocratic, and anti-democratic tendencies. This argument, along with the initial success and ultimate failure of Bolivar’s political experiment will be explored in chronological format beginning with the first phase of independence from 1810 to 1816 in present day Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay and concluding with the second phase from 1816 to 1830, which ends with the death of Bolivar.
The revolution began on May 25, 1810 when the Creoles of Buenos Aires overthrew the Spanish viceroy and established a provisional government for region of La Plata in the name of the Spanish monarch, Ferdinand, although direct Spanish rule was not reinstated. The Paraguayans followed the Argentines on August 14, 1811 and set up their own provisional government in 1813. In 1814, Jose de San Martin organized an army in western Argentina with the goal of freeing Chile followed by taking on the Spanish stronghold of Peru. San Martin’s campaign proved to be successful in Chile between 1817 and 1818 where he was aided by another revolutionary leader Bernardo O’Higgins. San Martin defeated the Spanish army at the battle of Chacabuco on February 12, 1817. Exactly a year later, O’Higgins announced the independence of Chile and offered the leadership role for the country to San Martin who refused it in favor of his compatriot, O’Higgins. Once the Spanish army had been defeated at Maipu on April 5, 1818, Chile’s independence was guaranteed and San Martin was able to turn his attention towards the Spanish stronghold of Peru.

Bolivar and government
The next wave of independence took place in Colombia under the leadership of Simon Bolivar. Before delving into the complexities of the Colombian fight for independence, it is necessary to briefly examine the background of Bolivar and how he came to play such an important role in the fight for independence in Latin America. Bolivar was born in Caracas, Venezuela on July 24, 1783. He lost both of his parents as a child, and so was brought up by various members of his extended family. He was educated by private tutors in both Caracas and Spain and as a result was influenced by the French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau. Historian David Bushnell describes how Bolivar, as a teenager became acquainted with his fellow Venezuelans:

[he] wandered off through the streets of Caracas, mingling freely with his
social inferiors-much to the displeasure of his older sister Maria Antonia-
suggests the possible early appearance of the ease in relationships with all
sorts and conditions of people that he would display in later life and that
would, among other things, make him a commander genuinely popular
with his raging armies.

In 1799, Bolivar traveled to Spain in order to complete his private education. He traveled extensively throughout Spain and France, becoming acquainted with the Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804. Before meeting Bonaparte, Bolivar met and married Maria Teresa Rodriguez del Toro y Alaiza in Madrid. They were married on May 26, 1802 and were married for less than a year when his young wife died of yellow fever upon their return to Venezuela, Bolivar’s homeland.
Bolivar returned to Venezuela upon learning that Napoleon Bonaparte had made his older brother Joseph, the king of Spain. Bolivar took part in the juntas that had declared independence from Spain in Caracas. Since he had experience traveling in Europe, Bolivar was sent on a diplomatic mission to Great Britain in 1810, and upon his return to Venezuela, he joined the rebel military. Before leading the fight for independence himself, Bolivar served under the command of Francisco de Miranda, who led the initial revolt against the Spanish in Venezuela in 1810. Miranda’s forces were defeated by the Spaniards and as a result, Bolivar was forced to flee the country. It was not until 1812 when Bolivar returned to Venezuela leading an expedition to free his homeland from Spanish rule. He was one of the few Latin American leaders “…who remained fully engaged in the struggle from beginning to end” according to Bushnell. Bolivar was given command of the forces in New Granada in 1813 and led the invasion of Venezuela on May 14 of that same year.
Bushnell further argues that “regardless of the exact source of Bolivar’s ideas, and despite all changes in emphasis or detail there is a remarkable consistency in his views of how Spanish America should be governed –or perhaps above all, how it should not be governed.”
Bolivar had no desire for Latin America to become the next United States. Bolivar stated, according to Bushnell, that:
he would rather see “America” (by which he meant Spanish America) adopt
the Koran than adopt the system of government of the Untied States, even
though he did not hesitate to add that it was “the best on earth,” It just was
not “best” for his part of the hemisphere.

Bolivar believed that federalism of the United States was not the ideal method of governance. He felt that Colombia and Latin America in general needed a strong central government because without it, “our own disunity led us back into slavery.” He compared the state of Latin America at that point in time to be “similar to the circumstances surrounding the fall of the Roman empire.”
The first constitution that was adopted in Latin America was by Venezuela. Venezuela’s constitution “had as its most salient feature the creation of a federal republic, in which the provinces were given ample faculties to deal with local affairs while the central authorities took charge of matters of general interest.” Bolivar “firmly believed that the choice of federalism reflected an unwholesome fascination with foreign models that were inapplicable to Venezuela.” However Bolivar further argued that:
the most grievous error committed by Venezuela as she entered the political
arena was undoubtedly her fatal adoption of the governing ideal of tolerance,
an ideal immediately rejected as weak and ineffective by every one of good
sense, yet tenaciously maintained right up to the end with unparalleled blindness.

It appears that by preaching tolerance and by allowing slaves to serve in the patriot armies that it created:
instead, countless poorly disciplined militias were established, which had
the effect not only of exhausting the national treasury with exorbitant salaries
but also of destroying agriculture tearing the farm workers away from their
farms and turning the government into an object of hatred, because it forced
them to take up arms and abandon their families.

By creating a disciplined fighting force, Bolivar was able to conquer Venezuela in August of 1813, and he declared the Second Republic of Venezuela as a result of the conquest. However, the Second Republic of Venezuela would not last and fell in 1814 due to the Boves’ rebellion which swept the country. Bolivar left Venezuela for New Granada that same year but is forced to leave that country due to disputes with the government there. He fled to Jamaica where he writes the famous Jamaica letter about his thoughts on the independence process in South America. He concluded that “it is even more difficult to predict the future lot of the New World, or to make definitive statements about its politics, or to make prophecies about the form of government it will adopt.”
While in Jamaica, Bolivar is able to attain military assistance from Haiti and lands in Venezuela in 1817 where he successfully captured the city of Angostura. After defeating the royalist forces at the Battle of Boyaca in 1819, Bolivar was able to add this territory to New Granada and form the federation of Gran Colombia on September 7, 1821 with himself as president. Once Gran Colombia had been founded, Bolivar turned his attention towards liberating the remainder of the continent, namely Peru, which had been a colonial Spanish stronghold since the 1532 beginning of the Spanish empire in the sixteenth century. In order to liberate Peru, Bolivar meets with the Argentine rebel leader, Jose de San Martin to discuss freeing Peru at Guayaquil in July of 1822.
Bolivar along with Antonio Jose de Sucre’s assistance was able to conquer Peru and was named dictator by the Congress of Peru on February 10, 1824. The people of Upper Peru honored Bolivar and his great victories by founding the Republic of Bolivia on August 6, 1825. However, trouble was brewing in the federation of Gran Colombia as the various divisions of society was fracturing socially, politically and economically, leading to outright rebellion in Venezuela. Bolivar himself summarized this divide in the following words: “…America is divided by remote climates, diverse geographies, conflicting interest and dissimilar characteristics.” Bolivar faced great difficulty in keeping a grip on power over such a diverse federation. So in April of 1828 he called for a new constitution to be written for Gran Colombia at Ocana. Bolivar firmly believed that:
I am of the opinion that until we centralize our American governments,
our enemies will gain irreversible advantages. We will be inevitably
embroiled in the horrors of civil dissension and in-gloriously defeated
by that handful of bandits infesting our territories.

He also believed that the primary reason for the hemorrhaging of the republic was that the pardos were gaining political, social and economic ground.
The Ocana constitution that was drafted by was not acceptable to Bolivar as it called for the creation of a pure federalist government with diminished executive power. Bolivar believed that only strong military leadership could save Gran Colombia at this point in time. He proclaimed himself dictator on August 27, 1828. The people of Gran Colombia especially that of the pardos, “equated Bolivar’s dictatorship with the restoration of whites’ colonial privileges.” The various attempts to assassinate Bolivar as a result of him declaring himself dictator, took a toll on Bolivar and the republic in general. Rebellions against his rule broke out throughout Gran Colombia over the course of the next two years, which ultimately forced Bolivar to resign his political office on April 27, 1830.
Bolivar and Spanish colonization
Bolivar made interesting comparisons between Spanish colonization and slavery. He stated that “the chains have been broken, we’ve been liberated, and now our enemies want to make us slaves” with regards to attempting to overthrow the Spanish yoke of power in Latin America. He did state that they did inherit some good traits as a result of Spanish rule but that it soon turned the opposite:
the habit of obedience, a commerce of shared interests, knowledge, and
religion; mutual goodwill; a tender concern for the birth land and glory
of our ancestors; in brief; everything that constituted our hopes came
to us from Spain. This was the source of a principle of adhesion that
seemed eternal, even though the behavior of our rulers undermined
that sympathy or to put it more accurately, that closeness imposed
on us by rule of force. Today, the opposite is true: death, dishonor,
everything harmful threatens us and makes us fearful. That wicked
stepmother is the source of all our suffering. The veil has been rent,
and now we can see the light, now she wants to return us to darkness.

Bolivar identified South America as a slave state by:

virtue of their constitution or the abuse of it. People are slaves when
the government, by its essence or through its vices, tramples and usurp’s
the rights of the citizen or subject. Applying these principles, we will
find that America was not only deprived of its freedom but deprived as
well of the opportunity to practice its own active tyranny.

He continued this theme of South America being enslaved at the Angostura Address on February 15, 1819:
enslaved by the triple yoke of ignorance, tyranny, and vice, we American
people have never experienced knowledge, power or virtue. As disciples
of this pernicious trio of masters the lessons we learned and the examples
we followed have been purely destructive. We’ve been ruled more by
deceit than power and corrupted more by vice than by superstition.
Slavery is the daughter of darkness.

Blanchard argued that “those fighting for freedom used the word ‘slavery’ to describe the situation, accusing Spain of having ‘enslaved’ the colonies. The accusations occasionally detailed, but more often simply implied, through the use of the term that Spanish Americans had experienced all of the suffering that slavery denoted.”
Bolivar and slavery
Gran Colombia was difficult to unite due to the geographical remoteness from one province to the next. “After 1810, Caribbean Colombia, barely connected to the rest of the country, could well have become a strong untied region-perhaps even a separate nation-with its own distant economy, racial makeup and culture. Yet it did not” according to historian Aline Helg in her work entitled, Liberty and Equality in Caribbean Colombia, 1770-1835. The independence movement in New Granada was led by “a fragmented and conflictive elite-led movement limited to some cities and areas whereas other cities and villages remained faithful to Spain.” Overall, the independence movements between 1810 and 1811 in New Granada “blended elements of traditional order with social revolution.” The right to vote in the cities was given to all males “regardless of race but did not destroy the colonial hierarchy and corporatist order.” The entire independence movement was only able to be established “when a powerful nucleus of the local elite was committed to reform and when together with leaders of African descent, they mobilized and armed lower-class men of color.” Helg argued that:
By not forming their own political movement in 1810-11, the free people
of color missed a unique chance to make demands beyond what the elite
was ready to concede. Although they briefly showed their capacity to act
independently from the white leadership in the revolt against the conspiracy
of the Fijo in February 1811, afterward they returned to their homes and

Slavery was also not a major issue for New Granada because the slaves themselves were not involved in the fight for independence and failed to take the opportunity that presented itself with the revolution in order to free themselves. According to historian Marixa Lasso in her article that explored race and Gran Colombia, this period of 1810-1812 independence movement by calling the period “a myth of racial democracy.” She further argued that:
it seems clear that the future of race relations was one of the most
controversial and conflictive problems of the independence period,
and the myth of racial harmony was one of the most important
political legacies of the Age of Revolution.

This myth of racial harmony prevailed throughout the period of the independence movements and even echoes in the politics and historiography of Latin America today.
Colombia has a diverse population where one in three Colombians has either full or mixed African ancestry. Before the modern nation of Colombia came into existence, the area of modern day Colombia near the Caribbean was known as New Granada. It was this very area that “…was demographically an important part of the African diaspora in the Americas” according to Aline Helg. Helg argued that conditions were ripe for a social revolution between 1770 and 1830, however:

…free black people of African ancestry did not seize such opportunities or take
advantage of their demographic superiority to gain power over whites and
impose their rule in any part of the region. Nor did they attempt to unite across
class, color, and residential lines or to organize autonomously or in union with
slaves and Indians to achieve equality and liberty on their own terms.

The Creoles of Cartagena made the decision in 1811 “to admit free African men and their full or mixed male descendants to the body of citizens-in opposition to the decision of the Spanish Cortes (Parliament) to grant suffrage only to male Spaniards, Indians and mestizos.” Bolivar believed that the slaves must be freed. He decreed that, “considering that justice, policy and the country imperiously demand the inalienable rights of nature, I have decided to formally decree absolute freedom for the slaves who have groaned under the Spanish yoke during the three previous centuries.” The decree imposed that all males between the ages of fourteen and sixty had to enlist in the military as a condition of their freedom. It also stated that if a freed slave refused to serve in the military, then they could not be freed nor could their family members. However, Bolivar moved to a different position on just how many slaves should be freed for military service in an April 18, 1820 letter that he wrote to General Francisco de Paula Santander: “I have ordered that slaves fit for military service be recruited. It should be understood that this means only those needed for military service, as an excessive number of them would be more harmful than useful.”
When it comes to slavery, Bolivar appeared to be constantly changing his opinions on the subject. In one instance he portrayed freeing slaves as the right thing to do “considering justice, policy and the country imperiously demand the inalienable rights of nature.” He then stated that “the soul of a slave rarely manages to appreciate the wholesome condition of freedom. It turns to rage during uprisings or to servility in its chains.” The leaders of Gran Colombia seemed to follow Bolivar’s example. Although they claimed to want freedom for everyone, the leaders of the federation “clung to the view that Indians were pitiable and backward but docile, whereas they believed that any gathering of individuals of African descent could degenerate into a rebellion against the white minority.” There was clearly a shift from the idea of freedom for all to only freedom to those “who could demonstrate ‘civilization’ and economic independence displaced military achievement.”
Bolivar and pardos
Although Bolivar was concerned with slavery, he was most concerned with pardos or free blacks, and that intermarriage between races, or miscegenation “would lead to the extermination of whites in Venezuela and Caribbean New Granada.” This fear of the pardos “dated back to his first phase of Venezuela’s anti-colonial struggle, often referred to as a race war, when in 1814 royalist Jose Tomas Boxes led an army of pardos and manumitted or fugitive slaves against the white creoles.” However, it appears that Bolivar appreciated the efforts of his black soldiers by stating that “the war…had taken a heavy toll on people of African descent, who had provided most of the troops and many lower-ranking officers” according to Helg. Bolivar in his address to the Constituent Congress in Lima on May 25, 1826 stated, “…what can I say of the soldier, born among slaves and entombed in the deserts of his country, whose political experience is limited to the sight of captives in chains and their fellow soldiers taking up arms to set them free?”
Helg argued that “the two-century old tradition of presenting Colombia as a mestizo nation has greatly contributed to black Colombians’ invisibility.” It is only today that black Colombians are finally gaining the recognition that they are and were an important part of the population in Colombia and in the history of the Latin American independence movements. It may have taken “more than a decade of war, accompanied by immense loss of life and property, most of Latin America had won its political independence.” However, that political independence did not come for everyone in Latin America, especially those of African descent. This was due to the fact that “no structural economic change took place, aristocratic values continued to dominate Latin American society, despite an elaborate fa├žade of republican constitutions and law codes.”
The ideas of Simon Bolivar and the Latin America independence movements present historians with many complexities in writing the history for that period in time. Bolivar’s demonstrated consistency in his efforts to promote centralized, quasi-dictatorial regimes and his reluctance to end slavery, and the legendary man known as El Libertador have been contrasted with the revolutionary who exhibited authoritarian, aristocratic, and anti-democratic tendencies. However, further research in this area of Latin America historiography is greatly needed.
Bolivar’s ideas behind both governance and race in Latin America still resonate within modern Latin America today. Venezuela’s Chavez seek to emulate Bolivar and his ideals today, which at times conflict with what others want in governing region. Race relations, especially the acknowledgement of the important role that Africans played in the independence movements have quite a ways to go, before their contribution is completely accepted by the non Africans today. Hopefully these ideals will be reconciled with the greater history of the region and that the efforts of those under represented groups will appear more integrated in the historiography of Latin America.


Primary Source

Bolivar, Simon. El Libertador

Biographical Sketches on Simon Bolivar

Belaunde, Victor Andres, Bolivar and the political thought of the Spanish American revolution, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1938.

Frank, Waldo David, Birth of a World: Bolivar in Terms of His Peoples, Houghton Mifflin, 1951.

Johnson, John J. Simon Bolivar and Spanish American independence, 1783-1830 Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1968

Lemly, Henry Rowna, Bolivar, liberator of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, Boston, Mass: The Stratford co., 1923.

Masur, Gerhard., Simon Bolivar, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1948.

Parra-Perez, C., Bolivar: a contribution to the study of his political ideas, Paris: Editions Excelsior, 1928.

Salcedo-Bastardo, J.L., Bolivar: a continent and its destiny, Richmond, England: Richmond Publishing Co., Ltd., 1977.

Trend, J.B., Bolivar and the independence of Spanish America, Bolivarian Society of Venezuela, 1951.

South America History, Wars of Independence, 1806-1830

Beals, Carleton, Eagles of the Andes: South American Struggles for independence, Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1963.

Helg, Aline. Liberty and Equality in Caribbean Colombia, 1770-1835

Moses, Bernard, The intellectual background of the revolution in South America, 1810-1824, New York: Russell & Russell, 1966.

Nicholson, Irene. The liberators: a study of independence movements in Spanish America New York: Praeger, 1969.

Rodriquez, Jaime E. The Independence of Spanish America Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Uribe-Uran, Victor M. State and Society in Spanish America during the Age of Revolution Wilmington, Del.: SR Books, 2001.

Colombia: History, Politics, & Government

Bushnell, David. The Santander regime in Gran Colombia Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1954.

____________, The making of modern Colombia: a nation in spite of itself, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Antonio Jose de Sucre biographies

Sherwell, Guillermo Antontio, Antonio Jose de Sucre hero and martyr of American independence, a sketch of his life, Washington DC: Press of B.S. Adams, 1924.


Blanchard, Peter. “The Language of Liberation: Slave Voices in the Wars of Independence” Hispanic American Historical Review 82:3.

Collier, Simon. “Nationality, Nationalism, and Supranationalism in the Writings of Simon Bolivar” The Hispanic American Historical Review Vol. 63, No. 1 (Feb., 1983)

Collings, Harry T. “The Congress of Bolivar” The Hispanic American Historical Review Vol. 63, No. 4 (Nov., 1926)

Castro-Klaren, Sara. “Framing Pan-Americanism: Simon Bolivar’s Findings” Project Muse.

Lasso, Marixa. “Race War and Nation in Caribbean Gran Colombia, Cartagena, 1810-1832”, The American Historical Review Vol. 111, no 2 (2006)

Lynch, John. “Bolivar and the Caudillos” The Hispanic American Historical Review Vol. 63, No. 1 (Feb., 1983)

Ethnic relations

Chirot, Daniel & E.P. Seligman, Ed., Ethnopolitical warfare: causes, consequences, and possible solutions Washington DC: American Psychological Association, 2001.

Wade, Peter. Race and ethnicity in Latin America, London & Chicago: Pluto Press, 1997.

Race relations

Andrews, George Reid. Afro-Latin America, 1800-2000 Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Graham, Richard. The Idea of race in Latin America, 1870-1940 Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.

Harris, Marvin. Patterns of race in the Americas, New York: Norton, 1974.

Morner, Magnus. Race mixture in the history of Latin America Boston: Little, Browm, 1967.

Toplin, Robert Brent, Slavery and race relations in Latin America, Westport Conn: Greenwood Press, 1974.