The Liberator: Simón Bolívar

Born in Caracas in 1783, Bolívar, greatest of the Libertadores (the liberators) of South America, was sent to Europe as a 15 year old to be educated. There the works of Rousseau and Voltaire awakened notions of progressive liberalism that would change his life and the destiny of a continent.

Bolívar married a Spaniard in 1802, but she succumbed to yellow fever in Caracas shortly afterwards. Although he had many lovers, he would never again marry. The death of his wife marked a drastic shift in Bolívar’s destiny. He returned to France, where he met with the leaders of the French Revolution and then traveled to the USA to inspect the new order after the American Revolution. By the time he returned to Caracas in 1807, he had developed his own revolutionary theories.

In South America, disillusionment with Spanish rule was already close to breaking into open revolt. On April 19, 1810, the Junta Suprema was installed in Caracas, and on July 5, 1811, the Congress declared independence. This marked the beginning of a long and bitter war, most of which would be orchestrated by Bolívar.

His military career began with command of the Venezuelan independence movement. Battle followed battle with astonishing frequency until 1824. The independence forces won 35 battles personally directed by Bolívar, including a few key ones: the Battle of Boyacá (August 7, 1819) secured the independence of Colombia; the Battle of Carabobo (June 24, 1821) brought freedom to Venezuela; and the Battle of Pichincha (May 24, 1822) liberated Ecuador.

In September 1822 the Argentine liberator General José de San Martín, who had occupied Lima, abandoned the city to the Spanish and Bolívar took over the task of winning in Peru. On August 6, 1824, his army was victorious at the Battle of Junín and on December 9, 1824, General Antonio José de Sucre inflicted a final defeat at the Battle of Ayacucho. Peru, which included Alto Perú, had been liberated, and the war was over. On August 6, 1825, the first anniversary of the Battle of Junín, Alto Perú declared independence from Peru at Chuquisaca (Sucre) and the new republic was named Bolivia in Bolívar's honor.

But, as Bolívar well knew, freedom means just that and, although he had grand dreams for a unified state in the north of South America, they would prove difficult to realize. ‘I fear peace more than war,’ he wrote perceptively in a letter.

Establishing Gran Colombia (which comprised modern-day Venezuela, Colombia, Panamá and Ecuador) was easy, but holding it together proved impossible. Clinging stubbornly to his dream of the union, as it rapidly slipped from his hands, he lost influence, and his glory and appeal faded. Still seeing himself (perhaps correctly) as the best steward of the young nations, he then tried to set up a dictatorship, saying ‘Our America can only be ruled through a well-managed, shrewd despotism.' After surviving an assassination attempt in Bogotá, he resigned in 1830, disillusioned and in poor health. Almost at once, his Gran Colombia dissolved.

Venezuela seceded in 1830, approved a new congress and banned Bolívar from his homeland. A month later, Antonio José de Sucre, Bolívar’s closest friend, was assassinated in Colombia. These two news items reached Bolívar just as he was about to sail for France. Depressed and ill, he accepted the invitation of a Spaniard, Joaquín de Mier, to stay in his home in Santa Marta, Colombia.

Bolívar died alone on December 17, 1830, of pulmonary tuberculosis. De Mier donated one of his shirts to dress the body, as there had been none among Bolívar’s humble belongings. Perhaps the most important figure in the history of the South American continent had died. ‘There have been three great fools in history: Jesus, Don Quixote and I,’ he said shortly before his death.

One of the final remarks in Bolívar’s diary reads, ‘My name now belongs to history. It will do me justice.’ And so it has.