Simon Bolivar’s extreme makeover

JAIME MANRIQUE is the author of "Our Lives Are the Rivers," a historical novel about Manuela Saenz, the great love of Simon Bolivar.

I RECENTLY RETURNED from a visit to La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, a former sugar plantation on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. It is where Gen. Simon Bolivar, liberator of five South American nations, died of tuberculosis on Dec. 17, 1830, at the age of 47. At the time of his death, Bolivar was preparing to go into exile in Europe. The country he had liberated from the rule of the Spanish crown 10 years earlier had come to revile him. More crushingly, it had become clear to Bolivar that it was just a matter of time before his creation, Gran Colombia, would be dissolved. He had dreamed that the unification of Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador would equal in might the great powers of Europe and the emerging United States.

More than 170 years later, Bolivar’s influence in South American politics has never been greater. In the Andean nations, newly elected presidents and large numbers of young people call themselves Bolivarianos and invoke his name when criticizing U.S. foreign policy. The cells of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, call themselves Milicias Bolivarianas. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has turned Bolivar into the patron saint of his Revolucion Bolivariana. If Bolivar were alive today, he probably would be baffled by how his name is being invoked.

The liberator was a visionary thinker, an eloquent writer and a nobleman who sacrificed his wealth, health and family for the cause of independence from Spain. But he was also full of contradictions, which may help explain why his name has been co-opted for quite different purposes.


FARC began as an army of peasants who took up arms to defend themselves during the period known in Colombia as La Violencia. Later, it evolved into a Marxist guerrilla group advocating the overthrow of Colombia’s ruling class. Today, in addition to its penchant for violence, FARC is responsible for exporting 50% of the cocaine consumed worldwide. It’s hard to believe that Bolivar would condone FARC’s methods and ideals.

Chavez, on the other hand, uses the liberator’s legacy to chastise the Venezuelan and Latin American oligarchies, conveniently downplaying that Bolivar was born into one the wealthiest families in Venezuela. The war he waged against the Spanish empire for the liberation of South America was not exactly fought to bring economic and social justice to the masses, the central goal of Chavez’s Revolucion Bolivariana. Rather, Bolivar’s larger goal was to ensure that the criollos -- descendants of the Spaniards born on South American soil -- had the same rights as the Spaniards.

The mestizos -- the fusion of European, African and Indian races -- were not one of Bolivar’s main concerns. Further, even though Bolivar was an abolitionist and promised to abolish slavery, near the end of his life he asked the forgiveness of South American Indians for having paid so little attention to their needs. Bolivar’s position on race issues -- like Thomas Jefferson, he was a slave owner -- makes us feel uncomfortable. His disdain toward Colombian Gen. Francisco de Paula Santander, who would become his mortal enemy, was not only because of Santander’s advocacy of the American model of democracy and his lack of a European education but also because of his Indian ancestry.

In his rants against the Bush administration and the United States, Chavez frequently invokes Bolivar’s name. But the liberator was no enemy of the United States. He simply believed that the American democratic model was ill-suited for the primarily illiterate nations of the Andes he had liberated. Only a strong central government, he believed, could prevent the nations from falling into chaos and into the hands of warlords. (His enemies used this to scare people into thinking the general intended to become their monarch.)

Bolivar’s European education accentuated his natural reserve, which made him incapable of demagoguery and populist speechifying. He never viscerally connected with the Colombian people, who preferred pomp and flowery speeches from their rulers. Chavez’s brand of populism -- a blend of Castro and Peron histrionics -- would put off Bolivar.