The Life and Legacy of Simon Bolivar

by Travis Dicken

Not many people have monuments of themselves scattered over several nations on a continent. Even fewer have an entire nation named after them. Perhaps there is only one who can claim to have led at least five nations to independence after centuries of imperialist rule. This article will attempt, in a limited space, to examine the life, legacy, successes and failures, and overall complexity of Simon Bolivar, a man who can lay claim to all of the above, as well as to being one of the important political figures in the history of the Americas and a symbol of unity and pride for a continent of people divided by history, class, culture, ethnicity, and politics.

Simon Jose Antonio de la Santisima Trinidad Bolivar y Palacios Ponte y Blanco was born July 24, 1783. The young boy, who would be known to history as Simon Bolivar, was born to a family of wealthy plantation owners (as his impressively long birth name would indicate), and would lead a life at odds with his wealthy upbringing.

Enduring the loss of both parents by the age of nine, Bolivar had difficult relationships with many tutors and eventually came by his education in Europe, where he studied history and ideas, and witnessed the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte on December 2, 1804. This event had a profound impact on him, and made him long for a similar glory for his own people. Coupled with his admiration for the American and French Revolutions and the ideal of democracy, Bolivar returned to South America in 1807, amid an upswing of revolutionary sentiment.

In 1813, Bolivar was given an army to lead, and earned his enduring nickname of “The Liberator” (El Liberatador) after taking Caracas shortly thereafter. The forces of revolution in Latin America at the time were hardly homogenous, however. A splintering factionalism combined with a colonial counterattack to defeat Bolivar shortly after his initial victories, driving him from the continent and into the Caribbean, where he eventually landed in Haiti. It would be in Haiti, amongst the island nationʼs history of slave revolt, that Bolivar fully commited himself to eradicating slavery from the South American continent, which would form one of his biggest breaks with the American founders he admired, as well as put him in the unique position of being born to a slave-owning family who would use his familyʼs wealth to abolish slavery over.

In 1816, he returned to South America with an army of Haitian soldiers and began a long campaign for independence — not just for his native Venezuela, but for the entire continent from colonial hands. His military campaign ended in 1824 with the final defeat of the Spanish at Junin, after which his ally, Antonio Jose de Sucre, would defeat the remnant Spanish army on December 9 of that year. His string of victories over much stronger forces would embed his martial genius onto the pages of history. But victory on the battlefield left a new, potentially greater challenge: uniting and ruling a land ravaged by centuries of imperial rule.

Bolivar and his allies would form the nation of Gran Columbia on Sept. 7, 1821, comprising most of the northern half of the continent. A new nation was formed on August 6, 1825, named the Republic of Bolivia in his honor, with Bolivar as its president. Bolivar dreamed of a continent-wide federation of states, based on his idea of the United States, with a central government formed for the sole purpose of protecting the rights of the individual. His dream would be subverted, however, by the factionalism of the people within it, as well as the continentʼs ravaged state after being subjected to what he deemed the “triple yoke of ignorance, tyranny, and vice” — the same social, political, and economic impediments that would face post-Revolution Russia almost a century later and lead to its undoing.

Much like Lenin, Bolivar would try to unify his nation (or nations) and pursue his dream in increasingly authoritarian fashions, including proclaiming himself dictator on August 27, 1828. Unlike Lenin, Bolivar seemed aware of the contradiction of a dictatorship in the name of liberty, and continued his admiration for the American founders and their ideals, if not their flawed practice of democracy. After enduring revolts and an attempt on his life, Bolivar would resign his position on April 27, 1830, watching his dream of unified South America dissipate before his eyes. He would pass away on December 17 of that year.

It would be all too easy to dismiss Bolivar the politician as a failure. While his ideas of how to achieve a unified, free and democratic South America may have had serious flaws, they represent the challenges of breaking free of imperial control, challenges many former colonies around the world face to this day. His unwavering commitment to democracy, liberty, and the unity of the South American people would make him a central figure of South American political thought in the centuries to come, and his abolishment of slavery and liberation of much of South America would turn into inspiration for South American leftist leaders, including Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, the current president of the nation that bears Bolivarʼs name to this day.

Above all, Bolivar stands in history as a luminary revolutionary figure, and a symbol of pride for a continent still feeling the aftershocks of imperialism and for leaders struggling to assert themselves as committed leftists in a world of globalized capitalism. He is a man worthy of praise, study, and reflection, and someone that people yearning for change across the world would do well to know.


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