Revered throughout Spanish-speaking Latin America as the “Liberator,” whose single-minded determination forced Spain to grant independence to South America’s nascent nation-states in the 1820s, Simón Bolívar occupies a singular position as perhaps Latin America’s greatest patriot and hero.
Statues and busts of Bolívar grace public plazas across the continent, while his contemporary relevance remains readily apparent, as in Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution, brainchild of President Hugo Chávez, elected in 1998. This popular reverence contrasts sharply with the contemporaneous opinion of Bolívar in the years before his death, when many Latin American elites reviled him as an autocrat and dictator.
His political trajectory is the subject of an expansive literature, as his political philosophy evolved from a broad republicanism and democratic idealism in the early 1800s to an antidemocratic autocracy and repudiation of republican ideals by the late 1820s.
Weeks before his death from tuberculosis, Bolívar himself expressed his disillusionment and lamented his failure to achieve his vision of a politically unified nation-state embracing all of South America, when he famously proclaimed: “America is ungovernable ... he who serves a revolution ploughs the sea.” His lament proved prescient, foreshadowing the endemic civil wars that wracked much of the first century of Latin American independence.
Born on July 24, 1783, in Caracas, capital of the Provinces of Venezuela of the Viceroyalty of Gran Colombia, Simón Bolívar was the son of Juan Vicente Bolívar and María de la Concepción Palacios y Blanco, one of the most distinguished Creole (American-born Spanish) families in the city of 20,000 inhabitants.
His education was eclectic and unconventional, influenced by emergent Enlightenment ideals of republicanism, popular sovereignty, and democracy, and by romantic notions regarding nature and the arts. As a youth, he traveled widely in Europe and North America, continuing his studies in Madrid, southern France, and elsewhere.
He married in May 1802 in Madrid and eight months later his wife died, a catastrophic personal event that he later claimed changed the trajectory of his life. “If I had not been left a widower... I should not be General Bolívar, nor the Liberator,” he later observed.
Returning to Europe, in December 1804 he attended the coronation of Napoleon I in Paris, an event that left an enduring impression. He was particularly struck by the popular adoration for the French emperor, which he envisioned for himself for liberating South America from Spanish rule.
In August 1805 on the Monte Sacro on the outskirts of Rome, he solemnly vowed that he would “not rest in body or soul till I have broken the chains that bind us to the will of Spain.” He would spend the next two decades struggling to fulfill that vow.
Bolívar’s military campaigns against the Spanish armies, culminating in Latin American independence, comprise the subject of a vast literature. The evolution of his political philosophy can be seen in three key documents.
The first, the Jamaica Letter of September 6, 1815, offered a critical appraisal of the status of the Latin American revolutionary movements and a series of predictions regarding Latin America’s future.
The political views inspiring Bolívar’s Jamaica Letter can be characterized as broadly nationalist and republican. The second document, a major speech before the Congress of Angostura in 1819, evinced far greater emphasis on the need for political unity and a strong central executive.
The third document, the Bolivian Constitution of 1825, represents the acme of Bolívar’s political shift toward a belief in a unitary executive and strong central state and his fears of civil war and political anarchy.
Many of his prognostications on Latin America’s future proved accurate, most notably the monumental difficulties of governing territories with no tradition of democracy and shot through with deep divisions of race and class.
Indeed, throughout his career as the Liberator, Bolívar sought to achieve a political revolution, independence from Spain, without sparking a social revolution from below. Remarkably, he largely succeeded.
The process by which popular memories of Bolívar transformed so dramatically after his death, from a despised autocrat to a popular hero and Liberator, represents yet another puzzle in the history of this revered Latin American patriot.