by Mario Pommier
It was the vision of freedom that inspired the great leaders who struggled for independence during the 18th and 19th centuries in the Americas: among them George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in the United States, Simón Bolívar, José de San Martín and Benito Juárez in Latin America. We do not always recognize the change of consciousness of an entire society, indeed, of the world, that came about because of this new vision-the idea that each individual has rights, worth, and limitless possibilities. In order for this freedom to be actualized, a new system of government was necessary, and the struggle to establish how that government will work continues to fill our history books to this day. The story of Simón Bolívar, who is known as the Liberator of South America, helps us see how this new hope for humanity-that every person, no matter what social class, race, or religion, would be free-began as the idealistic yearning of a few human beings who were willing to give their lives for the good of everyone.
Simón Bolívar was born on July 24, 1783 in Caracas, Venezuela. He was three years old when his father died and only eleven when he lost his mother. A black woman, Hipólita, who was born a slave to his family, nursed him in his childhood. He later referred to her as "my mother Hipólita," saying, "She nourished my life. I knew no other parent than her."
The child's education was taken up by tutors. One of them, Simón Rodríguez, only eight years older than the rebellious young Bolívar, succeeded in captivating his attention by exposing him to the wonders of nature in long walks through the countryside. Thirty years later, the boy, turned man, wrote to his teacher, "You educated my heart to liberty, to justice-for the great and the beautiful."
Bolívar married in Spain in 1802 and moved back to his Venezuelan estate with the intention of enjoying married life. But his wife died one year after their arrival. He was deeply affected by her death and traveled to Europe once more, where his life changed course for the good of an entire continent.
He settled in Paris and absorbed the dominant political and intellectual philosophy of his age: the humanitarianism and rationalism of the Enlightenment; and the ideas of liberty, equality, and justice for all of the French Revolution. He became a Mason, as did so many of the leaders of the struggle for liberation, embracing the spiritual and social values of their vision. The young man was enraptured by the social and intellectual life of Paris. He befriended Alexander von Humboldt, the most famous explorer and scientist of his day, who had visited Venezuela in his travels through South America. Humboldt opened Bolívar's eyes in a conversation: "I believe Venezuela is ready for independence, but where is the man strong enough to bring it about? All that's missing is the man."
It was as if the voice of destiny spoke: a new sense of purpose grew in the young Bolívar. Knapsack on back, he hiked through Europe. In the Monte Sacro in Rome, he vowed to free his country from Spanish dominion in the presence of his tutor, Rodríguez: "I swear before you, by the God of my fathers and honor of my country: I will not rest, not in body or soul, till I have broken the chains of Spain." The future Libertador of South America was only 23 years old. But he understood the extent of the struggle and sacrifice that was in store for him and for millions of his people: he knew that the freedom of South America would have to be fought for; he was determined to bring it about.
In the early 19th century, Latin America was a continent that had been subjected to 300 years of foreign rule, slavery and domination. Bolívar wished his fellow citizens to live in liberty, social justice and equality, and recognized that, in his time and era, he could only win those ideals through battle. To this end he trained himself and became one of the leading military figures of all times. He fought the wars of independence against the Spanish empire, the most powerful empire of his age, leading troops that were often illclothed, under-equipped and outnumbered. He knew that although South Americans desired freedom, they hesitated before the enemy's overwhelming strength. Therefore, he became a master at training his troops, disciplining them, instructing them, and guiding them. Because of his own physical strength, acquired under the training of his tutor, he was able to successfully lead campaigns of heroic dimensions.
In July 1817, for example, Bolívar's imagination nearly convinced his officers he had lost his mind. They spent the night in the Casacoima Lagoon, with the water up to their necks, hiding from the royalist troops that had nearly ambushed them. At one point, as if thinking aloud, he began to outline each step he would take in the future: the immediate capture of Angostura, the crossing of the Andes to liberate New Granada and later Venezuela, the foundation of the Republic of Colombia, and the conquest of the immense southern territories all the way to Peru. It was a prophecy he fulfilled in every detail within the next seven years.
The General was also a master in outwitting the opponent. In 1819, he had already gained control of the Orinoco River basin with the men and munitions provided by President Petion of Haiti and installed the Congress of Angostura. To bypass the Spanish stronghold in Venezuela and defeat the smaller royalist forces in New Granada in a surprise attack, the liberating army marched across the Venezuelan lowlands flooded during the rainy season and staggered across the Andes mountains during the bitter cold winter. By 1820, he had freed Colombia. In 1821, he assured the independence of Venezuela, and in 1822, he incorporated Quito and Guayaquil into the Republic of Colombia after triumphal campaigns conducted in the high Andes mountains. He conquered Peru by the end of 1824. The final battle for the independence of South America was fought in the battle of Ayacucho in December 1824.
But Bolívar was so much more than a great military leader. He was a visionary and a man of the people. On his journeys-he rode over 54,000 miles on horseback during the struggle for liberation, more than twice the distance around the world-Bolívar had the habit of making casual stops to approach the men and women he met along the way and ask about their families, the nature of their illnesses, the condition of their businesses, what they thought about everything. He installed regional governments in every city freed from Spanish rule, which allowed citizens to participate in the new democratic state he wished to form. Bolívar believed that any democracy had to be based on justice, and he abolished slavery and gave equal rights to the native peoples from the very beginning of his campaign for liberation.
Above all, Bolívar promoted education-recognizing that only by educating everyone could the people understand and live in democracy. He established schools and colleges for men and women where people from all the different races of South America could attend, recognizing that the foreign rule of Spain had immersed the great masses of people in ignorance and tyranny. Bolívar was also for his people a great moral educator-his courage, generosity, optimism, respectfulness, and magnanimity made him beloved by millions. He gave his own money and fortune to the struggle for freedom and never accepted a salary or privileges for his work. He always claimed that the title of Liberator was his most valued treasure. Through speeches, proclamations, letters and articles written in the press he inspired the people and encouraged them in moral virtues such as sacrifice, discipline, and work. He insisted that the most valuable title anyone could aspire to was that of "good citizen" because it meant obedience to the law and concern for the good of all.
Perhaps Bolívar most singular contribution to a new vision of society was his hope for a unified South America. He strove to create a league of nations out of the freed Spanish American colonies, but in the effort to forge an indivisible brotherhood among neighboring countries he lost everything he had worked for. His one-time comrades-in-arms deserted him. He was misunderstood in the republican movement whose goals he had brought to fruition, and was accused of attempting to become emperor. He sacrificed the glory of his military victories for the sake of harmony and peace on the continent. It is exactly for attempting to unite the continent and for the personal renunciation this endeavor implied, relinquishing the highest positions any soldier could dream of- President of the unified Republic of Colombia, Dictator of Peru, President of Bolivia and Commander- in-Chief of the victorious liberating army-that he is remembered and admired to this day.
Simón Bolívar died on December 10, 1830 of pulmonary tuberculosis, abandoned, alone, and destitute. Although he was only 46 years old at the time of his death, he had the appearance of a very old man. It was as if he gave everything-all his energy, all his physical strength-to the fulfillment of his mission. He had wrested from Spain an empire five times larger than all of Europe, and had struggled for twenty years to keep it free and united. He is remembered as a man who had a deeper perception of his times than had his contemporaries, a visionary who saw the needs of an entire continent, and a man of action who moved decisively to remedy them. He failed to realize his dream of continental unity, but nourished it with his life and stamped it on the consciousness of Latin America
References and Recommended Readings
- García Márquez, Gabriel. Translated by Edith Grossman. The General in His Labyrinth . New York: A. A. Knopf. 1990.
- Prieto, Luis B. Translated by James D. Parsons. Simon Bolivar: Educator . New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1970.
- Trend, J. B. Bolívar and the Independence of Spanish America . Venezuela: Bolivarian Society of Venezuela, 1951.
- Wepman, Dennis. Simón Bolívar . New York: Chelsea Publishers, 1985.
- Worcester, E. Donald. Bolívar . Canada: Little Brown & Company, 1977.
Reprinted from Walking With Contemplation