Saturday, March 15, 2014

Simón Bolívar - The Flawed Man

Bolívar - a great man,
and a flawed one.
I recently read the Bolívar, the biography of Simón Bolívar, by Marie Arana. The book is pretty long, at just over 600 pages, but interesting and readable. And it provides a rounded, warts-and-all portrait of a man who has been transformed into a demigod by certain, mostly leftist, Latin American leaders.

Bolívar was by any measure a 'great man.' Overcoming huge challenges, he led (and drove) the armies which freed a half dozen nations in northern South America. Bolívar is often compared to George Washington, but Bolívar's accomplishments were, in many ways, much greater. Washington had only to drive out the British, but Bolívar had to deal with rival rebels, rebellions amongst other Americans, disease and even an earthquake.

While Washington's forces were overwhelmingly white and protestant, Bolivar managed to hold together a fighting force with huge racial and cultural differences.

Did Bolívar suffer remorse
for his massacres?
In contrast to the U.S. revolution, South America's was messy and fractured, with rival leaders, loyalist regions (which the British never enjoyed. In North America, the loyalists simply departed to Canada) and shifting loyalties, as whole regions switched allegiances.

And there was Bolívar's weakness for the ladies, which stole time from warmaking.

But Bolívar was clearly a much better general than Washington. Washington, according to some historians, lost more battles than he won, and won the war by managing to continue fighting until the British got exhausted and went home. Bolívar, in contrast, was a daring and ingenious tactician, who carried out almost superhuman feats, such as driving his army over high mountain passes to fall upon the unsuspecting Spanish.

Revolutionary pioneer Francisco de Miranda died in a Spanish
prison after Bolívar and others betrayed him to
the Spanish army.
George Washington and one of his
black slaves. The rebellion Washington led
protected slavery, while Bolívar's
started it toward its end.
The revolution Bolívar led also brought a much more fundamental change to South America than the North American 'revolution' did. Great Britain was, after all, something of a democracy in the 1700s, while Spain in the early 1800s was still an absolutist monarchy. (That's why I even wonder whether the North American colonies' rebellion should even be called a 'revolution.') And Bolívar's revolution was willing to make some fundamental changes which Washington's revolution was not - namely ending slavery and the slave trade, albeit not immediately. (Altho some would that Bolivar's motivation was partly pragmatic, to get the people of color, slave and free, onto the rebels' side.) In contrast, the U.S.'s Founding Fathers, terrible hypocrites many of them, wrote eloquently about the rights of man and human liberty and equality, but did nothing to end slavery and even protected the slave trade.

Deceased Venezuelan strongman
Hugo Chavez worshipped Bolívar.
But what is refreshing about Arana's book is that it includes Bolivár's mistakes and misdeeds - some of them
horrific ones. Take, for example, Bolívar's betrayal of revolutionary pioneer Francisco de Miranda to Spanish forces. Miranda died four years later in a Spanish prison.

South America's revolution was scarred by huge, wholesale savagery on both sides, including massacres of civilians and prisoners - which I haven't heard of in North America's revolution, which sounds gentlemanly in comparison. Bolívar massacred at various times Spanish prisoners of war, Spanish citizens for the crime of being Spaniards, and even a group of priests.

But at the revolutions' ends, Bolívar's comparison to Washington is less flattering. Bolívar seems to prove the old saying about power corrupting. In the end, Bolívar wanted to be made dictator of La Gran Colombia. Washington famously rejected being made king, served as president for two terms and then retired to his plantation (freeing his slaves in his will).

History may contain a sort of justice. Washington died a revered figure. Bolívar died almost a fugitive on the Colombian coast waiting for a ship to carry him to Europe for tuberculosis treatment.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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