Simon Bolivar – something for everybody

by Paul Cardwell on October 31, 2013

Simon Bolivar

This weekend whilst mountain biking I listened to another of the excellent BBC podcasts by Melvyn Bragg, in the series “In Our Time”. This one was about Simon Bolivar, and as usual Bragg assembled several academics to discuss the background, role, achievements and legacy of the Liberator. It can be listened to by downloading here from the BBC.

Fascinating it was too as a broad overview, peppered with nuggets of info. For example, Bolivar was surprisingly well-connected to the Spaniards in his early years. Born into a very rich creole family in Venezuela, he was able to do not one but two grand tours of Europe, something that only a few Europeans (mainly British) were doing at the time. On the second, he was invited to attend Napoleon’s coronation (1804), but preferred to sulk away in the Spanish Ambassador’s residence in Paris as he was highly critical of monarchies.  (This starkly conflicts with the Wikipedia biography, whereby he not only attended the coronation but was inspired to seek equal glory in freeing Latin America. )

Bolivar started plotting by forming the innocuous-sounding Agricultural Society in Caracas. This met in secret and discussed anything but farming. If you find proposals for creating anything similar in your local town or village, be prudent and start building barricades….

The General in His Labyrinth, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

At the historic Guayaquil Meeting of 1822, when Bolivar and the liberator of Chile, San Martin, met and determined the future of the continent, Bolivar raised a toast to “the 2 greatest men in history, General San Martin and myself”.  Such optimism sadly soon gave away to complete dejection, as his dream of a united continent collapsed rapidly in the face of warring caudillos. Just 2 quotes to illustrate: “In the course of history, there have been three radicals: Jesus Christ, Don Quixote, and… me.” and “America is ungovernable; those who served the revolution have plowed the sea.”

(Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ historical novel ‘The General in his Labyrinth’ conjures up well the melancholy of Bolivar’s last year, when he is cruises along the Magdalena river in Colombia, plagued by memories and feelings of failure. Do add to your reading list!)he face of warring local caudillos: “In the course of history, there have been three radicals: Jesus Christ, Don Quixote, and… me”, and “America is ungovernable; those who served the revolution have plowed the sea.”

Portrait of Juana Azurduy

Fascinating it was also to learn of the significant involvement of women in the independence campaigns, whether as camp followers, spies and informers, or as fighters. General San Martin created a medal, the Order of the Sun, to award for those providing valuable information for the cause, and half the recipients were women. One of the most active was the Bolivian Juana Azurduy (portrait above), who reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and whose husband, Manuel Padilla, was killed in the battle of La Laguna in 1816 while fighting alongside her. According to the podcast, she had a bodyguard of 25 women, called ‘Las Amazonas’.

Despite his incredible achievement of fulfilling the vow he made in Italy in 1804, to break the chains of Spanish oppression in Latin America, Bolivar died unmourned  and neglected at the young age of 47. He was actively hated in Venezuela. Only years later was veneration for the Liberator promoted, ironically by an enemy, General Paez, in an attempt to prevent further fragmentation of Venezuela. In recent years he has been brandished by Chavez as a symbol for the new Venezuela, prompting an academic in the podcast to end the program by saying “There’s something in Bolivar for everybody”. For somebody of Bolivar’s stature, that understates the impact he has made on the entire continent.

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