Simon Bolivar: Hero or Villain

By [email protected] | Oct 12, 2022

By Lara Rivlin (17, Resident of Camden)

Simon Bolivar was a Venezuelan revolutionary in the 19th century who was instrumental in leading military operations against the Spanish empire, eventually leading to the liberation of most of South America. He was a wealthy Creole (American born) who lived in Europe for 8 years, including in France where he was deeply influenced by Montesquieu and Rousseau. He believed that liberty not only signified freedom from the absolutist state--as it did in the Enlightenment--but freedom from a colonial power, specifically of South America from Spain. He believed that the ideals of liberty included sovereignty of the people, civil liberty, separation of power, abolition of privileges, and later, abolition of slavery. He asserted that, ‘We need equality to recast, so to speak, into a single whole, the classes of men, political opinions and political custom.’

In his own beliefs, he was an abolitionist, considering it 'madness that a revolution for liberty should try to maintain slavery'. This is shown in part by the fact that he liberated his own slaves in 1814. However, this abolition was still on the condition of military service and was only made unconditional in 1821. It was only after being offered material support and troops in Haiti by Alexandre Pétion (President of Haiti at the time) on the condition that he abolish slavery in the liberated lands, that Bolivar took decisive action, realising the necessity of this aid in order to have a chance of ousting the Spanish. It could also be argued that he gained a newfound awareness of racial oppression and its similarities to colonial structure, allowing him, perhaps for the first time, to comprehend the injustice and inhumanity of slavery. That he implored Congress in Venezuela to end slave trade even after Pétion was already dead lends credence to this idea. Having said this, he only managed to get ‘Congress to agree to no new importation of slaves and that every child born after 1821 would be born free.’ [1]Colombia was more compliant to his demands, passing a ‘free womb’ law that decreed all children born into slavery would be emancipated at 18.

He achieved the most success in Bolivia (Upper Peru), writing the abolition of slavery into the Constitution himself writing: ‘Slavery is the infraction of all laws. (…) [slavery] is the most striking violation of human dignity.’ However, while he was willing to set in motion the gradual abolition of slavery, that was as far as he would go: the general disposition of Bolivar’s class, the Creole elite, were to maintain their privileges and prevent the rule of mixed race, black and indigenous people.

Having said this, many consider him to be a hero, even all these hundreds of years later. After all, he was not hailed ‘El Libertador’ (the Liberator) without reason. He remained in command from the beginning of the war of independence, to 15 years later (1824), achieving a unity of command rarely seen among such diversity of forces.

When Napoleon’s invasion of Spain allowed for Venezuela to capitalise on the resulting instability and to declare independence in 1810, it was Bolivar who went to London to obtain help, acting as an unofficial ambassador.  Though he was unable to secure aid from England itself, he did succeed in persuading exiled Francisco de Miranda, who, in 1806, had attempted to liberate his country single-handedly, to return to South America and assume command of the independence movement. This would prove to be decisive in the struggle for independence which resulted in Miranda heading the newly independent Venezuela.

Bolivar again proved his invaluableness when Miranda signed an armistice, which left Venezuela once more at the mercy of Spain. He took command of the armed forces himself this time and wrestled control from the Spanish, establishing the Second Republic of Venezuela under his authority.

However, this Republic too was doomed to fail, falling victim, like so many other newly formed states, to civil war. During this period, Bolivar fled to Jamaica to seek aid. Even from there, he managed to change the course of history, writing ‘Carta de Jamaica’ (Letter from Jamaica). Within this, he analysed the reasons for the fall of the Second Republic--providing arguments for South America’s independence and calling for the cooperation of Europe in this liberation. He also laid out his vision of a South American republic with a parliamentary setup, similar to that of England with one distinct difference: a life-long president who would then appoint their own successor. This letter would go on to be considered one of the greatest founding documents of South American history.

Some might say that at that point their work was done; however, for Simon Bolivar, it was just beginning. In 1819, he staged an attack on New Granada, a campaign that is still considered one of the most remarkable and dangerous feats in military history. What was so impressive about it? Well, the fact that the route traversed by Bolivar and his men was considered impassable during the rainy season because most of it was flooded. Yet again, Bolivar managed to achieve the impossible. The New Granada campaign was a pivotal moment as, when the royalist government fled, they left behind the treasury, which provided economic and human resources to help revolutionaries secure the eventual independence of northern South America.

Shortly after, Gran Columbia was created, comprising of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador. Bolivar would go on to serve as president from its creation in 1819 to 1830. During his presidency, he secured the independence of all of Venezuela, in 1921, as well as Upper Peru, which named itself Bolivia after its ‘liberator’.

The problem was that, though Bolivar liked politics, he was not very good at it. He had many authoritarian views, namely believing that a lifelong president and a highly restricted suffrage were necessary so that, as Bolivar put it, ‘elections could be avoided, which are the greatest scourge of republics and produce only anarchy’. Of course, in his mind, there was no man better suited to this role than him. People thus began to see him as someone who wanted to become king--fears that became realised when he declared himself dictator after Gran Colombia succumbed to infighting. Though, even as a self-proclaimed dictator, Bolivar refused to influence the elections, giving truth to his claim that he only assumed dictatorial powers because he saw no other option to achieve political stability. In the end, Bolivar was unable to hold the country that he had created together, with Venezuela breaking away in 1829, and Ecuador soon after.

As for Bolivar, he was denounced as a traitor in Venezuela and a foreigner in New Granada. He planned to spend his days in exile in Europe but passed away from tuberculosis before he could set sail. He was only 47 years old.

So how has the legacy of Simon Bolivar managed to endure so strong despite this, to the point that he is revered now to almost mythical proportions?

Well, his actions speak for themselves--he fought over an area of land 7 times larger than the American colonies, traversing double the terrain that Alexander the Great did (over 70,000 miles). He inspired the masses to rebel against colonial rule and in his wake republic after republic emerged. In total, he freed 6 countries: Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, and Peru. Many see him as a modal example of the Latin American spirit: brave, principled, willing to give up everything for his beliefs; in the end, the price demanded was indeed everything--he was born a wealthy man but died penniless and disillusioned.