Daily Archives: 16 February 2022

Comparing Simon Bolivar to George Washington

From Bolivar: American Liberator, by Marie Arana (Simon & Schuster, 2013), Kindle pp. 4-6:

As Bolívar’s fame grew, he became known as the George Washington of South America. There were good reasons why. Both came from wealthy and influential families. Both were ardent defenders of freedom. Both were heroic in war, but apprehensive about marshaling the peace. Both resisted efforts to make them kings. Both claimed to want to return to private lives, but were called instead to shape governments. Both were accused of undue ambition.

There the similarities end. Bolívar’s military action lasted twice as long as Washington’s. The territory he covered was seven times as large and spanned an astonishing geographic diversity: from crocodile-infested jungles to the snowcapped reaches of the Andes. Moreover, unlike Washington’s war, Bolívar’s could not have been won without the aid of black and Indian troops; his success in rallying all races to the patriot cause became a turning point in the war for independence. It is fair to say that he led both a revolution and a civil war.

But perhaps what distinguishes these men above all can be seen most clearly in their written work. Washington’s words were measured, august, dignified—the product of a cautious and deliberate mind. Bolívar’s speeches and correspondence, on the other hand, were fiery, passionate. They represent some of the greatest writing in Latin American letters. Although much was produced in haste—on battlefields, on the run—the prose is at once lyrical and stately, clever but historically grounded, electric yet deeply wise. It is no exaggeration to say that Bolívar’s revolution changed the Spanish language, for his words marked the dawn of a new literary age. The old, dusty Castilian of his time, with its ornate flourishes and cumbersome locutions, in his remarkable voice and pen became another language entirely—urgent, vibrant, and young.

There is yet another important difference. Unlike Washington’s glory, Bolívar’s did not last unto the grave. In time, the politics in the countries Bolívar created grew ever more fractious, his detractors ever more vehement. Eventually, he came to believe that Latin Americans were not ready for a truly democratic government: abject, ignorant, suspicious, they did not understand how to govern themselves, having been systematically deprived of that experience by their Spanish oppressors. What they needed, in his eyes, was a strong hand, a strict executive. He began making unilateral decisions. He installed a dictator in Venezuela; he announced to Bolivia that it would have a president for life.

By the time he was forty-one, his wisdom began to be doubted by functionaries in every republic he had freed and founded. His deputies—jealous and wary of his extraordinary power—declared they no longer supported his dream of a unified Latin America. Regionalisms emerged, followed by border squabbles, civil wars, and, in Bolívar’s own halls, cloak-and-dagger betrayals. Trumped at last, he had no choice but to renounce command. His forty-seventh—and final—year ended in poverty, illness, and exile. Having given away the sum total of his personal fortune to the revolution, he died a poor and ravaged man. Few heroes in history have been dealt so much honor, so much power—and so much ingratitude.

But on the afternoon of August 10, 1819, as he stood at the viceroy’s splendid desk in the palace in Santa Fe de Bogotá, there was no limit to the possibilities of Bolívar’s America. The Spanish despot had left the room in such alarm that he had neglected to take the bag of gold on his table. Indeed, as Bolívar lay claim to the hoard of pesos left behind in the viceregal treasury, he understood that the tide had finally turned: his revolution stood to inherit all the abandoned riches of a waning empire. It would also inherit a whirlwind of political and social chaos. In a matter of a few years, Spain’s three-century yoke on the Americas would be sundered and the truly difficult journey toward freedom would begin.

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Filed under democracy, language, Latin America, migration, military, nationalism, Spain, U.S., war