Daily Archives: 24 February 2022

Bolivar’s 1815 Letter from Jamaica

From Bolivar: American Liberator, by Marie Arana (Simon & Schuster, 2013), Kindle pp. 175-177:

One of Bolívar’s many writings during that time was an astonishingly prescient letter addressed to an Englishman in Jamaica who expressed interest in his struggle for independence. More than a friendly missive, this was a masterful tour d’horizon. Clearly Bolívar meant it to enjoy wide dissemination. Written in vibrant prose and reflecting a profound grasp of the legacy of colonialism, the letter was read at first only by the small English circle for whom it was intended. It would take more than a dozen years to be retranslated into Spanish. But the letter served as a blueprint for Bolívar’s political thought, and its ideas would emerge in countless documents during those formative days.

The “Letter from Jamaica” declared unequivocally that the bond between America and Spain had been severed forevermore: it could never be repaired. Although the “wicked stepmother” was laboring mightily to reapply her chains, it was too late. The colonies had tasted freedom. “Our hatred for Spain,” he declared, “is vaster than the sea between us.”

In turns a paean to the inexpressible beauty of the continent and a shriek of fury at its despoliation, Bolívar’s letter is a brilliant distillation of Latin America’s political reality. His people, he explains, are neither Indian nor pardos nor European, but an entirely new race, for which European models of government are patently unsuitable. Monarchies, to these Americans, were abhorrent by definition; and democracy—Philadelphia style—inappropriate for a population cowed and infantilized by three hundred years of slavery. “As long as we do not have the political virtues that distinguish our brothers of the north,” he argued, “a democratic system, far from rescuing us, can only bring us ruin. . . . We are a region plagued by vices learned from Spain, which, through history, has been a mistress of cruelty, ambition, meanness, and greed.” Most important to the welfare of these fledgling republics, Bolívar insisted, was a firm executive who employed wisdom, dispensed justice, and ruled benevolently for life. His America needed a strong, centralized government—one that addressed the people’s wretched condition, not a perfectly conceptualized, theoretical model dreamed up by idealists on some far-flung shore.

But the “Letter from Jamaica” was more than mere propaganda; it was inspired prophecy. In it, Bolívar predicted that revolution-torn Mexico would opt for a temporary monarchy, which indeed it did. He pictured the loose confederation of nations that later became Central America. Given Panama’s “magnificent position between two mighty seas,” he imagined a canal. For Argentina, he foresaw military dictatorships; for Chile, “the blessings that flow from the just and gentle laws of a republic.” For Peru, he predicted a limbo in which privileged whites would not tolerate a genuine democracy, colored masses would not tolerate a ruling aristocracy, and the constant threat of rebellion was never far from hand. All these would come to pass. In some countries, one could even say, Bolívar’s visions still hold.

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Filed under Britain, democracy, Latin America, migration, nationalism, philosophy, slavery, Spain, U.S., war