Category Archives: nationalism

The Inca Vertical Archipelago

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 48-49, 50-51:

In less than a hundred years the Incas had built the most formidable empire in the Western Hemisphere. Like that of the Aztecs, their dominion was characterized essentially by the levying of tribute from scores of subject kingdoms and tribes. But the Incas went much further than the Aztecs in developing a centralized bureaucratic state at the service of a supreme ruling class. In this the physical peculiarities of the Andean region were directly influential.

The geography of the area covered by the Inca empire is marked by great contrasts of climate and terrain. Ascending from the rainless deserts of the coast to the snow-capped peaks of the Andes, one passes through sharply varying ecological environments. On the coast, agriculture is possible only in the vicinity of rivers or on land under irrigation; fishing has therefore always been important. In the highlands, altitude determines the kind of crops that can be produced; for instance, maize will grow well up to 11,000 feet, while at higher levels tubers and grains can be cultivated. In the cold, windswept puna – steppe-like grasslands just below the snow-line – no agriculture is possible, though pasture is available for the llamas, vicuñas and other ruminants that provide meat and wool. Each level forms an ‘ecological tier’ yielding a particular range of produce, and yet there is not enough fertile land on any one tier to sustain a large population. Over the centuries Andean societies developed a way of overcoming this problem by sending out settlers to cultivate crops at different altitudes in order to complement the produce of their native territories. Andean societies were not therefore territorially integrated units, but took rather the form of ‘vertical archipelagos’ comprising the ancestral homeland – which provided the core of tribal identity – and outlying agrarian settlements on a number of ecological tiers specializing in various types of produce for distribution and exchange among the dispersed branches of the tribe. Geography thus produced a unique economic structure, which, in turn, determined social values and practices. Where fertile land, being scarce, needed to be so carefully husbanded, it is little wonder that its distribution had to be closely regulated by the community and that a spirit of co-operation should be so highly prized among members of the tribe. As a result, the two ruling principles of Andean tribal society were redistribution and reciprocity.

As a direct descendant of the Sun God, the supreme Inca was an absolute ruler possessed of an awesome majesty. Just as the sun sustained all living things in the natural world, so the Inca was responsible for the well-being of the social order. In return for his dispensation of justice, his subjects would offer up to him their tribute and labour services. The Inca state, in effect, drew upon elementary tribal relations of reciprocity and mutual aid, and converted them into a sophisticated system of ideological control based upon a relationship between the royal patron and his clients which was not essentially different from that which existed between a contemporary European monarch and his subjects. What many modern writers have seen as unique ‘socialist’ or ‘welfare state’ features of the Inca empire were in reality manifestations of royal patronage. Thus, for instance, the Inca would allow his peasants to graze their animals on common lands as a reward for their labour services on his personal estates. The bulk of the tribute-goods collected from the peasants would go towards provisioning the army, the bureaucracy and other branches of the imperial state, but a portion was kept back in storehouses and released in times of famine by the generosity of the Inca in order to relieve the hunger of the masses. Similarly, the Inca would redistribute some of the tribute to provide for the old and the sick. In the view of Nathan Wachtel, ‘the peasants felt therefore that they shared in the consumption of the produce they delivered as tribute’, though it may be as well to recall that this form of reciprocity rested on the ideological exploitation of peasant labour. Certainly, there was a sharp divide between the hard grind of a peasant’s life in the villages and the leisured circumstances of the Inca nobility and of the curacas (tribal lords) who had been co-opted into the imperial ruling class. These aristocrats – called orejones or ‘big ears’ by the Spaniards because of their custom of distending their ear-lobes with gold discs – possessed private estates and material wealth which they would display as a sign of their power. In addition to the finery of their costume and the delicacy of their diet, they were allowed to practise polygamy and concubinage, and to chew the narcotic coca leaf. These special liberties were strictly forbidden to commoners, for, like all aristocratic societies, the Incas were obsessed with status, and perhaps more than most, the Incas succeeded in using religion to justify social privilege.

Inca religion was very much a family affair, since the supreme Inca and his kin possessed the sacred aura of divine descent. This was another example of the Incas’ conversion of tribal customs into the tools of imperialism.

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Aztec Religious Imperialism

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 44-45:

The basis of Aztec dominion was the levying of tribute in the form of goods and labour from tribes defeated in battle. Territory was also expropriated and distributed as private estates to deserving Aztec nobles. To maintain their hegemony, the Aztecs planted colonies in conquered lands and supported these with Aztec garrisons. Tribute-collectors would bring back an abundance of goods to Tenochtitlán, not just staples such as maize or beans but also luxuries and trappings of status that the Aztec aristocracy craved – objects of jade and gold, precious stones, quetzal feathers and jaguar skins. Indeed, Aztec conquests were motivated as much by religious and cultural factors as by purely economic needs. Defeated tribes were forced to add the Aztec deities to their pantheon and to adopt the Nahuatl tongue. A major reason for waging war was the taking of prisoners to be sacrificed upon the altars of the great pyramid at Tenochtitlán. The Aztec gods stimulated belligerence by their unceasing demand for human blood, and it is possible that the purpose of the continual ‘wars of flowers’ against the neighbouring Tlaxcalans was to ensure a steady supply of sacrificial victims rather than conquest as such.

The Aztec nobility were able to live in great luxury by adapting the traditional customs and institutions of Middle American tribal culture to their own advantage. The most effective of these adaptations was in the field of myth and religion, for it was religion that underpinned the unquestionable authority of the Aztec emperor or tlatoani (‘he who speaks’), and provided the rationale for conquest and the imposition of tribute. Religion was a particularly effective tool of imperialism because much of the Aztec religion was common to other peoples of Middle America, all of whom could trace their heritage to the Toltecs, the true founders of Nahuatl civilization. Once the Aztecs had started on their imperial expansion, they took pride in styling themselves the heirs of the Toltecs, a claim which served to give their rule a sacred justification.

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Post-Bolivarian Blues in Latin America

From Bolivar: American Liberator, by Marie Arana (Simon & Schuster, 2013), Kindle pp. 409-410:

No one knew more than Bolívar how imperfect the work had been. Independence had been achieved—enlightened forms of government considered—and yet the victors had emerged with no singleness of purpose, no spirit of collegiality. Warlords still wanted to rule their little fiefdoms, their undersized dreams a match for undersized abilities. It was as true in Bolivia as it was in Venezuela: Notions of a larger union seemed pompous, foreign, vaguely threatening. The colonies were dead, but the colonial mentality was very much alive. The new republics were as insular and xenophobic as Spain had encouraged its American satellites to be. Venezuelans saw Peruvians as arrogant royalists. Coastal dwellers saw mountain dwellers as benighted Indians. Southerners saw northerners as outlandish Negroes. “Goodbye, sambo!” someone yelled as General Sucre pulled out of La Paz. No one seemed to want the dream of an amalgamated America.

The cost of liberty, as Bolívar well knew, had been staggering—far more so than in the United States. Vast, populated regions of Latin America had been devastated. A revolution begun by polite society on the assumption that its wins would be painless had become mired in two decades of catastrophic losses, rivaling in carnage the twentieth century’s more heavily armed conflicts. Populations had been cut in half. Regional economies had come to a rumbling halt. Indeed, the republics Bolívar had liberated were far worse off economically than they had been under the Spaniards; whole provinces had been laid waste. Silver mines had been abandoned; farmlands burned to ash, textile production stopped cold. The chance for a new America to create a robust, interregional market had been lost to squabbling border struggles. Although indigenous and black generals appeared in the army for the first time—a phenomenon that would transform the face of South America—the great masses of Indians and blacks were no better off after the revolution. For a long while, they would be far worse off than they had been under Spain’s oppressive laws. Slavery, which Bolívar had worked hard to eradicate, had been supplanted by other forms of subjugation; Creoles had appropriated the Spanish rule. The Americas that were emerging under Bolívar’s horrified eyes were feudalistic, divisive, militaristic, racist, ruled by warlords who strove to keep the ignorant masses blinkered and under bigoted control. Eventually this would change. There is a vast difference, after all, between slavery and freedom; between opportunity and a shut door; between a ballot and totalitarian rule. But those fundamental transformations would take a century and a half to work through the continent. Latin America lay in financial and social ruin, its cities on the verge of anarchy. It was hardly the enlightened world the Liberator had envisioned.

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Bolivar’s Constitution, 1826

From Bolivar: American Liberator, by Marie Arana (Simon & Schuster, 2013), Kindle pp. 350-351:

BOLÍVAR’S CONSTITUTION WAS A TESTAMENT to how the social realities of the continent had altered his liberating vision; it was a curious combination of deeply held republican principle and authoritarian rule. He had long feared the lawlessness that a hastily conceived democracy might bring. To hand power too quickly to illiterate masses was to snuff out what little order there was. He had once told a British diplomat in Lima, “If principles of liberty are too rapidly introduced, anarchy and a wholesale purge of whites will be the inevitable consequences.” In other words, he had granted all races equality, but he worried that in the process of institutionalizing it, the blacks and Indians would simply kill off the old aristocracy—the very class from which he hailed. It was exactly what had happened in Haiti. Bolívar’s new constitution meant to free the people, and yet, for their own good, keep them in a tight harness.

His constitution’s proposed division of powers—executive, legislative, judicial—was similar to that of the United States, although he added a fourth branch, a separate electoral college. The legislative branch was to be made up of senators, tribunes, and censors. Senators were to enact and guard the laws; tribunes would deal with money and war; censors would safeguard liberties. The government would offer the people a “moral” education in order to instill principles of civic responsibility. The constitution provided for freedoms of speech, press, work, and passage. It ensured citizens all the benefits of personal security, equality before the law, and a jury-based system of justice. It abolished slavery. It put an end to all social privilege. Up to this point, Bolívar’s constitution resembled—even improved on—its British and United States counterparts. Where it differed starkly was in its conditions for the presidency, and it was here that the document ran aground.

Bolívar had stipulated that the president be appointed for life. To him, presidential power was key; upon it would rest the entire Bolívarian concept of order. Although he claimed that he had rendered the position headless and harmless because a president would be powerless to appoint anyone to the legislative government or to the courts, there was no doubt that the presidency would be the most powerful institution in the land. A president’s influence would extend into perpetuity by virtue of his ability to choose a vice president, who would be his successor. Thus, Bolívar contended, “we shall avoid elections, which always result in that great scourge of republics, anarchy . . . the most imminent and terrible peril of popular government.” He had come a long way from his address to the congress of Angostura seven years before, in which he had roundly averred: “Regular elections are essential to popular government, for nothing is more perilous than to permit one citizen to retain power for an extended period.” In the course of taking his wars of liberation south, he had changed his mind entirely.

When the Bolivian constitution was complete, Bolívar sent that “ark of the covenant” off to Sucre in Bolivia, in a special mission led by his personal aide, Colonel Belford Wilson. Eager to promote its adoption in other republics, he had several editions printed and dispatched to Colombia by the very courier who had delivered Páez’s message begging him to become king. In Peru, his secretary of state made sure that every member of the electoral college had a copy. Bolívar’s constitution, in short, was to be distributed as widely as possible, throughout the Americas as well as strategic points in Europe. As his handiwork circulated, reactions were mixed. The English regarded it as an enlightened charter, generous in its promised liberties, but wise in its mitigation of a “mischievous excess of popular power.” In the United States, on the other hand, legislators were outraged by its provision for a president for life; Southern politicians were infuriated by its abolition of slavery. In South America, opinions were divided. In Chile and Argentina, it was received with moderate praise; in Colombia, it was trooped from town to town by a Venezuelan known to have urged Bolívar to the throne, and so it was no surprise that it was seen as a prologue to monarchy.

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Fratricide at Ayacucho, 1827

From Bolivar: American Liberator, by Marie Arana (Simon & Schuster, 2013), Kindle pp. 334-335:

At eight o’clock, as the sun warmed the morning air, one of the Spanish generals, Juan Antonio Monet, a tall, sturdy man with a russet beard, approached the patriot lines and called out to General José María Córdova, whom he knew from former days. Monet told Córdova that in the royalist ranks, as in the patriot, there were soldiers with relatives on the opposite side: would he allow them to greet each other before hostilities began? When General Córdova consulted with Sucre, the general in chief agreed immediately. And so it was that fifty men of opposing sides met on the slopes of Cundurcunca, among them a number of brothers, to embrace and weep—as one chronicler put it—in a heartbreaking display of farewell. Indeed, for Peruvians as for Venezuelans and Colombians before them, revolution meant fratricide, and men who spoke the same language, held the same religion, even shared flesh and blood, would now set upon one another in defense of an idea. Seeing the heart-wrenching scenes, General Monet asked Córdova if there wasn’t some way to come to terms and avoid the bloodshed. Córdova answered: Only if you recognize American independence and return peacefully to Spain. Monet was taken aback and said as much: Didn’t the young patriot general realize that the Spanish army was vastly superior? Córdova responded that combat would determine whether that was true. Monet walked away shaking his head. There was no turning back.

The battle was fierce, short. The royalists clambered down Cundurcunca in their red, gold, and blue regalia, laboring mightily under the banners, their helmets glinting in the sun. Republicans in dark, somber overcoats lined up to meet them. Cries went up as they watched the enemy troops descend: “Horsemen! Lancers! What you see are hardly warriors! They are not your equals! To freedom!”—and so on, up and down the lines. Before the battle officially began, a young Spanish brigadier was first to attack and first to fall; even so, the royalists took immediate control of the action. General Valdés and his men descended on the republicans like a horde of punishing angels, splitting their formation so wide that it gaped, momentarily helpless. But patriot morale was strong and the setback spurred them to higher resolve. When Córdova cried out, “Soldiers! Man your arms! Move on to victory!” his battalion scrambled to mount a fierce retaliation and soon the course of battle changed. The patriots bayoneted royalists left and right, snatching their silver helmets as trophies. By one in the afternoon, they had taken the heights. By mid-afternoon the field was littered with the fallen. Before sundown, Canterac offered Sucre his unconditional surrender.

Almost three thousand royalists were taken prisoner, surrendering in the face of a daunting republican fervor. Perhaps it was the exhaustion after so many weeks of forced marches; or a terror of Bolívar’s famed barbarian hordes; or the dizzying altitude, which, at thirteen thousand feet, can steal the very breath from a man. Or perhaps what prevailed in the end was Sucre’s brilliant strategy to make the soldiers of the king work harder, climb higher, march longer; and then strike them with a virulent force. The white-haired viceroy La Serna, fighting bravely to the last, had to be carried off the field with injuries; General Miller, who found him by chance in one of the huts where the wounded were nursed, offered the gallant old soldier tea from his saddlebag and insisted that medics attend to him promptly. The dead amounted to 1,800 for Spain; only 300 for the republicans.

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San Martin’s Plans for Peru, 1822

From Bolivar: American Liberator, by Marie Arana (Simon & Schuster, 2013), Kindle pp. 299-300:

When they finally spoke about the political system San Martín had in mind for Peru, Bolívar’s suspicions were confirmed. The Protector laid out his plan for establishing a monarchy with a European prince in rule. Bolívar had heard rumors about this, but hoped they weren’t true. A year before, he had sent one of his aides, Diego Ibarra, to Lima, with a letter of congratulations for San Martín and instructions for Ibarra to learn what he could. Was San Martín considering a monarchical plan and, if so, how deeply was he committed to it? “Sound out the general’s spirit,” he ordered Ibarra, “and persuade him, if you can, against any project of erecting a throne in Peru, which would be nothing short of scandalous.” Now he was hearing about a Peruvian king from the Protector himself. San Martín explained to Bolívar that he had spoken about his plan to both viceroys; that he had sent a delegation of diplomats to England months before to discuss just such a throne and which prince or duke might fill it. If England weren’t willing, his delegates would look for qualified candidates in Belgium, France, Russia, Holland, or—even—Spain. It was the reason he had stalled in forming a Peruvian congress or drawing up a Peruvian constitution. As far as San Martín was concerned, the nation was not ready for democracy—education was in a shambles; ignorance abounded; the pillars upon which democracy could depend did not exist. Bolívar might have agreed on this last point, but he was viscerally opposed to royalty, to kings and queens, to that old, musty European system that had required so much American blood to purge. He would not hear of it. Bolívar left the meeting as somber and impenetrable as a sphinx. San Martín left it deeply mortified.

There had been no question that at every point of discussion, San Martín had been the supplicant, Bolívar the khan. The Liberator had everything the Protector needed: a winning army, the acclaim of his people, the luster of success, the recognition of a major world power. But Bolívar had given nothing; instead he had walked away deeply apprehensive of San Martín’s motives.

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Talking Peace with Chivalry, 1820

From Bolivar: American Liberator, by Marie Arana (Simon & Schuster, 2013), Kindle pp. 255-256:

So it was that the archenemies of one of the bloodiest episodes of South American history met on a muddy road, far from the medullas of political power. They approached one another from opposite directions, their paths as contrary as their essential natures: Bolívar had come from a long line of aristocrats and wore his pedigree lightly; Morillo, born into a family of peasants, had become Count of Cartagena in the course of an illustrious career. Bolívar was confident, spontaneous, as only the wellborn can be; Morillo was shrewd and deliberate, having scrapped for every honor he had been awarded. Into that historic moment, Bolívar rode a strong mule, was accompanied by a handful of men, and was dressed in the garb of a humble soldier. Morillo, on the other hand, set out on a magnificent horse, was clad in a uniform bespangled with decorations, and accompanied by fifty of his best officers and a full regiment of hussars. As they rode over the bare hills in the damp chill of a November morning, they might have glimpsed the sparkling expanse of Lake Maracaibo in the distance. If they had glanced south, they would have seen the splendid peaks of the cordillera. Weary of war, anxious about their own capacities to execute it, they came to that crossroad with high and not dissimilar hopes.

Morillo was first to arrive, and when he appeared at the appointed place he was soon met by Bolívar’s aide Daniel O’Leary, who announced that the Liberator was on his way. As they perched on their horses, peering expectantly down the road, the general asked what kind of escort would accompany the president of the republic. O’Leary replied that Bolívar’s retinue amounted to no more than twelve patriot officers and the three Spanish commissioners who had negotiated the armistice in Trujillo. Morillo was taken aback. “Well,” he finally managed, “I thought my escort too small for this venture, but I see that my old enemy has outdone me in chivalry. I’ll order my hussars to withdraw.” He did so immediately. The Liberator’s modest party soon appeared on the crest of the hill that overlooked Santa Ana, and Morillo moved forward to meet it. As the two neared one another, General Morillo wanted to know which of the horsemen was Bolívar. When O’Leary pointed him out, the Spaniard exclaimed, “What? That little man in the blue jacket and sergeant’s cap; the one riding the mule?” But no sooner had he said it than Bolívar was before him. The generals dismounted and embraced each other heartily. Their words were cordial, warm—filled with the kind of respect and admiration only the most serious rivals can have for one another. They headed to the private house Morillo had commandeered for the occasion, and sat down with their officers for a celebratory lunch.

For all the enmity that had passed between them, the two leaders were instantly companionable, with much to discuss. Morillo had fought in the Battle of Trafalgar only days after Bolívar had trekked to Rome as a young man and made his spirited vow on the heights of Monte Sacro. Morillo had served under the Duke of Wellington, the brother of Richard Wellesley, whose help Bolívar had solicited when the revolution was but an idea, with much blood yet to be shed. There were innumerable toasts made to the end of hostilities and the future of Spanish American understanding. “To the victories of Boyacá!” one Spanish colonel sang out. “To Colombians and Spaniards,” General La Torre added, “may they march side by side all the way to hell against the despots and the tyrants!” The men spoke of sacrifices, of heroism, of the past ten years of their lives, which had been steeped in the dark business of war.

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Napoleonic War Surplus in Venezuela

From Bolivar: American Liberator, by Marie Arana (Simon & Schuster, 2013), Kindle pp. 216-217, 220:

THE ORINOCO WAS BUSTLING with outsiders. Admiral Brion, who was living in one of the lavish mansions on the waterfront, was overseeing a veritable whirl of activity along the river. … War supplies, too, were suddenly becoming plentiful. In June, a British ship delivered clothing and supplies for ten thousand men; days later, Brion himself brought in a valuable cargo of arms. By the end of July, a large ship had sailed in from London, followed by a brig from New York, bearing enough muskets, pistols, gunpowder, swords, and saddles to outfit an entire army. Bolívar purchased any and all such supplies, paying for them however he could—with mules, fruit, tobacco, livestock. “Arms have been my constant concern,” Bolívar had written to Luis López Méndez, his agent in London, but now they were flowing to him in abundance. So much so that at times there was no need for the equipment. One shipment arrived with fine leather saddles for Páez’s cavalry—saddles his wild horsemen would never use. The remnants of Wellington’s war with Napoleon, nevertheless, were beginning to put Bolívar’s troops at striking advantage. Within a few months, he had stored away fifty thousand stands of arms.

Wellington’s victory had provided something else to the republic: regiments of seasoned war veterans. As irony would have it, British soldiers who had fought alongside General Morillo’s officers in Spain were now enlisting to fight against them in Venezuela. The two years that followed the Battle of Waterloo saw a vast reduction in the size of the British army. In April of 1817, the London Times reported that half a million ex-soldiers were coming home to Britain’s greater population of 25 million. In good times, this would have been difficult enough; but these were not good times—England and Ireland had suffered famine, riots, rampant unemployment—and soldiers were returning to almost certain poverty. When Bolívar’s London agent López Méndez announced he wanted to recruit experienced soldiers to fight in the revolution, he found himself flooded with applicants.

Bolívar … allowed any of the foreigners appalled by the conditions of his post to leave without reprisals or recriminations. The ones who remained would prove to be an invaluable infusion of grit and dedication. Within a month, he would be sending for more. Within five years, fifty-three ships would bring more than six thousand volunteers from Britain and Ireland to serve in South America; 5,300 actually arrived. The ones who made it up the Orinoco to the plains quickly learned that making war in that faraway terrain was no easy way to earn money. Their contributions made a great difference to the revolution in that precise moment in history. Bolívar was convinced of it. He was known to say that the real Liberator of Spanish America was his recruiting agent in London, Luis López Méndez.

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A Year Without Summer, 1816

From Bolivar: American Liberator, by Marie Arana (Simon & Schuster, 2013), Kindle pp. 181-182:

Eighteen sixteen was the year without a summer. As Lord Byron put it, the bright sun had vanished and stars wandered “darkling in the eternal space.” The colossal eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia on April 10, 1815—the largest volcanic event in recorded history—had traveled the globe to spew a fine ash over Europe and the Americas. A year later, the earth’s atmosphere was so saturated with sulfur that brilliant sunsets inflamed the English skies, torrential rains washed away European crops, and a persistent gloom hung over North America. At the time, few imagined that a single geologic event in a remote location could affect the entire globe, and yet there was so much evidence of a freak imbalance: stinging frosts carpeted Pennsylvania in the middle of summer, killing the livestock; in Germany, harvests failed, causing a crippling famine; a typhus epidemic swept through the Mediterranean. There were surprising ramifications. Food riots gripped England and Ireland; Luddites torched textile factories with renewed frenzy. In a dark castle in rain-pelted Switzerland, Mary Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein. In northern Europe, J. M. W. Turner was so stunned by the fiery skies that he recorded them in magnificent canvases for years to come. In France, rampant disease prompted a new age of medical discovery. And in the Caribbean, where Bolívar prepared to relaunch his revolution, a perfect calm preceded the hurricane season, which arrived a month sooner than usual, tossing the sea with singular fury.

Eighteen sixteen also became the revolution’s cruelest year. There were wholesale beheadings, hangings, firing squads—all in the name of “pacification.” General Morillo had installed draconian laws to rid Venezuela—Spain’s most defiant colony—of revolutionaries once and for all. The royalists arrested suspects in rural backwaters and relocated them to heavily defended towns, where they could be overseen. Anyone found wandering the countryside was a candidate for the gallows. Morillo’s men burned crops, purged the forests of fruit trees, killed farm animals, impounded horses, and executed any blacksmith capable of forging a lance’s head or any other weapon. Royalist commanders exacted taxes and punitive fines, making themselves rich and powerful in the process. Patriots, on the other hand, were stripped of whatever property they had.

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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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