Simón Bolívar: Liberator or Tyrannical Demagogue?
Latin American revolutionary Simón Bolívar is commonly referred to as the George Washington of Latin America by numerous scholars and political figures. Bolívar’s military prowess was unquestioned, as he led a vigorous liberation campaign that freed present-day Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela from the grasp of the Spanish Empire. Bolívar’s exploits have become legend in Latin American political history, with numerous countries fashioning themselves as “Bolivarian” in their style of governance. From leftist parties like the late Hugo Chávez’s Socialist Unity Party to establishment conservative parties, Latin American elites have repeatedly channeled the image of Bolívar in order to create an aura of political legitimacy.
Despite such adulation, is Simón Bolívar worthy of such praise?
Digging deeper reveals a less rosy picture of the renowned Latin American leader. In fact, the life of Simón Bolívar is a story filled with despotism, war atrocities, and illiberal views on governance.
Despite Bolívar’s mythical status in history books, his wartime actions painted a completely different image of the “Liberator”— one filled with atrocities and disdain for the rule of law. Drawing from several historical pieces from historian Pablo Victoria, Colombian economist Pol Victoria (no relation) recently exposed some of Bolívar’s atrocities. A rough translation of Victoria’s interview reveals several of Bolívar’s heinous actions during the Latin American Wars of Independence:
- A declaration of War to the Death against all the royalists (Spanish sympathizers) that did not aid Bolívar in his independence campaign.
- The sacking of various towns during the Battle of Taguanes in 1813 with a specific focus on killing all the “Europeans and Canarians”.
- After defeating a greatly diminished Royalist army at Acarigua, Bolívar ordered the summary execution of 600 prisoners in December 1813.
- Around February 1814, Bolívar ordered the execution 1,200 civilians, with explicit orders to summarily execute the Spaniards among them. Due to the scarcity of gunpowder, Bolivar’s forces executed many of the prisoners with pikes and swords, and were then finished off by crushing their skulls with rocks.
Even in times of peace, Bolívar extended his arbitrary despotism to the political realm. From the start, Bolívar was no fan of classical liberalism. He expressed his skepticism towards federalism in his famous Cartagena Manifesto:
But what most weakened the government of Venezuela was the federalist structure it adopted, embodying the exaggerated notion of the rights of man. By stipulating that each man should rule himself, this idea undermines social pacts and constitutes nations in a state of anarchy. Such was the true state of the confederation. Each province governed itself independently, and following this example, each city claimed equal privilege, citing the practice of the provinces and the theory that all men and all peoples have the right to institute whatever form of government they choose. The federal system, although it is the most perfect and the most suitable for guaranteeing human happiness in society, is, notwithstanding, the form most inimical to the interests of our emerging states.
In essence, Bolívar believed that the collapse of the First Republic of Venezuela was brought about by its decentralized federal system, thus necessitating a strong central government for Venezuela to survive as an independent nation.
Once independence was achieved throughout Latin America by 1821, Bolívar set out to establish Gran Colombia which encompassed present-day Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela.
Bolívar envisioned Gran Colombia as a vehicle for a Latin American superstate that would rival the U.S. and traditional European powerhouses. However, Bolivar’s rosy vision for Latin America did not pan out as planned.
With Gran Colombia on the ropes in 1828, Bolívar dissolved the constitutional convention of Ocaña after failing to reach an agreement on reforming the Constitution of Gran Colombia. Subsequently, Bolívar declared himself dictator of the Republic Colombia, effectively discarding all of Gran Colombia’s Republican features.
The Gran Colombia experiment would eventually end abruptly in 1830 when Ecuador, New Granada (present-day Colombia), and Venezuela decided to become independent states after years of internal conflicts and turmoil.
By Gran Colombia’s collapse in 1830, Bolívar was faced with the harsh reality that Latin America had become ungovernable.
In his letter to General Juan José Flores, Ploughing the Sea, Bolívar candidly expressed his concerns for the future of Latin America:
You know that I have ruled for twenty years, and I have derived from these only a few sure conclusions: (1) America is ungovernable, for us; (2) Those who serve revolution plough the sea; (3) The only thing one can do in America is emigrate; (4) This country will fall inevitably into the hands of the unrestrained multitudes and then into the hands of tyrants so insignificant they will be almost imperceptible, of all colors and races; (5) Once we’ve been eaten alive by every crime and extinguished by ferocity, the Europeans won’t even bother to conquer us; (6) If it were possible for any part of the world to revert to primitive chaos, it would be America in her last hour.
From that point forward, the overwhelming majority of the region would experience decades of political unrest and economic turmoil. Personalism, the lack of the rule of law, and destructive economic interventionism have been fixtures in Latin America over the past century and a half.
As a result of this unstable environment, many Hispanics have heeded the words of Bolívar by leaving their homelands in search of greener pastures like the United States, which has approximately 56.5 million residents of Hispanic origin.
If Latin America desires to break free from the shackles of mediocrity and misery, it must be willing to let go of its false idols and demagogues. Toppling the mythology of Simón Bolívar would be a good start.