August 11, 2010




Apart from being one of the most bio-diverse continents on Earth, South America, with its vast stretches of untapped natural resources and hard working people is nicely poised to play a crucial role on the world stage. Although agrarian communities have flourished here since 2000 BC, the region came into limelight in the end of the 15th century when the conquistadors, backed by Iberian courts arrived on its shores. For the next three centuries, the natives, their cultures, religions and customs as well as the resources of the continent were exploited in a bid to fulfill the expansionist policies of their colonial masters, namely Spain and Portugal. However, by early 19th century, young South Americans, the descendants of European settlers, inspired by the success of revolutions in America and Haiti and disgruntled with the policies of their overlords began several armed campaigns aimed to achieve freedom for their people. Perhaps, the most illustrious amongst these ‘Independence Heroes’ or ‘Liberators’ as they are fondly called in this part of the world is Simon Bolivar.

Simon Bolivar, the champion of South American freedom struggle was born on 24th July, 1783 to Don Marie and Juan Vincente Bolivar in the erstwhile Spanish captaincy of Caracas. The circumstances prevalent in the Bolivar household forced them to entrust young Simon to the love and care of Dona Ines Manceba de Miyares and family’s slave, Ja negra Hipolita. Although he would return to his parents a couple of years later, this traumatic experience would have a severe impact on his life. In fact, his ordeal had just begun. He lost his father at the age of three and his mother died six years later.

Simon was fortunate enough to receive private lessons from renowned professors, the most influential being Dom Simon Rodriguez, who later became his friend and mentor. Besides teaching politics, history and sociology, he also taught Simon crucial skills like horse riding, rock climbing, swimming and more importantly, instilled in him the ideas of freedom, liberty and enlightenment. In the meantime his nanny, Hipolita gave the young Bolivar all the affection he needed and indulged him in all his wishes and desires. Simon developed a fervent passion for armaments and wartime strategy at the military academy of Millicias de Veraguas and the lessons he picked up here would come in handy during the wars of independence that he would fight in the later years. After having witnessed the spectacular coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte in Notre Dame, Bolivar resolved to emulate this triumphant glory for the people of his native land.

After his return to his homeland, Venezuela, in 1807, Bolivar began his military conquests against the Spaniards. It was during this period that he penned down his famous book, Cartagena Manifesto – an analysis of the causes that led to the collapse of the First Republic of Venezuela. In 1813, he joined the army of New Granada, a short lived federal republic established in 1811, only to be retaken by the Spanish army in 1816. From New Granada, Bolivar began his famous ‘Admirable Campaign’ in which the Independentists led by him captured the Spanish provinces of Merida, Barinas, Trujillo and Caracas in conjunction with Santiago Marino’s simultaneous success in the East. It was ad mists this campaign that Bolivar issued his controversial ‘Decree of War to the Death’ which permitted atrocities against people born in Spain except those who actively supported South American independence. This was an attempt to maintain Venezuelan independence and in retaliation to a similar strategy adopted by the Spanish against the natives.

Inspite of his efforts, the Second Republic fell, primarily due to the rebellion of Jose Tomas Boves and Bolivar returned to New Granada and entered the military services of United Provinces. He led an army that captured Bogota from the Republicans in 1814. He intended to march into Cartagena but after a series of political and military differences with the Government of Cartagena, he fled to Jamaica in 1815, where he was denied support and an attempt was made on his life. Next, he went to the newly independent nation of Haiti, where he was granted protection and sanctuary. He befriended Haitian leader, Alexandre Petion who offered Bolivar material and infantry support against the Spanish in return of a promise that he would abolish slavery once he came to power and Simon obliged.

Simon embarked upon his struggle for independence with a renewed vigour. The campaign for the independence of New Granada was sealed at the battle of Boyacá (1819) where the Independentists decisively defeated the Royalists. The Venezuelan independence was consolidated after Bolivar’s men crushed the Spaniards at Carabobo (1821). The victory of his confidant, Antonio Jose de Sucre in the Battle of Pichincha (1822) led to the solid foundation of the independence of Ecuador.

On 7th September, Gran Columbia, a state covering much of modern day Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador and Panama, was created with Simon Bolivar as its President. In July 1822, he met another famous Liberator of South America, Jose de San Martin of Argentina who besides his country had also partially liberated Peru. In February 1824, Bolivar was made the dictator of Peruvian Congress and he routed the Spanish cavalry at the Battle of Junín. The remaining Spanish troops in Peru were expelled by general Sucre at Ayacucho. On 6th August, 1825, at the Congress of Upper Peru, a new country was created and was christened as the Republic of Bolivia, in the honour of Simon Bolivar.

Bolivar’s dream had been to engender an American Revolution style federation between all the newly independent republics, with a government set up to recognize and uphold the rights of the individual. This dream, however succumbed to the pressures of particular interest across the region, which rejected such a model. For this reason and to prevent a breakup, Bolivar wanted to implement a more centralist model of government in Gran Columbia, including some elements of the Bolivian constitution like lifetime presidency with the ability to select a successor. This move was vehemently opposed by many delegates at the Convention of Ocana. After the failure of the Ocana Congress to write a new constitution, Bolivar proclaimed himself as the military dictator on 27th August, 1828. He considered this as a temporary measure, as a means to re-establish his authority and save the republic. On the contrary, this increased the dissatisfaction among his detractors. He survived an assassination attempt in September, 1828 with the help of his lover, Manuela Saenz, according to popular belief. Dissent continued and uprisings occurred in New Granada, Venezuela and Ecuador in the next two years.

Finally, Bolivar resigned from presidency on 27th April, 1830 intending to leave the country for an exile in Europe. On 17th December, 1830 he died after a painful battle with tuberculosis. His remains, which were earlier buried in the Cathedral of Santa Marta, were later moved to Caracas where a monument was set up for their interment in the National Pantheon of Venezuela.

Bolivar described himself as a ‘liberal’ who believed in a ‘free market’ and was an admirer of both the American and French revolutions. He was staunchly anti-slavery, a military genius and a man far ahead of his times. His repeated success against the mighty Spanish army during the 1820s reduced the once powerful Spanish empire to a miniscule kingdom in Western Europe. However the path to freedom was far from a cakewalk as the Spaniards managed to regain lost territories on several occasions. However, Bolivar didn’t lose hope and finally won freedom for his people.

Bolivar is often compared to another great American freedom hero, George Washington. Both were descendents of European settlers, owned large estates, had to face many initial setbacks during the Wars of independence and ended up serving as the Presidents of the nations that they had founded. However, inspite of the long list of similarities in their carriers, these two of the greatest leaders of modern times primarily differ on two major issues. While Simon Bolivar abolished slavery on coming to power, owing to his anti-slavery ideals and as a fulfillment of promise made to the Haitian leader Petion, bonded labour was wiped off from the United States during the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln in the mid-nineteenth century. Besides, Washington is known to have kept slaves throughout his life, including during his stay in the White House. Secondly, George Washington was able to hold the various American colonies as a single federal republic, probably an important factor in the emergence of the US as a global superpower. However, Simon’s goal of establishing such a state in the Southern part of the American landmass went to the grave with him.

Simon Bolivar is regarded in Latin America as a hero, visionary, revolutionary and liberator (El Liberator). During his relatively short life, he led five modern nations – Venezuela, Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador and Peru to independence and laid the foundation of South American ideology on democracy. Because the image of Bolivar became central to the national identities in these countries, his mantle is claimed by nearly all political parties from all parts of the political spectrum. Infact Bolivar is the only person in the history of mankind to have two countries
Bolivia and Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela) to have been named after him.