Bolivar – Marie Arana

For all his physical slightness-five foot six inches and a scant 130 pounds-there was an undeniable intensity to the man. His eyes were a piercing black, his gaze unsettling. His forehead was deeply lined, his cheekbones high, his teeth even and white, his smile surprising and radiant. Official portraits relay a less than imposing man: the meager chest, the impossibly thin legs, the hands as small and beautiful as a woman’s. But when Bolivar entered a room, his power was palpable. When he spoke, his voice was galvanizing. He had a magnetism that seemed to dwarf sturdier men.

The book I would have loved to write, a hero of mine, a man who’s will and determination drove him to liberate half a continent, whose dream and vision were so grand his own life was unimportant, his body pushed to it’s limits, the clothes on his back often his only possessions as his salaries sat untouched, until the end when his vision proved beyond reach and he was ridiculed and all but exiled from the very countries he created.

Arana includes everything here, the machinations of the English, themselves losing their grip on Bolivar’s northern neighbours, the rise of Napoleon and the stagnation of the Spanish Empire, as the young Bolivar, from a privileged family slowly sees the necessity of the liberation of his homeland from the Spanish, and who eventually realises it will have to be him that has to do it. Liberation wasn’t all though, Bolivar’s dream was far grander, a united continent, a federation of states, much like the US, was his ultimate aim, and in the end his undoing.

It could be considered strange that Bolivar, for all we know about it him is still something of an enigma, he was not all rough soldier and glory, he loved to dance and enjoy his life, as the succession of women on his arm amply show. However, even on his death bed Bolivar re-affirmed his love for Teresa del Toro, his long dead wife, over and above even Manuela Saenz who had spent a considerable part of her life with him and had saved him at least once. His principles had deeply buried roots.
He was no saint either. His war to the death is a blot on his record, but he felt he was driven to such extremes by the Spanish, and there is some truth in that. For Bolivar, there was no price too great for liberation. After freeing greater Colombia, assigning his generals to the regions was understandable but had grave consequences. Even Arana, though clearly an admirer of the liberator, can only half heartedly condemn Bolivar for the charges held against him, and I felt much the same. I felt he could convincingly acquit himself of the accusations of barbarity and of being a controlling megalomaniac addicted to power. There was an element of that in him, and there is something in the argument that the fact that everything fell apart when he handed over power to others was in part due to the conditions he himself had created. But ultimately Bolivar didn’t want power or to rule, knew it would be a danger, a reason he argued so vehemently against an institutional monarchy. His only goal was to through off the Spanish yoke, but he knew that South America was not ready to self rule.

There is an all star cast supporting Bolivar, the aforementioned Saenz, for Bolivar perhaps the most personal and important, the devoted Sucre, Paez, the Lion of Apurre, San Martin, who seemed almost the exact opposite to the Liberator from the north but whose path led him to Bolivar, the point where they meet was something that I looked forward to as it inevitably approached. All these played their own role in the liberation of the continent, and with the exception of San Martin, it is unlikely that without Bolivar driving them, anyone would have been able to so completely drive out the Spanish. At one point, a million square miles answered to Bolivar, more than answered to Napoleon.

The achievements warranted it. Not Alexander, not Hannibal, not even Julius Caesar had fought across such a vast, inhospitable terrain. Charlemagne’s victories would have had to double to match Bolivar’s. Napoleon, striving to build an empire, had covered less ground than Bolivar, struggling to win freedom.

For me though, it’s not just the fact that he did it, it’s the way he achieved it. The forced marches over the Andes, the understanding that enlisting all those in the country, not just the elites was key to winning freedom, the people he surrounded himself with, the selflessness as he strove to achieve his ultimate dream.
In the end it broke him, made enemies of friends as the territory descended into violent feudalism. Bolivar saw it coming but in the end could do nothing to stop it. Forced to the north coast, Bolivar died in Santa Marta, surrounded by a few people, far from the centres of power he had helped to create.

It was inevitably after the petty squabbling of those immediate years following his death that Bolivar’s accomplishments were recognised and acknowledged. Culminating in Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, I would be intrigued to know what he would have made of that. There are very few people that have had such a considerable and direct impact on a whole continent, if not the world ,and Bolivar is one of those few. For me, Marie Arana has written a biography worthy of the Liberator which I thoroughly enjoyed.

He enjoyed good cuisine, but could endure days, even weeks, of punishing hunger. He spent backbreaking days on his horse: his stamina in the saddle was legendary. Even the llaneros, roughriders of the harsh Venezuelan plains, called him, with admiration, Iron Ass. Like those men, he preferred to spend nights in a hammock or wrapped in his cape on bare ground. But he was equally comfortable in a ballroom or at the opera. He was a superb dancer, a spirited conversationalist, a cultivated man of the world who had read widely and could quote Rousseau in French and Julius Caesar in Latin. A Widower and sworn bachelor, he was also an insatiable womanizer.

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