Friday, March 31, 2017

Friday BookReview: Marie Arana's BOLIVAR

[first published January 2, 2015]

Here is the beginning of historian Joseph Ellis' review of Bolívar: American Liberator --
In the elegiac correspondence of their twilight years, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson liked to debate the legacy of the American Revolution they had fought and wrought. Jefferson, anticipating Alexis de Tocqueville, claimed that the core legacy was democracy, which he regarded as a universal principle destined to spread throughout the world.
Adams preferred to call the legacy republicanism, and he did not believe that it was easily transportable. As an example, he cited Latin America, which was burdened with three centuries of Spanish oppression that left no residue of representative government; a toxic mixture of races — European, Creole, African, Indian; and the entrenched hierarchical values of the Catholic Church.
The career of Simon Bolivar suggests that Jefferson and Adams were at least partly correct. With a combination of Jeffersonian felicity and Napoleonic audacity, Bolivar was almost single-handedly responsible for ending the Spanish Empire in South America. Six new nations — Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Bolivia and Peru — owe their existence to Bolivar the Liberator, who also did more to end slavery than any North American founder.
But his vision for what he called New Columbia was hijacked by an endless parade of dictators, warlords and petty tyrants, all products of the hostile conditions that Adams had so accurately described. The arc of Bolivar’s life, then, is truly Shakespearean, from its glorious ascent to its tragic end, when he was reviled and slandered in every republic he had liberated. Unlike Adams and Jefferson, who could look back on their achievement with patriarchal serenity, Bolivar warned his followers that “eventually you’ll find that life is impossible here, with so many sons of bitches.”
Simón Bolívar (born 1783) rode 75,000 miles, "across a vast, inhospitable terrain," to win the freedom of what are now six nations.

He attended the crowning of Napoleon as emperor in 1804. Later in life, he was denounced by Karl Marx as the "meanest of blackguards."

After his triumphs in Peru and Bolivia, Bolívar basked in adulation. "Priests would refer to him in ceremonies as Simon Macabeo, the great Biblical leader of the Israelites against the Babylonian armies."

"Bolívar did not end his days revered and worshiped like George Washington; he died in 1830 on his way to self-imposed exile, despised by many."
Statue in Venezuela

Some excerpts from an interview with biographer Marie Arana (the former books editor for the 'Washington Post' who was born in Lima, Peru):

And so, Bolivar was very much on my mind as I grew up, as was the Argentine independence leader Jose de San Martin [d. 1850], and the whole business of revolution even into the twentieth century.

The revolution was also very much on everybody’s tongue, somehow. Everyone was aware of how Spanish you were or how Peruvian you were. Nobody here talks about how English or American you are. We’re past that, but in Peru that sense of the colonial was very much alive...

And Bolivar was not particularly loved in Peru. In the process of writing this biography, I have come to admire and respect him. But I grew up in a country that resented him because, in the course of liberating Peru, he actually reduced it. Before the revolution, Peru was grand and sprawling. It had been the heart of South America when it was a colony. It was rich and important, the power center of the empire. Bolivar called Peru the land of gold and slaves.

But when Bolivar liberated Peru, he shrank it. Peru went from being a great hub to being a republic among many others, and its power was reduced drastically. So Peruvians resented that and couldn’t help but ask, Why do we have these borders that we didn’t have before? Why don’t we have the influence that we had before?

Certainly my father was not a fan of Bolivar. Peru ended up glorifying Jose de San Martin, which is ironic, because San Martin couldn’t get the job of independence done. San Martin came from Argentina and he liberated one city, Lima, but he was stalled, and couldn’t liberate the rest of Peru. So he went begging to Bolivar, and Bolivar essentially said that there was not room for both of them in Peru.

The Peruvians love San Martin for stepping aside and letting Bolivar finish what he started, and it’s San Martin’s statue that is biggest in the center of Lima, but that’s certainly not the case in Venezuela, Colombia or Ecuador, where Bolivar is the hero...

The Spanish colonial system was so much more entrenched than the English colonial system in early America. It had existed much longer with laws that lasted for centuries -- harsh and limiting laws. Race became important and very clearly defined, and the color of one’s skin was registered at birth and monitored...

Q: Race is an important aspect of the story you tell. Bolivar eventually recruited Indians and mixed race people to his ranks and abolished slavery in 1816, almost a half century before abolition in the United States.

Race was a huge part of the wars of independence. The wars could not have been fought and won without engaging all of the races. That was not true in North America where it was as if we pushed race aside and carried on the revolution with race outside the picture.

By the time the wars of independence began in Latin America, it was a cauldron of 300 years of race mixing even though there had been strict laws to keep the races separate. All you need to do is look at the records of birth in Spanish colonial America, and you’ll see that race was clearly recorded. You were fined if you were darker. You had to pay fines or taxes if you were black or Indian, either by producing gold or currency or by enslaving yourself for a while to pay off the debt. So it was a very harsh system.

Bolivar’s revolution was started by the Creoles, the rich whites, who were irked because they didn’t want to pay taxes to a foreign power and because native-born Americans were not in charge of their own destinies, leading the businesses. The rich white Creoles asked, Why aren’t we in power here? We are often more knowledgeable than the Spanish who are sent here to rule us. They were very much like the United States founders in that respect. 

But they couldn’t get the revolution off the ground. It took Bolivar three times to get it going. The third time, he came back from self-exile in Haiti where President Petión had told him that unless he engaged all the races, he would never get the revolution off the ground. Bolivar understood that so profoundly that, after his exile, he said it was clear that he had to emancipate the slaves and get all the races on his side. As far as he was concerned, the enemy was Spain and every color of man needed to unite against that enemy force.

In a methodical fashion, he set out to unite the races, which hadn’t been done before. Spain, in fact, had been trying to get the slaves to oppose the revolution, but Bolivar managed to win many of them to his side. In some respects, South Americans are ignorant of this fact. They don’t realize that the armies that won the revolution against Spain were largely colored, led by Bolivar and his generals.

Q: What was the role of the Catholic Church in Bolivar’s campaigns for independence?

It was a confusing time for the Church and institutionally they knew they had to stick with Spain. At that time, Spain was the most Catholic nation in the world, and certainly the most successful in spreading the Catholic faith.

At the beginning of the revolution, the Church was very close to Spain and any time something happened to crush the revolution they’d say, “Aha. You see God is on Spain’s side.” But as time went on, and throughout the Church history in Latin America, there were divisions. The Jesuits were famously on the side of the indigenous people, although they were also very strict with them. That political involvement was a departure from the Church’s official line, and that’s why the Jesuits were booted out of Latin America in 1767.

The moment that the revolution was over, the Church immediately went over and supported independence. And indeed, nobody had been fighting the Church. It would always be on the side of the powerful. After the revolution was won, it supported Bolivar.

We don’t know how faithful or religious Bolivar was, but he was very respectful of the Church. When he was in power, he always supported the Church because he knew it was the glue that kept the Latin American nations together. He wanted to unite all the republics of South America and he knew the Church would be useful in this, because it was the one thing (along with language) that united all of the people of South America.

Q: Bolivar’s resilience was incredible. It’s almost painful to read of his many military defeats... 

It was well known that Bolivar was greatest in defeat. When he suffered a loss, he came back like a raging bull. And it was after a defeat that he’d have his greatest victory...

Q: Bolivar liberated the colonies but North Americans may be surprised that he favored an authoritarian form of government and he served as a dictator... 

That’s what he feared. He was devoted to liberation. As he fought, he installed schools and government institutions, but the actual work of governing bored him.

He was not a deskman and didn’t like the process, but he realized by the time he got to Ecuador that there was chaos behind him in lands he had liberated and left for others to rule. There was chaos because the Spanish oppression had been so deep that the great masses were not educated. They were unprepared for self-government.

Even as Bolivar liberated lands, the revolution didn’t stop. He understood that the populations were not ready for democracy. They weren’t equipped to vote or organize cogent institutions.

Q: I wondered if your writing [of novels] has been influenced by the vivid magical realism of writers such as Garcia Marquez?

I’m a great debunker of magical realism! Reality itself is so staggering in Latin America that it may strike you as almost magical. But what does that say to you? That the reality itself is so terrible and so overwhelming that it seems dreamlike. The Latin American experience has been so vivid and cruel that it becomes like a dream or nightmare at times.

If you talk about magical realism in that way, I can understand it. But the term as a literary device is damaging to Latin American literature. It ends up heaping a wide variety of literature into one camp...


[The six nations that 'El Libertador' helped free from Spain]

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