The Venezuelan historian Luis Britto García wrote somewhere that “our uncomfortable relationship with our identity as Venezuelan is our uncomfortable relationship with Bolívar.” In that same space – a prologue to a historical novel about Bolívar [i] – Britto García spoke of history as a yawning, reverie, nightmare, eternal dream and as a living history. A synthesis that, without further ado, seeks to ponder on the relationship that the Venezuelan has with his own history and especially with the figure of Bolívar.
In this regard, it is true that Venezuelans generally grow studying the national history erratically, with many temporal leaps and with some foundational milestones where the history of Bolívar merges with the history of the Republic itself and vice versa. Thus, the legacy of the Liberator ends up being a caricature of perfection where the “hero of all causes” -as defined by Harwich Vallenilla [ ii ] – is presented to us not as a flesh and blood human being, but as a demigod worthy of Greek mythology; missing what, in our opinion, is the true essence of this character who with his work helped mark the fate of the American continent.
Bolívar as a contradictory character
When we prepare to study Simón Bolívar not as the perfect hero of a certain historiography, but as an exceptional human being, but ultimately a human being, we will find in him a cluster of juxtaposed, opposing or contradictory ideas that accompany him in the construction of his vast legacy.
Bolívar was an ambitious character, thirsty for glory like few others, but accompanied by a perennial “black bile”; intense pain that on more than one occasion propelled him to the brink of suicide. Bolívar embraced the Republic despite his hidden admiration for the figure of Napoleon; his thinking was clearly liberal, although strongly centralist; a ruthless military man at times, although strangely forgiving at others; in short, a complex character whose importance as a founding milestone can only be apprehended to the extent that we dare to study it in all its dimensions as a human being.
Bolívar’s life was shaped since an early age by the fortune’s whimsical personality. It wouldn’t be a surprise then that at some point he would call himself the “man of difficulties”.
If we could summarize his first 20 years of life in one meaning, his sign would be the loss. First his cousin and godfather dies, then his father, later his mother, then his maternal grandfather; all this in his first 10 years of life. Later, at 19, he would also lose his first and only wife. In the latter case, at least from what the epistolary evidence allows us to assume, we see the Liberator’s first suicidal intentions[ iii ] accompanied by the vigorous overcoming of the loss. Situation that we will witness again, although in other circumstances, both in Jamaica [ iv ] and on the coasts of Ocumare [v] .
However, as the dreams of the creation of Colombia began to come true, the greatest threat to the Liberator was no longer the loss of his loved ones, but the loss of his glory, which caused him great anguish and disappointments as his ambitions became increasingly incomprehensible to his peers.
The Liberator’s thirst for glory
It is impossible to understand Bolívar’s superhuman sacrifice during the independence campaigns without including the Liberator’s insatiable thirst for glory. Even today, with the great advances in transportation systems, it would be an extraordinary sacrifice to travel the vast distances at the hasty pace that Simon was making them. Situation that notoriously influenced his premature aging as he himself recognized.
Now, his continued presence on the battlefield was not only the stream that fueled his hunger for cheers; in turn, being in the first line of action, Bolívar had the opportunity to learn about the cruelties of war, the barbarian men, their basic aspirations and the irreparable distances between them and the lords of the “desk”; also fueling growing disappointment as he faced limitations in imposing his designs. Perhaps that is why the radicalization in its need for political centralism . Perhaps for this reason his increasingly noticeable preference for military rank over the civil aristocracy.
In any case, it is not possible to speak of Bolívar’s ambition for glory without speaking of his exalted sense of honor. Despite the fact that as a young man he embraced the existential conflict without regard, being the War to Death Decree (1813) and the massacre of the royal prisoners in La Guaira (1814) some of the most controversial events that we can appreciate, no less true is that the Liberator promoted important gestures in his most mature stage, such as the Armistice and War Regularization Treaty, signed with Pablo Morillo in Santa Ana (1820). Even during this period he came to feel disdain for the facilities with which he advanced in the face of the weakness of an enemy that he had faced for almost a decade [vi] .
The wealth of studying Bolívar as an imperfect human being
To the reactionary propaganda that aims to expose Bolívar as a ruthless dictator and also to the simplistic praise that presents him as a flawless demigod, we must face the flesh and blood man with its lights and shadows.
Studying Bolívar and recognizing his contradictory human nature does not in any way or form diminish his work; on the contrary, it nourishes it. Discovering that behind the firm man of war there was a melancholic character, does not makes the Liberator a weak being, but instead a real human being who went through a hectic life. Accepting Bolívar’s thirst for glory cannot be a damning conclusion at first, but rather a starting point to understand part of the motivations behind his political and military ambitions.
In short terms, studying the man behind the myth will always be the richest way of approaching the historical legacy of the Liberator.
[i] Herrera, L. (2005). Bolívar en Vivo. Venezuela: Criteria Editorial.
[ii] Harwich, N. (29 de octubre de 2002). Un héroe para todas las causas: Bolívar en la historiografía. En I. Galster, La figura de Simón Bolívar en la novela hispano-americana del siglo XX. Conferencia llevada a cabo en la Universidad de Paderbonr, Alemania
[iii] Review letter from Simón Bolívar to Alejandro Dehollai, written on March 10, 1803.
[iv] In this regard, you can review the letter from Simón Bolívar to Maxwell Hyslop dated October 30, 1815.
[v] Review letter from Simón Bolívar to José Fernández Madrid about what happened on the coasts of Ocumare in July 1816.
[vi] Letter from Simón Bolívar to Guillermo White dated May 26, 1820.
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