Simón Bolívar, Esteemed Liberator or Infamous Dictator?


Simón Bolívar, oil painting by José Gil de Castro. Image from Wikimedia, used under license Creative Commons.

Below is an edited version of a post originally published on the blog Globalizado.

July 24 marked the anniversary of the birth of the “Liberator” Simón Bolívar, a key political leader in Latin America's fight for independence from the Spanish. In his native Venezuela, Bolívar was celebrated with the debut of a movie about his life, but in other countries like Peru, the event was no more than just a protocol ceremony. The reason being that in this Andean country, Bolívar is not held in the highest regard.

Bolívar played a major role in the emancipation processes of five Latin American countries — Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela — and is considered a universal historical figure. He first liberated Venezuela and Colombia, then Ecuador, creating a large country called The Great Colombia. He then went to Peru to assure the defeat of the Spanish forces. 

But before we go into Bolívar's time in Peru, let's get to know his personality. Journalist Álvaro Vargas Llosa writes in an article that Bolívar was a better warlord than all the other Latin American leaders from that time, but that warlordism itself is still the heart of the Latin problem:

José García Hamilton, un estudioso argentino de Bolívar, considera que el Libertador fue consistentemente dictatorial: “En su carta desde Jamaica (1815) y en la Convención Constituyente de Angostura (1819), Bolívar postula un sistema político con presidente vitalicio, una cámara de senadores hereditarios integrada por los generales de la independencia… La Convención de Angostura no aprueba este sistema para Venezuela ni tampoco la aprueba para Nueva Granada la siguiente convención de Cúcuta, pero luego Bolívar, en la flamante Bolivia, redacta personalmente una constitución con esas características, que luego es aprobada para el Perú. Luego pretende que ese sistema se extienda a la Gran Colombia, pero Santander rechaza que esa sanción se haga mediante atas populares, por no ser un procedimiento legal. “No será legal”, contesta Bolívar, “pero es popular y por lo tanto propio de una república eminentemente democrática”.

José García Hamilton, an Argentinean scholar of Bolívar, believes that the Liberator was consistently dictatorial: “In his Jamaica letter (1815) and in the constituent convention of Angostura (1819), Bolívar postulated a political system with a life-term presidency, a hereditary chamber made up of the generals who had achieved independence… The Angostura convention did not approve this system for Venezuela, nor did the next Cúcuta convention approve it for Nueva Granada, but then Bolívar wrote a constitution in the brand new Bolivia, that included these elements, which is then approved in Peru. He then tried to extend that system to Gran Colombia, but Santander told him the procedure he was trying to use was not legal, “It may not be legal” replied Bolivar, “but it is popular and therefore right for a republic which is democratic.”

Bolívar's lack of affection towards the indigenous population, bordering on racism, is a controversial issue. On an anonymous blog, a student reflects on an analyzed text he studied in a class taught by professor Cecilia Méndez Gastelumendi:

Antes de llegar a Perú, Simón Bolívar tenía una visión del indigena idealista […]. Pero en 1822, atravesando los Andes, Simón Bolívar se enfrento a la rebelión de los pastusos, que acosaban a su ejército, usando técnicas de guerrillas. Desde entonces su visión cambió radicalmente: el ser apacible se convirtió en bestia salvaje, bruta, despreciada, degradado. “Esos demonios merecen la muerte”: si es que algo siguió constante en el pensamiento bolivariano, fue su visión de los indígenas como seres incapaces de una concepción política. Pero si no se apartaban voluntariamente de la sociedad política, solo la aniquilación podía resolver el problema.

Before arriving in Peru, Simón Bolívar had an indigenous idealistic view […]. But in 1822, as he crossed the Andes, Simón Bolívar confronted the Pastusos rebellion, who were accosting his army through guerrilla warfare. Since that instance, his vision changed drastically: this peaceful being changed into a wild, brutal, despised, degraded beast. “Those demons deserve to die:” if there is one constant thing about the Bolivarian way of thinking, it is his vision regarding the indigenous people as beings incapable of political conception. However, if they didn't voluntarily separate themselves from political society, the only way to solve the problem would be annihilation.

Peru remembers Bolívar as the one who dismembered their homeland. According to the Peruvian historian Hugo Pereyra Plasencia, It is necessary to go straight to the sources (letters, newspapers, official documents) so that it is clear “that we Peruvians were considered extremely dreadful by Bolívar” and he argues that to Bolívar himself, Peru was a threat:

Bolívar tuvo muy clara esta percepción y, de hecho, por eso hizo todo lo posible por crear un hegemón alternativo: la Gran Colombia, que estuvo integrado por las actuales Colombia, Venezuela y Ecuador, con pretensiones sobre Guayaquil y sobre el río Amazonas y su gigantesca área circundante. La Gran Colombia nació así como un contrapeso al supuesto peligro peruano.

Bolivar had a very clear perception, in fact, that is why he did everything in his power to create an alternative hegemony: The Gran Colombia, consisting of the current Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, with claims to Guayaquil and above all the Amazon River and it's gigantic surrounding region. The Gran Colombia emerged as a counterbalance to the alleged Peruvian threat.

During the famous Guayaquil Conference in 1822, between Bolívar and the general José de San Martín, the former had already proclaimed Guayaquil under the Gran Colombia protectorate, which actually meant its annexation, even though Guayaquil was Peruvian territory. Additionally, Pereyra argues:

En 1823, Bolívar llegó al Perú no tanto por dar la libertad a sus hermanos peruanos que sufrían las cadenas del absolutismo (idea que él siempre manifestaba de modo grandilocuente y, por supuesto, hipócrita), sino principalmente por el interés geopolítico de destruir de raíz lo que consideraba como una amenaza para la Gran Colombia, […] Por eso se crea Bolivia, para cortarle las patas al “monstruo” peruano,

In 1823, Bolívar arrived in Peru, not specifically to free his Peruvian brothers suffering from the chains of absolutism (a thought he always manifested in a grandiloquent, and of course, hypocritical manner), but mainly due to his geopolitical desire to destroy the root of what he considered was a threat towards Gran Colombia, […] That is why Bolivia is created, to cut the legs off the Peruvian “monster,”

In addition to his liberation military work culminating in the victory at the battle of Ayacucho in 1824, there is a great deal to tell about the time Bolívar spent in Peru. Venezuelan Antonio Esclera Busto relates:

Una vez completada la independencia peruana, Bolívar convoca de nuevo al Congreso Constituyente el 10 de febrero de 1825 […] Este Congreso nombra a Bolívar “Padre y Salvador de la Patria” y ordena que se erija la estatua ecuestre en la plaza del Congreso, donde está actualmente, así como el pago, como una “pequeña demostración de reconocimiento” de una recompensa al Libertador de 1.000.000 de pesos, cantidad que representaba, más o menos, la tercera parte del presupuesto anual del Perú de la época.

Upon the independence of Peru, on February 10, 1825, Bolívar once again reconvenes the Constituent Congress […] Congress appoints Bolívar as “the country's Savior and Founding Father” and demands the erection of the equestrian statue in the congress plaza, where it stands today, as payment or “small token of recognition” for the Liberator, worth 1,000,000 pesos, which was more of less one-third of the Peruvian budget during that time.

​Once he officially became Peru's Dictator, his government actions were in bad shape and were adversely affecting the indigenous population of Peru, whom he despised, as has already been mentioned:

En abril de 1825, Bolívar, en uso de sus plenos poderes, dispone la anulación de la emancipación de los esclavos que había decretado San Martín […] el 11 de agosto de 1826, Bolívar implanta de nuevo el tributo del indígena, que ya había sido eliminado […] por San Martín el 27 de agosto de 1821.

Algunos autores defienden el decreto de Bolívar por la justificación de proveer recursos a un Estado casi en estado de insolvencia. Que el Estado estaba casi en quiebra es cierto, pero no justifica que se recurriese a un tributo solo por la raza y no por la cuantía de la riqueza del ciudadano.

On April 1825, Bolívar, using his full power, annuls the emancipation of slaves already enacted by San Martín […] on August 11, 1826, Bolívar once again implements the indigenous taxation, which had already been eliminated […] by San Martín on August 27, 1821.

Some authors defend Bolívar's enactment, justifying that resources were provided to a State that was in a state of almost insolvency. It's true that the State was almost bankrupt, but it's not justifiable to regress to taxation solely based on race and not the amount of citizen's wealth.

Because he was aware of the little devotion that Peru showed Bolívar in Peru, Venezuelan Ramón Urdaneta researched different sources and published interesting data in his blog:

[…] el economista e historiador Herbert Morote, lo tilda en calidad de “enemigo público Nº 1 del Perú”, pues “fue un hombre de derecha y no introdujo ninguna reforma social en el país […]. Añade el estado de presión que Bolívar mantuvo en el Perú, mandando a fusilar a sus opositores, hasta por sospechas infundadas […]. A Bartolomé Salom el caraqueño en febrero de 1824 le escribe “Esto está lleno de partidos y todo plagado de traidores. empìezan a tenerme miedo… se compondrá todo esto con la receta de las onzas de plomo…”. A lo que se suma lo escrito por el americano Hiram Paulding sobre que Bolívar le expresó que los “peruanos eran unos cobardes y que, como pueblo, no tenían una sola virtud varonil”.

[…] the economist and historian Herber Morote describes him as “Peru's public enemy Nº 1,” for “he was a man of the law and did not present any social reform to the country […]  He also speaks about the state of pressure that Bolívar had on Peru, demanding the elimination of his opponents, even for unfounded suspicions […]. In February 1824, he wrote to Bartolomé Salom from Caracas that “This is full of many parties all plagued by traitors. they are beginning to fear me… this shall all comprise of a recipe full of lead ounces…” American Hiram Paulding adds that Bolívar expressed that the “Peruvians were cowards and that, as people, they lacked masculine virtues.”

In his blog, Jorge Sayegh reproduced this quote:

Jorge Basadre, el historiador peruano más reconocido, dice que Bolívar fue un romántico en 1804, diplomático en 1810, jacobino en 1813, paladín de la libertad en 1819 y genio de la guerra en 1824. Sugiere el historiador que en los años 1825 y 26 al Perú le tocó el peor de los Bolívares, el “imperator”.

Jorge Basadre, Peru's most recognized historian, says that in 1804 Bolívar was a romantic, in 1810 he was a diplomat, in 1813 a Jacobian, a champion of freedom in 1819 and a genius of war in 1824. The historian suggest that during 1825 and 26, Peru had to deal with the worst on of the Bolívars, the “imperator.”

Not only did Bolivar successfully make congress declare him Dictator, but he also propelled and obtained the odd approval of a life-long Constitution with himself as President for life. Because of Bolivar's travels to Colombia, his government body was short lived and the Cabildo de Lima (Lima's council) in 1827 annulled the constitution that lasted only 50 days. In another post, Antonio Escalera Busto concludes:

Para el escritor peruano Félix C. Calderón el juicio de valor sobre Bolívar es: “El Bolívar que aparece con la lectura de sus propias cartas disponibles es un hombre ambicioso que comete el grave error de manchar su incuestionable trayectoria libertaria con los sueños de opio de una dictadura perpetua, aun a costa de volver a hipotecar la independencia de los pueblos que había supuestamente libertado. No es el santo varón desprendido y desinteresado, ni un demiurgo consumado que solo busca sembrar paz y concordia entre los pueblos; sino un habilísimo taumaturgo del lenguaje que ha descubierto en las palabras la mejor manera de ocultar sus non sanctas intenciones”.

According to Peruvian writer, Felix C. Calderon, Bolivar's collective value judgement is: “The Bolivar who shows up ready to read his own letters is an ambitious man who makes the serious mistake of tarnishing his indisputable libertarian track record by daydreaming of a perpetual dictatorship, even in the expense of jeopardizing the people's independence which he had supposedly liberated. He is neither an unattached and disinterested holy man, nor a consumed demiurge who searches to cultivate peace and harmony between people; but a most capable, language thaumaturge who has found, in his own words, the best way to hide his non sanctas intentions.”

As attorney Freddy Centurión points out: “The defeat of the life-long constitution in Peru was the beginning of the end for the Liberator. From then on, his dream would be demolished like a house of cards, as he was condemned and exiled in Colombia, where he died from tuberculosis in 1830.”

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