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.”
The Library of Congress houses more than 2,500 books and manuscripts about Bolivar, but almost all of them, for obvious reasons, are in Spanish. Although the legend of Bolivar has been appropriated by Latin American leaders of every political persuasion, the latest having been Hugo Chavez, and a nation has been named after him, in the United States his reputation is vague, almost invisible.
Most North American historians, including me, have mentioned him only in passing, usually making “the George Washington of Latin America” reference, as though his life merits attention only when viewed through a North American prism. The hemispheric condescension inherent in that conception obviously needed correction in the form of a comprehensive biography that makes Bolivar’s life accessible to a large readership in the United States. “Bolivar” is unquestionably that book.
At least in retrospect, Marie Arana was providentially prepared to write “Bolivar.” Of Peruvian ancestry, Arana has written a critically acclaimed memoir and two well-reviewed novels. She is also a former editor of The Washington Post’s Book World. As befits its subject, “Bolivar” is magisterial in scope, written with flair and an almost cinematic sense of history happening. Here are three samples of her narrative style: