LATIN AMERICANS may be forgiven for feel ing that North Americans tend to pay attention only to their crises and explosions, not to their achievements or--least of all--to the sources of their cultural pride. Fortunately, a mellow occasion is at hand for at least a token redress of the balance. Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Simon Bolivar, celebrated throughout Latin America for liberating from Spanish rule what became six modern nations and for setting forth the vision of democracy and unity that stirs the region still.

Born of a wealthy land-owning family in Caracas, Simon Bolivar studied in the Europe of Napoleon and returned home to try to plant the ideas of the Enlightenment on Latin soil. Self-taught as a soldier, he led the military struggle that made him "the great liberator" of half a continent. He had considerably less success with his efforts to establish first a federated state out of what is now Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, and later a broad federation of Latin nations. His Europe-born liberal utopian conceptions of the rights of humankind and of an assembly of free nations turned out to travel poorly, and he ended up bitterly pronouncing Spanish America "ungovernable--whosoever works for a revolution is plowing the sea."

What is most striking about Simon Bolivar is not so much his success as a fighter against colonialism -- somebody was going to kick out Spain. It is the persistence of his political heirs in trying to undo his contemporary failure as a political visionary. Latin America is not so long on world-class heroes that it is ready to make little of those it has: Liberator Bolivar is credited with being the "father" of any number of subsequent worthy Latin endeavors. But countries, regions, need to know their best impulses have heroic and historic roots: tradition eases the loneliness that plagues those who seek true social progress. It is relevant here that five of the six "Bolivarian" nations currently practice democracy (the sixth is moving that way), and that almost everywhere in Latin America Simon Bolivar's goals still shine.

We Americans oftentimes need reminding that the Latins who are struggling to better their fate are doing so not simply in response to pressures from the North but on the basis of models and traditions of their own.