Mythical figure of Latin America, a man acquired by the liberal ideas in vogue in the 19th century, Simon bolivar is the liberator of much of the South American continent from the Spanish yoke, which has earned him the nickname "El Libertador". Through the military exploits he accomplished against the Spanish armies and the important political functions he occupied in several South American countries, he left an indelible mark on this continent, to such an extent that he acquired the status of myth.
The turbulent youth of Simon Bolivar
Simón Bolívar was born on July 24, 1783 in Caracas. He comes from a rich Creole family present in America since the 16th century. Many of his ancestors entered the colonial administration and his father belonged to the elite of the mantuanos - wealthy landowners. At the end of the 18th century, the Spanish Empire was experiencing a deep economic crisis, and had to deal with a movement of demands aimed at putting an end to Spain's commercial monopoly. Despite everything, for the moment there is no question of independence from the metropolis, even if revolutionary ideas are slowly starting to spread across the South American continent.
Coming from the social elite, Bolivar received, despite the premature death of his parents, a good education, although rather original. Unruly and unstable, young Simon sees a succession of preceptors. One of them played a particularly important role: Carreno-Rodriguez. This young reader of Rousseau, introduced him to both classical literature and liberal philosophy until 1798. From that date, Bolivar was encouraged by his uncle to join the battalion of “white volunteers”, an artistocratic militia body. It was the following year that he undertook a series of initiation trips to Europe, which would help to complete his training.
Bolivar's travels in Europe
After a brief stint in Mexico, Simon Bolivar arrives in Spain in May 1799. Hosted by his uncle close to the Queen, he witnesses the game of plots around power before going to the Marquis d'Ustariz, a cultivated and refined man. which introduces the South American to reading and the arts. After some turmoil, he went to Paris where he took advantage of theaters and shops before returning to Spain, where, testifying to his talent as a seducer, he married a young woman, who unfortunately died when Bolivar returned to America. Deeply damaged, he returned to the European continent, and increased lavish spending in Paris.
In April 1805, while in Italy, he attended the coronation of Napoleon, a man he still admired at that time. Going to the Aventine, he would have exclaimed in a very lyrical way on the decline and the fragility of empires before continuing his journey to Holland, England and the United States, where he saw the flourishing of "freedom. rational ”. These multiple trips to Europe would have made him aware of the Spanish decline, and would have finally convinced him of the need for freedom.
From the first failures to the liberation of Latin America
The first attempt at an uprising in which Bolivar took part took place in 1811, when the vice-captain of Venezuela had just been replaced. With the support of the English, who have every interest in the disappearance of the Spanish commercial monopoly, Bolivar takes part in the insurrection in association with Francisco de Miranda, who has already been acting in favor of independence for several years. This was proclaimed on July 5, 1811, but this momentum was hampered by the defeat of Miranda and Bolivar against loyalist forces.
Exiled in New Granada, Bolivar resumed service and was assigned to the outpost of Magdalena. Disobeying orders, he plunged into enemy lines to the West, seized Merida on August 7, 1813 and triumphantly entered Caracas: a second Republic was proclaimed, but its existence remained ephemeral. Faced with the growing violence and hostility which followed the conquest, Bolivar was forced into exile: ephemeral glory was followed by a period of failures and crises of melancholy.
In 1818, Bolivar inaugurated a new tactic by landing in Guyana after having reconstituted an army. Events were then much more favorable to Bolivar, since a revolt in Cadiz prevented the loyalists from receiving reinforcements from the metropolis. With the capture of Bogota on August 10, 1819 then the battle of Carabobo (June 24, 1821) of which Bolivar emerged victorious, he acquired new legitimacy and was elected President of Colombia by 50 votes out of 57, a position he accepted against his will.
From 1823 to 1826, he was engaged in the wars of liberation of Peru, showing all his military talents: high mobility, tactician and use of the technique of the guerilla. But, confronted with a rebellion in 1826, escaping an assassination, facing a war against Peru in 1829, undermined by a growing opposition, exhausted and sick, he resigned from his post of president in 1830 after the declaration of independence of Venezuela. In disgrace, he left Bogota in the mist and died on December 17, 1830, alone.
The Bolivarian myth
A character both contested by his authoritarian practice of power but admired for his military exploits, Bolivar has over time become a political model on which different political currents have been built and has often been reused by the leaders who have succeeded him as a symbol. of the homeland. Thus, in Venezuela, where he appears as the Father of the Fatherland, a real state and popular cult is dedicated to the one to whom the title of. This phenomenon has tended to increase in recent years since the coming to power of Hugo Chavez, elected president of Venezuela in 1998, who triggered what he calls a “Bolivarian revolution”. He presents himself as his true heir, associating an authoritarian practice of power with Bolivar's idea of pan-Americanism - making Latin America one and the same state.
This cult to Bolivar has spread across much of South America, mainly to Venezuela, and to a lesser extent to Colombia, as well as to all the countries he liberated, where the statues bearing his likeness have been erected in many cities. The one who was given the title of Libertador could also serve as a model in Europe during the 19th century, for all the peoples who were fighting for their independence: Hungarians, Poles, Italians.
Anchored in popular consciousness, the figure of Bolivar has also been conveyed by the plethora of literature dedicated to him, through poems and laudatory texts, whether it is Pablo Neruda or Paul Valéry.
Combining intellectual and physical vigor, inexhaustible faith in his convictions and periods of deep melancholy, liberal ideas and the authoritarian practice of power, Bolivar not only fascinated his contemporaries but undoubtedly marked the history and identity of a continent. Legitimately discussed for the cynicism and violence of some of his acts, praised in a sometimes almost religious way by literature, Bolivar is an ambiguous and complex personality. A myth was finally built around this character for several reasons: the liberation of part of Latin America from the Spanish yoke, his attachment to liberal ideas, but also the taste for unfinished business, since he ultimately failed to put his pan-Americanism into practice.
- Pierre Vayssière, Simon Bolivar: The American Dream, Payot, 2008
- Simon Bolivar: The Libertador, by Gilette Saurat. Grasset, 1990.
- History of Latin America, by Pierre Chaunu. PUF, 2014.