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Against Crazy Odds, Simon Bolivar Liberated Six Countries in South America

"War to the Death" painting
In this painting, Simón Bolívar signs the "War to the Death" decree that permitted murders and other crimes against Spanish people in Latin America opposed to South American independence. This was in retaliation for crimes committed by Spanish soldiers after the fall of the First Republic of Venezuela. Gerard SIOEN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

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The most stunning victory in Simón Bolívar's long struggle for Latin American independence came in 1819, when the man known as "El Libertador" ("The Liberator") led a ragtag squadron over the impassable Andes to wage an audacious surprise attack on the superior Spanish forces.

As the journalist and author Marie Arana writes in her biography, "Bolívar: American Liberator," the impulsive and ingenious Bolívar kept his plan secret from his men, who likely would have deserted rather than trudge through miles of flooded swampland and over 13,000-foot (3.9-kilometer) peaks in the middle of the South American winter.

But they stayed with him, buoyed by the warmth and charisma of Bolívar's outsized personality, even as malaria and yellow fever sickened hundreds in the sodden lowlands, and the icy Andean wind ripped through their threadbare clothing and killed nearly every horse and mule in the party.

Bolívar suffered right alongside his men but seemed much stronger than his spindly 130-pound (58-kilogram) frame. When what remained of his men descended half-naked and starving on the Colombian side of the Andes, they met absolutely no Spanish resistance, because no sane Spanish general would ever have believed such a sneak attack was possible.

"That was as audacious a military maneuver as Hannibal crossing the Alps," says Richard Slatta, emeritus professor of history at North Carolina State University and co-author of "Simón Bolívar's Quest for Glory."

Within days, Bolívar had rallied reinforcements from the Colombian countryside and given his loyal troops time to rest and refuel for the coming fight. On July 25, Bolívar and his patriots charged uphill against the well-armed and brightly uniformed Spanish at the Battle of Pantano de Vargas. The rebels' secret weapon were the llaneros, roughneck South American herders akin to American cowboys, who fell on the Spanish with their machetes and spears.

Next came the decisive Battle of Boyocá, easily won by Bolívar and his reinvigorated fighting force. The Spanish generals, spooked by the patriots' guerilla tactics and promises of a "war to the death," began to lose their nerve and their iron grip on the Latin American colonies. It would all be lost in a matter of years.

While Bolívar didn't act alone, he was clearly the catalyst and "cult of personality" behind the 19th-century liberation movement that won independence for six Latin American nations: Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Bolivia, a country named for the Liberator himself.

"In the age of revolution, Bolívar is the most critical figure in the hemispheric story," says Lester Langley, emeritus professor of history at the University of Georgia and author of "Simón Bolívar: Venezuelan Rebel, American Revolutionary."

The "George Washington of South America"?

Marquis de Lafayette, the French military officer who came to America's rescue in the Revolutionary War, admired Bolívar and dubbed him the "George Washington of South America." Arana said in an interview at History News Network that Washington even sent Bolívar a medallion containing a lock of the American president's hair, which Bolívar treasured.

But Lafayette's nickname is only half-fitting, says Slatta. Yes, both Bolívar and Washington came from aristocratic families, and yes, they were both heroic military leaders known as the "fathers" of their countries. But that's where the similarities end.

"When it gets down to political values, I find them very different people," says Slatta. "Washington was cautious, both militarily and politically, while Bolívar was much more impulsive and mercurial. They were both essentially offered a kingship, and while Washington turned it down, Bolívar settled for being a dictator."

Langley agrees, arguing that Bolívar and Washington were military equals in overcoming impossible odds against the world's best armies, but otherwise they couldn't be more different, in personality and as politicians.

"Where Bolívar failed, unlike Washington, was in his post-military career," says Langley.

From Wealthy Widower to Revolutionary

Bolívar was born in Venezuela in 1783 to a wealthy mining family who were landed members of the criollo (pureblood Spanish) elite. Orphaned before he was 10 years old, a rowdy young Bolívar was passed between extended family members before being sent to Spain at 16 to study under tutors.

Simon Bolivar
A portrait of Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan leader who played a key role in South America's struggle for independence from Spain.
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

In Madrid, Bolívar fell in love and married Maria Teresa, the daughter of a Spanish nobleman, but just a year after establishing their homestead back in Venezuela, his young bride died of yellow fever. A widower at 19, Bolivar never married again, though he had many affairs. Some historians believe that if Maria Teresa had lived, Bolívar would have settled for the comfortable life of a criollo landowner. Instead, he returned to Europe, heartbroken and searching for a purpose, which he found in Paris while devouring Enlightenment thinkers like Locke, Rousseau and Voltaire.

The year was 1804, and both the United States and France had already won their independence and established new constitutional forms of government. Bolívar came to believe that the Spanish-ruled colonies in South America deserved the same freedom of self-rule and that he was the man to light the fire of revolution.

Returning to Venezuela, Bolívar dove into the complex tangle of South American interests vying for independence from Spain. Bolívar and his compatriots succeeded in briefly ousting the Spanish twice from Venezuela, establishing the short-lived First and Second Republics of Venezuela.

But when those first attempts at self-governance failed, Bolívar fled to Jamaica, where he penned his elegiac "Carta de Jamaica" ("Letter from Jamaica"), a plea for British aid in which he laid out his vision of a united Latin America from Mexico to Chile.

"The bonds that united us to Spain have been severed," wrote Bolívar, undeterred by the losses he had suffered. "A people that love freedom will in the end be free. We are a microcosm of the human race. We are a world apart, confined within two oceans, young in arts and sciences, but old as a human society. We are neither Indians nor Europeans, yet we are a part of each."

The Liberator Abolishes Slavery

When the British denied support for Bolívar, he turned to Haiti, which had recently won its independence from France in 1804. The Haitian president Alexandre Pétion offered Bolívar piles of weapons and money in exchange for a promise: Bolívar must abolish the practice of slavery in every Spanish colony that he liberated.

Arana sees this moment as a turning point. She explained to History News Network that the Latin American wars of independence began like the Revolutionary War in North America, both started by rich whites who were tired of paying taxes to a foreign colonizer.

"But they couldn't get the revolution off the ground," Arana said in the interview. "Bolívar understood that so profoundly that... he had to emancipate the slaves and get all the races on his side. As far as he was concerned, the enemy was Spain and every color of man needed to unite against that enemy force."

Gran Colombia and the Grand Collapse

Like Washington, Bolívar learned from his early defeats and the third attempt at revolution was the charm. That's when he executed his unforgettable entry into Colombia over the Andes and began toppling the Spanish chess pieces in northern South America one by one.

Bolívar was made president of Gran Colombia, a newly formed state that included most of modern-day Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama. His vision of a unified Latin America was coming together.

In the following years, he used his growing political power to wrest control of Peru and establish the new nation of Bolivia. Arguing that the people weren't "ready" for a truly republican government, Bolívar set himself up as the de facto dictator of the lands he helped to free.

"He must have been charming as all get-out," says Slatta. "There are many records of him having audiences with Spanish enemies and political rivals, and they come out warmly supportive of him. His charisma carried him a long way."

In 1826, Bolívar convened the historic Congress of Panama, which brought together representatives from Mexico, Central America and his own Gran Colombia to sign a pact of mutual defense against Spain and its allies.

But back home, things quickly began to fall apart. Political enemies and former military compatriots plotted to overthrow Bolívar. The nations he wanted to bind together in a strong confederacy didn't see themselves as brothers but seethed with internal feuds and civil wars.

"Over the long term, Bolívar lost the battle for Latin American unity," says Slatta, "and Gran Colombia broke into half a dozen countries."

Bolívar's Mixed Legacy

Unlike Washington, Bolívar died a failure. In 1830, deprived of his office and military commission, Bolívar was about to go into self-imposed exile when he succumbed to tuberculosis. His political enemies, then in charge of Venezuela, outlawed even the mention of his name.

And that's the way it remained until the 1870s, says Slatta, when a new generation of Venezuelan elites went looking for political symbols that would rally supporters to their cause. Slatta credits the late 19th-century Venezuelan President Antonio Guzmán Blanco with reviving the "cult of Bolívar."

Guzmán Blanco created the modern Venezuelan currency and named it the bolívar. He also built the National Pantheon of Venezuela and had Bolívar's remains reinterred in its hall of heroes.

Langley says that Bolívar undoubtedly deserves his title as "The Liberator."

"If you take Bolívar out of the picture completely, explain how the wars for independence in Spanish America turned out the way they did," says Langley. "It's the same as if you tried to take Washington out of the picture."

On the other hand, Bolívar's penchant for autocratic rule has also inspired generations of Latin American "strongmen" politicians, right down to one of Bolívar's greatest admirers, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

"The 'cult of Bolívar' has always been used as an excuse for dictatorship," says Langley.

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