1/14/08 - simon bolivar

In today's excerpt - Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), called El Libertador. Bolivar was a leader of several independence movements throughout South America, collectively known as Bolivar's War, which were precipitated in resistance to Napoleon's instillation of Joseph Bonaparte as King of Spain and its colonies in 1808. Together with Jose de San Martin, Bolivar is regarded as one of the Liberators of Spanish South America:

"Bolivar ... was 'an exceptionally complex man, a liberator who scorned liberalism, a soldier who disparaged militarism, a republican who admired monarchy', as John Lynch put it in a recent biography. Bolivar was a cultivated man. He had spent several years in Europe ... While on campaign, his aides lugged around a large trunk of books: Voltaire and Montesquieu were among his favorite reading, but the trunk also included Locke and Bentham. He was a great correspondent, and wrote with clarity and vigour. He admired the systems of government of both the United States and Britain, the most democratic of the day. ...

"And yet his chief political legacy is a yearning for strong government and paternalist authoritarianism. He was insistent that without a strong central authority the new republics would fall apart. Though he subscribed to Montesquieu's doctrine of the separation of powers, what he liked most about the French philosopher was his insistence that laws and institutions should be adapted to a country's geography and culture. From Rosseau he took the idea that it is the role of the leader to interpret and represent 'the general will.' In other words, strong and effective leadership is self-legitimating and, when necessary, should override institutions that guarantee individual liberty. Thus, much as Bolivar admired the United States, he once said that he would rather see the Latin American republics adopt the Koran than US federalism, which was 'too perfect.' In South America, 'events ... have demonstrated that perfectly representative institutions are not appropriate to our character, our customs, and our current level of knowledge and experience', he wrote in 1815.

"The definitive statement of Bolivar's political thought came a decade later, when he was asked to write a constitution for a new republic which had taken his name: Bolivia. This document had some features of liberal democracy: nominally, at least, the executive, legislature and judiciary were to be separated, and were to be complemented by a fourth 'moral' power, a 'chamber of censors' with a scrutinizing function. But Bolivar also included a hereditary senate and a president for life, who would have far-reaching emergency powers and the right to name his successor. This is a constitutional monarchy in all but name. This document was swiftly discarded by Bolivia. ...

"It is the great Liberator who still casts a shadow today. ... His name has long been invoked and misused by authoritarian rulers of far less noble qualities, and far less sense. Venezuelan dictators, starting in the late nineteenth century, found it expedient to establish an official cult of Bolivar. His remains were repatriated in 1842, and in 1876 placed in a giant casket which rests in the national Pantheon, a former church a few blocks up the hill from his birthplace in the centre of Caracas. The latest exponent of the cult is Hugo Chavez, who claims to be implementing a 'Bolivarian Revolution' in Venezuela. Chavez included some elements from the Bolivian constitution (such as the 'moral power') in Venezuela's charter of 2001. He shows a Bolivarian disregard for checks on executive power ... [and] every sign of wanting to be president for life."


Michael Reid


Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin America's Soul


Yale University Press


Copyright 2007 by Michael Reid


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