When Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999 he set about changing the name of Venezuela to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela after the South American liberator, Simón Bolívar. It was part of what Chavez called the Bolivarian Revolution—a left-wing populist social movement that claimed to embody the democratic ideas of Bolívar himself. Chavez was obsessed with Bolívar. So much so that in 2010 he had Bolívar’s remains exhumed on merely a hunch that the South American liberator had been assassinated by arsenic rather than the traditional historical narrative of succumbing to tuberculosis. The test results on Bolívar’s 170-year-old remains were inconclusive.
Bolívar is a complicated figure of history, who at a young age in Venezuela came to hate Spanish colonialism in South America. He once wrote about his feelings during an overseas trip, “From boyhood I thought of little else: I was fascinated by stories of Greek and Roman heroes. The revolution in the United States had just taken place and it, too, was an example. Washington awoke in me a desire to be just like him…. When I and my two companions… arrived in Rome, we climbed [Monte Sacro], and we all knelt down, embraced, and swore that we would liberate our country or die trying.” He espoused freedom and democracy, and even going as far as freeing his own slaves—something America’s founding father’s such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington could not do during their lifetimes. (George Washington did not free his slaves while alive, but he did free them through his will after he had died.)
His chance to liberate Venezuela and South America came in 1807 when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Spain. With Spain being occupied by Napoleon, Bolívar and others formed a junta in what would be the start of a revolution. It would not be easy, nor short, but it was the beginning of the end of Spain’s control over its South American colonies. Venezuela gained de facto independence from Spain in a 1810 coup. Bolívar, who was serving in the military, steadily rose through the ranks and quickly became a great leader. His military accomplishments are legendary.
After Venezuela’s liberation he turned his military focus to New Grenada (modern day Columbia), Ecuador, Peru, which helped form what is now known as the country of Bolivia—making Bolívar one of the few people to have a country named after them. Through his conquests he marched his men thousands of miles over some of the most challenging terrain in South America. He once crossed with his army over parts of the Andes that were thought to be impossible for a military to cross.
With his conquests he was given power as an absolute ruler. He despised tyrants and wanted a free and democratic South America, yet one of the great ironies of his life was that he was never able to fully relinquish power on his own. Even though he was called the great Liberator, the people became to despise him and think him a tyrant because he stayed in power so long. When he was offered power, he often refused and only accepted very reluctantly. He once said, “I am not the governor this republic needs—a soldier by necessity and inclination, I found my destiny in fields of war.” When he did accept power, he refused payment of any kind. So much so in fact, he would die poor despite the wealth he inherited from his family. He spent his last days in Gran Columbia, barred from returning to his homeland of Venezuela as a political pariah.
His legend only grew after he had died. “Dead,” writes Maria Arana in her book “Bolívar: American Liberator,” “Bolívar became less man than symbol. As the years went by—as chaos continued to plague the region—South America recalled the extraordinary feat of freeing so many nations in so dire a time. His failures as a politician receded. His successes as a liberator took center stage. Indeed, the accomplishments were irrefutable. It was he who had disseminated the spirit of Enlightenment, brought the promise of democracy to the hinterlands, opened the minds and hearts of Latin Americans to what they might become.”
Today Simón Bolívar’s legacy is being hidden behind by the very kind of people he had dedicated his life to keep from power. The ones that are shredding democracy, like Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolás Maduro, who suppress their people under autocratic and corrupt rule, and use Bolívar as a decoy to distract from their stripping away of freedoms. The true legacy of Bolívar is his fight for democracy and freedom, and not the legacy Venezuela’s modern tyrants push.