Simon Bolivar, El Libertador

Venezuela, Margarita Island, simon bolivar statue

Philippe TURPIN / Getty Images

Simón Bolívar was a complex man. He was an idealist, an aristocrat secure in his heritage and status, a well-educated man and deep-thinker who liked things done his way, a visionary and a revolutionary.

He was born on July 24, 1783, in Caracas, the son of well-to-do patricians, don Juan Vicente Bolívar y Ponte and his wife, doña Maria de la Concepción Palacios y Blanco, and his early years were filled with all the advantages of wealth and position.

Early Education

Tutors provided an excellent grounding in the classics, including the history and culture of ancient Rome and Greece, plus the neo-classical principles popular in Europe at the time, particularly those of the French political philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau.

His parents died when he was nine, and young Simón was left in the care of his maternal uncles, Carlos and Esteban Palacios. Carlos Palacios raised him until he was fifteen, at which time he was sent to Europe to continue his education with Esteban Palacios. On the way, he stopped in Mexico, where he astonished the Viceroy with his arguments for independence from Spain.

In Spain, he met and fell deeply in love with Maria Teresa Rodríguez del Toro y Alaysa whom he married in 1802 when he was nineteen. They went to Venezuela the following year, a fatal decision, for Maria Teresa died of yellow fever before the year was out. Heartbroken, Simón vowed he would never marry again, a vow he kept for the rest of his life.

A Quest for Freedom

Returning to Spain in 1804, Simón saw at firsthand the changing political scene when Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor and set his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne. Disenchanted with Napoleon's reversal of his earlier republican stance, Simón remained in Europe, traveling, witnessing the change back to monarchy and empires. It was in Italy that he made his famous vow to never rest until South America was free.

On his way back to Venezuela, Simón visited the United States, where he no doubt saw the difference between a newly independent country and the colonies of Spain in South America. In 1808, Venezuela proclaimed its independence from Spain and Andrés Bello, Luis López Mendez, and Simón were sent to London on a diplomatic mission. Simón Bolívar returned to Venezuela on June 3, 1811, and in August made a speech espousing independence. He took part in the battle of Valencia under the command of Francisco de Miranda, known as the Precursor. Miranda was also born in Caracas, in 1750, and joined the Spanish army. He was an experienced soldier, having fought in the American Revolution and the French Revolutionary Wars, and in the service of Catherine the Great, before joining the revolutionary efforts in Venezuela in 1810.

Miranda acted as dictator of Venezuela until the Spanish royalist forces overturned the victory at Valencia and imprisoned him. Simón Bolívar went to Cartagena, where he wrote the Cartagena Manifesto in which he argued for cooperation between Venezuela and New Granada to secure their independence from Spain.

He was successful, and with support from New Granada, which then comprised Colombia, Panama, and part of modern-day Venezuela, invaded Venezuela. He took Merida, then Caracas, and was proclaimed El Libertador. Again, success was temporary and he was forced to seek refuge in Jamaica, where he wrote the famous Letter from Jamaica. After Miranda's death in 1816, and with help from Haiti, Bolívar returned to Venezuela in 1817 and continued the battle.

The Battle of Boyaca on August 7, 1819, was a great victory for Bolívar and his forces. The Angostura Congress founded Gran Colombia from the present-day countries of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador. Bolívar was named the president and continued to solidify the new independence with continuing battles against Spain with Antonio José de Sucre, the military genius who acted as Bolívar's chief lieutenant; Francisco Antonio Zea, vice-president from 1819 to 1821; and Francisco de Paula Santander, vice-president from 1821 to 1828.

A Rise to Power

By this time, Simón Bolívar was well on his way to becoming the most powerful man in South America.

In the years following the Battle of Boyaca, Spanish controls were overcome and the royalists defeated. With Antonio José de Sucre's decisive victory at the Battle of Pichincha on May 23, 1822, northern South America was liberated.

Simón Bolívar and his generals now turned to southern South America. He prepared his armies to liberate Peru. He set up a meeting in Guayaquil, Ecuador, to discuss strategy with José de San Martín who was known as the Liberator of Chile and Protector of Peru, as well as the Knight of the Andes and Santo de la Espada for his victories in Argentina and Chile.

Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín met privately. No one knows the words they exchanged, but the result of their discussion left Simón Bolívar as the general in chief. He turned his energies to Peru, and with Sucre, defeated the Spanish army in the Battle of Junín on August 6, 1824. Following that with the victory of the Battle of Ayacucho on December 9, Bolivar had accomplished his goal: South America was free.

Simón Bolívar was the most powerful man in South America.

A Slow Decline

He turned his efforts to establish governments in the mold he'd visualized for years. By August of 1825, he was ready. On August 6, 1825, Sucre convened the Congress of Upper Peru which created the Republic of Bolivia in honor of Bolívar. Simón Bolívar wrote the Bolivian Constitution of 1826, but it was never enacted.

In 1826, Bolívar called the Congress of Panama, the first hemispheric conference. Simón Bolívar envisioned a united South America.

That was not to be.

His dictatorial policies chafed some of the leaders. Separatists movements sprang up. A civil war resulted in the dissolution of Gran Colombia into separate countries. Panama was part of Colombia until it succeeded in 1903.

Simón Bolívar, following an assassination attempt which he believed involved Vice-President Santander, resigned his office in 1828. Defeated and bitter, suffering from tuberculosis, he withdrew from public life. At his death on December 17, 1830, Simón Bolívar was hated and reviled. His last proclamation reveals his bitterness when he speaks of devoting his life and fortune to the cause of liberty, his treatment by his enemies, and the theft of his reputation. Yet, he forgives them, and exhorts his fellow citizens to follow his precepts and hopes that his death will ease the troubles and unite the country.

What Happened to the Countries Simón Bolívar Liberated?

José Antonio Páez led a separatist movement which in 1830 made Venezuela an independent state. During much of its history since then, the nation has been dominated by caudillos (military dictators) from the landholding class.

General Sucre served as the first president of Bolivia from 1825 to 1828, the year he foiled an invasion from Peru. He was succeeded by Andrés Santa Cruz who had served as Bolívar's revolutionary chief of staff. In 1835, Santa Cruz attempted a union between Bolivia and Peru by invading Peru and becoming its protector. However, he lost the battle of Yungay in 1839 and fled to exile in Europe. Coups and revolutions occurring almost annually have since characterized Bolivia's political history.

Ecuador, when it was first designated as a country, was about four times the size it is now. It lost territory in continuing border struggles with Colombia and Peru, some of which are still under dispute. Political squabbles between the conservatives who wanted to preserve the status quo of oligarchy and church, and the liberals who wanted social reform, continued throughout the next century.

Peru battled boundary disputes with neighboring countries. Peruvian society was dominated by the wealthy oligarchy who kept many of the Spanish colonial customs, alienating them from the poor, mostly of indigenous descent. Revolts and dictatorships became the norm of political life.

In Colombia, the political and economic rivalry between the different social groups plunged the country into civil wars and dictatorships. This continued into the twentieth century. In an attempt to overcome the regional conflict and dissension, the country was given a new Constitution and, in 1863, turned in a Federation of nine states called the United States of Colombia.

Long after his death, the reputation of Simón Bolívar was restored and today he is revered as South America's greatest hero, The Liberator. In Venezuela and Bolivia, his birthday is celebrated as a national holiday. Schools, buildings, children, and towns in South America and abroad are named for him.

His Legacy Continues

Lo que Bolívar dejó sin hacer, sin hacer está hasta hoy. Porque Bolívar tiene que hacer en América todavía.
What Bolívar left undone, is still undone today. Bolívar has things yet to do in America. (translation)

This statement by José Martí, Cuban statesman, poet, and journalist (1853-1895) who devoted his life to ending colonialism in Cuba and other Latin America countries, still resounds today. Considered one of the great writers of the Hispanic world, José Martí's thoughts have influenced many of the political leaders who followed him.

Martí believed that freedom and justice should be the cornerstones of any government, which sounds at odds with Simón Bolívar's ideas about how a government should be run. Bolívar's republicanism was based on his ideals, and his interpretation of the ancient republic of Rome and contemporary Anglo-French political thought.

In essence, these are the main tenets:

  1. Order as most important necessity.
  2. Tricameral legislature with varied and broad powers composed of
    1. A hereditary and professional Senate.
    2. A body of Censors composing the state's "moral authority".
    3. A popularly elected legislative assembly.
  3. A life-term executive supported by a strong, active cabinet or ministers.
  4. A judicial system stripped of legislative powers.
  5. A representative electoral system.
  6. Military autonomy.

The growth of the Bolivarian Republic in Latin American politics today is based on these principles of Simón Bolívar and Martí's statement. With the election of Hugo Chavez as president of Venezuela and the transition of the country to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, many of Bolivar's principles are translated into today's politics.

p] Using Bolívar's promise of Unidos seremos invencibles (united, we will be invincible), "President Chávez and his followers never hid their revolutionary intention of replacing traditional Venezuelan leaders and writing up new rules of the game that would increase participation, reduce corruption, promote social justice, inject greater efficiency and transparency into governmental processes and giver greater protection to human rights."
The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela

Once in power, President Chavez turned his attention to a new constitution, where Article 1 reads:

"The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is irrevocably free and independent and supports its moral patrimony and liberty values, equality, justice and international peace, according to the doctrine of Simon Bolivar, the Libertador. Independence, liberty, sovereignty, immunity, territorial integrity and national self-determination are mandatory rights." (Asamblea Nacional Constituyente, Constitución Bolivarina de Venezuela, 1999)

Whether the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela will be successful is still undetermined. But one thing is sure: the development under the new constitution and the results are under careful scrutiny. And some opposition.

Was this page helpful?