Bolivar: American Liberator – Marie Arana

simonIn the annals of Latin American history, perhaps no other figure is as studied as Simón Bolívar (1783-1830), the liberator of South America.   Former Venezuelan President Hugh Chavez (1954-2013) famously spoke with images of Bolívar behind him as he sought to transform the country into a contender on the world stage. The life of Bolívar lasted less than fifty years but within two decades he became the leading figure in the Latin American movement for independence from the Spanish Empire. The nations of Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Panama and Bolivia (his namesake) are the products of his vision, a united South America free from the influence of its northern neighbor.   And prophetically, many of his beliefs about the future of South America have come to pass, cementing his legacy as one of the continent’s greatest heroes.  Marie Arana, a native of Bolívar’s beloved Peru, has composed a stunning biography of the late figure that shows a complex character, driven by ideology but crippled by his own generosity and disregard for personal well-being.

On July 24, 1783, Don Juan Vicente and Doña María de la Concepción Palacios y Blanco welcomed their fourth child into their growing family but neither of them could have imagined then that their son would one day become the liberator of South America.  To understand the mind of the future leader, it is necessary to understand his past and Arana presents his story in a format that is guaranteed to pull the reader in.  The story takes us back in time where the Spanish Empire controls nearly all of the continent and a young Bolívar is learning about colonialism first hand.  Tragedy became a part of his life from an early age as the deadly disease known as tuberculosis wreaks havoc across the continent.  What is clear however, is that from a young age, the rebel the world would come to know was being crafted through life experiences and the ugly hierarchy of exploitation and racism used to subjugate those considered to be unworthy by the Spanish monarchy in Madrid. The young revolutionary proved to be a fast learner and before long, he became part of the growing movement for freedom.

The book continues to heat up as Arana brings the past alive allowing us to follow Bolívar as he traverses Latin America, covering more ground than any of the greatest warriors in history. But the campaign was far from easy and behind the scenes, back door deals, treachery and in some cases luck, combined to push forward the independence movement.  And as Bolívar rises through the ranks, a cast of characters develops, increasing the suspense in the story as the final showdown with Spain looms in the horizon.   The author increases the suspense as the book moves forward, making it impossible for the reader to stop.   I found myself captivated as I followed the events that culminated in the legendary battles that chartered a new path for Bolívar and millions of South Americans.

The battle of Ayacucho in the Peruvian War of Independence proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back with the Spanish Empire withdrawing the majority of its forces from South America. For Bolívar this was just the beginning of a long struggle that would see the continent nearly tear itself apart and result in his exodus from the place he called home.  Assassins, opportunist, traitors and cowards became major players in a deadly game of treachery that ensued following the continent’s liberation from Spain.  Arana puts all of the players and pieces together in a narrative that is both shocking and disheartening.  And through the story, we can clearly see the development of the Spanish Empire’s system of racial hierarchy  that has remained with Latin American society to this very day.  Fully aware of this, Bolívar made it a point to include everyone in his campaigns with the belief in his heart of a truly united and free Latin America.

Before he died, he recorded a statement regarding the lessons he learned after two decades of service in the revolution.  Hauntingly, his words proved to be correct and to this day, Latin America has never been able to eradicate the very issues proclaimed by  Bolívar in 1830.  And if he were alive today, he would be discouraged to see that he was correct.  Nevertheless, he did succeed in liberating Latin America before greed and deception caused infighting among the new republics that has never fully subsided.  But perhaps one day, we may finally see a truly united continent, free of demons from Spanish and British rule and the dreadful effects of the systems of class division and slavery.  And in that moment, the spirit of Bolívar will truly live on.

The story at hand is one of courage, love, triumph, betrayal and vindication.  Bolívar is long gone but his name and legacy continue to live on.  Marie Arana has done a great service to a legendary historical figure who changed the course of world history and paved the way for the birth of a new South America.

ISBN-10: 1439110204
ISBN-13: 978-1439110201

More Terrible Than Death: Violence, Drugs and America’s War in Colombia-Robin Kirk

more terribleEarlier this year, Netflix released the second season to the hit show ‘Narcos’ starring Wagner Moura as the infamous Pablo Escobar.  While not exactly a dead ringer for Escobar, Moura pulls off a stunning performance bringing the late drug czar back to life.  The series is violent and gritty but a look into a time in Colombia’s past when life was more terrible than death.  Robin Kirk is  currently the Faculty Co-Chair of the Executive Committee of the Duke Human Rights Center at Duke University. She is an experience human rights worker and penned this phenomenal account of the effects of the drug trade on the nation of Colombia.

To most Americans, Colombia is known for coffee, violence and cocaine. While it is true that the country produces the largest amount of cocaine in the western hemisphere, there is far more to Colombia than meets the eye.  The country is also known for its beautiful landscape, hospitable people and some of the finest cuisine in Latin America.  Intervention by the United States into Colombian affairs, the constantly growing market for illegal drugs and political instability helped turned Colombia into the most dangerous country of earth with a murder rate nearly triple of the worst American cities. Escobar stands out as the most popular narco to have come out of Colombia.  But what most forget is that the drug trade went far beyond Escobar and involved many players, some of whom held high positions in Colombian society.  Through Kirk’s memoirs of her time there, we come to know the courageous Colombian citizens who risked their lives in service of their beloved homeland.  The extreme acts of violence are well-known and documented.  Escobar literally held the country in a grip of fear as he waged war against the establishment determined to see him in prison or dead.  As the acts of terror grew, Los Pepes and other cartels unleashed a deadly campaign to rid Colombia of the Rionegro menace. The ensuing war resulted in one of Latin America’s bloodiest drug wars with hundreds of men and women dying at a staggering rate. But as we make our way through Kirk’s book, we are able to see there were more players involved and more ideology in effect than is often shown.

In the wake of U.S. aggression, many Latin American nations struggled with class war between conservative and liberal, Colombian in particular. The civil war in 1948-1958 known as la violencia was  an eerie premonition of the future to come.  The FARC and right-wing Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá, led by the late Carlos Castano, rose to prominence as the two largest extremists groups determined to bring a change to Colombian society by any means necessary.  The drug cartels, M-19 Marxist group and the National Liberation Army (ELN) added another dynamic to already precarious situation and the battles between the parties resulted in a torrent of violence that shocked and appalled the citizens of Colombia and the world at large.

To the average American it is easy to write off Colombia as another hodgepodge of violence. But the stark reality is that the carnivorous American appetite for cocaine helped fuel the highly profitable drug trade and war.   The war on drugs, spearheaded by President Ronald Reagan and continued by future presidents, did little to deter the monster that had been unleashed. Chemical sprays and millions of dollars invested in anti-drug campaigns had little or no effect on the supply of cocaine and in some cases had adverse effects health wise upon the people with the misfortune to live in areas in close proximity to narco operations. Suspicion, fear and paranoia gripped the minds of drug traffickers and left and right-wing leaders.  Doctors, politicians and even judges were no longer safe and many have been forced to leave Colombia in fear of their lives never to return.  Today, the drug trade continues and the government of Colombia continue to negotiate with the FARC to reach a peace agreement.  A truce would be a monumental historical moment giving the people hope and restoring their faith in the country they call home.

The story of Latin America is one of which many Americans remain ignorant.  Assumptions and pre-conceived notions have caused many to disregard Colombia as nothing more than a country of outlaws plagued by greed and cocaine. But in reality the truth is far different.  The people there wish to live in peace and happiness like other countries but have been plagued by an environment encompassed by terror and fear from various angles by various groups all with separate agendas. And while it appears that its worst days are behind, there is still much work to be done as can be seen from the rejection of the proposed peace deal with the FARC.  But all is not lost and a new future for Colombia is apparent as it finds itself on the brink of overdue social reform. With this incredible account of the turmoil that engulfed Colombia and the tragic fates of those who dared to speak up in defense of the place they called home, Kirk has done a great service to everyone that calls their self Colombian.