In 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.
Open Veins In Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent-Eduardo Galeano with a Foreword by Isabel Allende
Latin America is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. The Iguazu Falls, Andes Mountains and Patagonia attract millions of visitors annually. The beauty of these and other sites across Latin America stand in stark contrast to the poverty that can be found outside of major cities and sometimes within. In between major railway stations and ports exist slums that remind us of the severely uneven distribution of wealth throughout the continent. Speaking from personal experience, most Americans would be shocked at living conditions that still exist in Latin America to this day. But why does a continent with a history that goes back several hundred years and is home to beautiful people, beautiful languages, great foods and beautiful scenes of nature, continue to suffer from poverty, corruption and exploitation.
The key to understanding the current state of these and other Latin American affairs, is to revisit its history. Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015) has done just that in this eye-opening and best-selling study of Latin American history that was first published in 1971. The edition that is the subject of this review was re-published in 1997, and contains a foreword by Isabel Allende, a cousin of the late Chilean President Salvador Allende (1908-1973). On September 11, 1973, Allende died on a self-inflicted gunshot wound as opposition forces engaged in a CIA-backed overthrow of the government. Isabel currently lives in California and is a naturalized United States Citizen.
Galeano starts by revisiting how Latin America came into existence from a continent of indigenous people to one in which Spanish is the dominant language. The arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean marked a distinctive change in the course of world history and although he never set foot in North America, Columbus is still considered by many to be the person that discovered what is today the United States. In recent years however, the holiday of Columbus Day has been replaced by Indigenous People’s Day or in others not acknowledged. In Central and South America, the arrival of the Spanish explorers would have a profound impact and set the stage for plunder, murder and exploitation that engulfed the continent. Next to Columbus are the stories of Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475-1519) and Pedro de Valdivia (1497-1553), explorers who would spend their last days in South America. And as Galeano re-tells their stories, the reader might want to make notes of names, dates and places as the story comes together like a puzzle.
While the tragedy of exploitation and violence played out, not all voices were content with Spanish domination and the extermination of South America’s inhabitants. Tupac Amaru (1545-1572) and Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) also appear in the book and it would be safe to say that an author would find it impossible to discuss Latin American history without recounting their extraordinary and short lives. However their efforts proved to be ineffective against the rush of colonization that dominated the southern hemisphere. And it is at this point in the book that Galeano turns up the heat as we learn how natural resources became a gold mine and and the populations of the Carribean, Central American and South American nearly disappeared as a result of warfare, famine and disease. World superpowers sank their teeth into the Latin American cash machine and have never let go.
The grip of foreign control has proven to have disastrous effects on politics, producing revolutions and widespread practice of the coup d’état. Leaders who leaned left and sought to reclaim industries exploited by foreign corporations were quickly dealt with through American foreign policy. Those who did play the game were rewarded and tolerated through the Good Neighbor Policy and other shady practices. The climate of distrust and violent overthrow of the government has never left Latin America. The current events in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Argentina are prime examples of the volatile political climate that continues to exist. And all the while, foreign corporations continue to reap enormous profits as they move around offices and politicians like pieces on a chess board.
Galeano provides a staggering amount of information in the book which is sure to shock the reader. But this book is key to understanding why Latin America has developed so many third-world countries. It would be easy to blame those countries for their own failures. But what we know is that after a colonizer has left the colonized, it is immensely difficult for those nations to find a permanent path of success. This was beautifully explained by Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) in his classic The Wretched of the Earth. The future is bleak for many Latin American nations as inflation rises and the IMF becomes more reluctant to give out loans. Poverty continues to increase giving rise to protests, crime and strikes. What we see today is a manifestation of what Galeano calls “five hundred years of the pillage of a continent”.
If you have never traveled through Latin America, I implore you to do so at least once. I firmly believe that there are many great things that are unfamiliar to those who live in the northern hemisphere. I have had the privilege of visiting Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Chile is next on the list. Through my travels, I have met many people who have become a permanent part of my life and I am eternally grateful for having met them. Galeano died on April 13, 2015 after a battle with lung cancer but he left behind important works and this masterpiece which has been translated into more than twelve languages. This book has proven to be the companion guide every person needs in order to understand many of things that will be seen in Latin America, including the current presence of open veins.
El Salvador Could Be Like That: A Memoir of War, Politics and Journalism on the Front-Row of the Last Bloody Conflict of the US-Soviet Cold War- Joseph B. Frazier
It’s often said that everyone comes into your life for a reason. Fairly recently, I became acquainted with a lovely young woman who has since become a very close friend. She was born in El Salvador and forced to flee her home with her family during one of the worst civil wars in modern history. Because I was quite young at the time of the conflict, my knowledge of the situation and the experiences of the survivors was severely limited, making it difficult for me to offer any meaningful comments to her story. However, I listened thoroughly and have never forgotten what she’s told me and it was through her stories that I began to further understand the turmoil that continues to plague Latin America to this very day. Recently I read the autobiography of retired marine Oliver North. Most readers will remember him from the Iran-Contra scandal in the mid 1980s during President Regan’s administration. Forced to be the scapegoat following congressional hearings into the intelligence activities to free hostages in Libya and fund the contras in Nicaragua against the Sandinista National Liberation Front, North faded into the background and now lives a quiet life far removed from his former activities. It was in this book that I began to understand the events that occurred in El Salvador, why they happened, who is to blame and why they should never be forgotten.
Based on my reading of North’s book (my review of which can be found here), Amazon recommended this short book by Joseph B. Frazier, a correspondent for the Associated Press and Vietnam veteran who covered Central America extensively during the 1970s and 1980s. These are his memories of his time in El Salvador during the country’s bloodiest era. Caught in between a fierce battle between a U.S. backed government and rebel forces led the by FMLN, civilians, missionaries, journalist and even clergy would be murdered, the most notable of which is the late Father Oscar Romero, played by Raul Julia on the silver screen. The war raged for 12 years before both sides agreed to a truce in 1992 at The Chapultepec Peace Accords in Mexico, City. Twenty three years have passed since the treaty, and today, not much is said about the small Central American nation. American has long forgotten about the contra scandal and news from El Salvador barely makes it on to American television. Gang violence has surged and the nation finds itself in a battle against crime almost as deadly as the battle between the Duarte administration and the FMLN. Second to Honduras, it has one of the highest murder rates in the world and the battles between far-left and far-right political parties continue making the future of the small nation uncertain. While steps toward improvement have been made, there is still much work to be done. But as long as there are those willing to make it happen, it gives hope and inspiration for others to follow suit.V While it may be easier to forget the civil war that nearly destroyed a nation, doing so would be an incredible injustice to the many innocent victims who gave their lives in an effort to promote peace and change. It is through books such as these and the testimonials of survivors that their lives are never forgotten.
I always loved hearing stories from my father about his youth, in particular before he met my mother and was just a young man with no set path in life. His stories have given me a better idea of how he became the man I know as dad. When Che Guevara left Cuba for the last time, he left behind a wife and several children never to see them again. His oldest surviving daughter, Aleida, provides a foreword to her father’s famous journal about his journey through Latin America with friend and fellow medical student Alberto Granado. Appropriately titled The Motorcycle Diaries, the book is the story of two young friends who discovery their home continent. Written during their time as medical students in Buenos Aires, Che’s journal provides us with an insight to the young man who would eventually become the icon for revolutions throughout the world.
Later in his life, Che revised the journal making edits and corrections but the overall passages remain the same and the diary is an interesting look into the early life of the Argentine revolutionary. The Latin American we know today is far different from the one that Che and Alberto journeyed through on their ill-fated motorcycle named La Ponderosa II. Their visits to the poor combined with famine and neglect from local governments, helped shaped the ideology and commitment to social reformation that would serve as the basis of his revolutionary beliefs. The trials and tribulations that occur in the book are also highly amusing revealing the naive behavior that often accompanies youth. And as he moves through South America with Alberto, the young Che finds himself questioning the meaning of life, love and the future of society. Upon his return to Buenos Aires, he obtained his medical degree becoming the doctor who would be sorely needed several years later when he became part of the 26th of July Movement under the direction of a young Cuban lawyer, Fidel Castro. But before the fame, speeches and armed revolution, he was simply Ernesto.