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.
Today, Venezuela finds itself at the brink of a migrant crisis that could very surpass that of Syria. The mass exodus of Venezuelans to surrounding countries in Latin America has increased as social conditions have deteriorated with food shortages, absurdly inflated currency and political suppression having become daily aspects of life. Nicolás Maduro (1962-) is the sitting President of Venezuela. His administration has come under fire both domestic and abroad for its dismal record on improving Venezuelan society. The country’s fall from grace is one of the most confusing and astounding transformations in modern history. The nation was once at the top of the petroleum export industry and under President Hugo Chávez (1954-2013), Venezuela re-merged as a country to be recognized. On March 5, 2013, he died after a two-year battle with colon cancer and with his death came the end of an era in Venezuela to which the country has been unable and in some cases unwilling to return.
In the United States, Chávez was often demonized as brutal despot that ruled Venezuela with an iron fist. Absurd stories of public shootings, censorship of the press and human rights violations were regularly broadcast in U.S. media outlets. The anti-Chávez stance was espoused by the White House as official government policy. Many Americans firmly believed that Chávez must go. But how much do we really know about Hugo Chávez and his life? Bart Jones is a reporter for Newsday and for eight years he worked in Venezuela, documenting the regime changes and spectacular rise and fall of Hugo Chávez. He has a keen insight into Venezuelan society from a first-hand view and because of this, the book has an even more authentic feel to it.
Jones takes us back in time to 1954 in the small town of Sabaneta in the State of Barinas in west-central Venezuela as Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías enters the world. Raised at first by his grandmother Ines, there are no inkling that the young child will grow up to rule the country. What is clear is the high esteem in which Chávez held his grandmother for all of his life and up until her death. As he matures into a young man and enters the military, it is here that his story begins to pick up speed. The author goes into great detail about Chávez’s early life, through old-fashioned research and discussions with Chávez that lasted several hours. The portrait that begins to take shape is of a young man with a passion for baseball, history and the well-being of the country he calls home that has been plagued by corruption and poverty supplemental by a racial hierarchy. Books become his favorite hobby and through history, Chávez becomes familiar with the man who is the Latin American equivalent of George Washington; Simón Bolívar (1783-1830). For the rest of his life, Chávez would inject Bolívar into nearly all of his speeches, plans and actions. American readers who are drawn to history will appreciate the recap of the story of the late revolutionary and come to understand why he is so revered in Latin America. For Chávez, there was no Venezuela without the spirit of Bolívar.
Latin America has been plagued by military coups and endless changes in regime. Venezuela was no stranger to either. Chávez, the brilliant and aspiring leader, seized his opportunity on the heels of political upheaval and in contrast to what is often mistakenly repeated, catapulted to office in a free and open election. But what is paramount is how he rose to power and that is what Jones carefully explains to us. The man who was the outsider, achieved the impossible and during his time in office, left a mark on Venezuela that will last forever. Not without his faults, he was a complex character and the author leaves it up to the reader to decide. And had he not died at such a young age, perhaps he would have gone on to achieve more in his later years. I forewarn the reader that if you approach this book with anti-Chávez bias, you will not appreciate the gift contained in these pages. In fact, Jones is no Chávez fan and does an incredible job of remaining unbiased. He points out Chávez’s triumphs and also his failures. And what we can take away from what we learn is that Chávez was a human being who some believed was larger than life. From the comfort of our homes in America, it may be hard for some of us to understand his popularity but in Latin America, hope is more powerful than we may think. Chávez masterfully became a man of the people and his ascension to power was extremely well-played.
Similar to other biographies of great leaders, the book contains a cast of real-life characters from President George Bush (1946-), Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (1954-) and even the late Fidel Castro (1926-2016). Chávez had never served in office before winning the presidential election but he quickly made up for his shortcomings and did change Venezuelan society. Sadly, it seems that after his death the nation was never the same and under the current administration, is sliding deeper in anarchy with each passing week. If Chávez were alive, I am sure he would be ready to work to carry on the revolution to make Venezuela the greatest Latin American nation the world has seen. He was brash, inspiring, shrewd and at times unrealistic but above all, he was Venezuela. This is the incredible life story of Hugo Chávez and the nation he led.