Simon Bolivar is one of the most famous characters in Latin American history. Standing alongside other independence leaders of the Americas, Bolivar is remembered as a giant in the transformation of South America and Hispanic America. Born in what is today Venezuela, Bolivar not only led and aided in the struggle for emancipation in his own country but was also crucial in the struggles of other nations. Latin America today would not be the same without Bolivar’s impact on society and his ambitious dreams for a united Hispanic America. Most remember him as the historical icon that he is, but some of his life’s history is left behind when learning about Bolivar’s achievements. Here are 5 interesting facts about his life.
1. Two Countries Are Named After Simon Bolivar: Bolivia & Venezuela
Bolivar’s efforts for Latin American emancipation led him to war struggles all throughout the subcontinent. His dream was to liberate the Americas from Spanish control and unite the free nations under one government, a united Latin America. His hopes of freedom became true in time, with significant support and leadership on his part. But his aspiration for a united Latin America was short-lived. Nevertheless, his legacy remains strong and visible. In his honor, two Latin American nations owe their names to him: Bolivia, and his native Venezuela, which is officially named La Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela.
Other nations in Latin America still honor El Libertador, and from time to time, memorials from the time of the wars of emancipation still take notice of Bolivar’s efforts. Even Mexico, a nation largely unrelated to the emancipatory efforts in South America, has repeatedly honored the Venezuelan revolutionary, naming institutions, schools, universities, streets, and more after him.
Bolivar’s dream for a united Latin America also remains alive, and though not as strong as it once was, more and more collaboration between the Latin American countries keeps the hopes going for a more close region. Organizations like the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States strive for more integration and development among its members. Others, like Mercosur, take even more ambitious steps for unity. Aspiring for an integration similar to that of the European Union, Mercosur was founded on the ideal for regional integration, international cooperation, and the creation of a single market economic union. Although different from what Bolivar might have envisioned, Latin America continues to grow closer together even today.
2. He Came from One of the Wealthiest Families in the Region
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Bolivar was born into an incredibly privileged family. His father, Juan Vicente Bolivar y Ponte, was a criollo merchant and colonel. In the Spanish colonial caste system, criollos were a powerful social group comprised of people born in the colonies but who also had Spanish descent or passed as such. They were second only to the Spanish-born Peninsulares, who concentrated most of the power and influence. Bolivar’s father not only held positions in the colonial administration but also inherited a vast fortune. By the time he was 16 years old, Simon Bolivar had gone to Europe to be educated but had also become an orphan.
Bolivar’s wealth aided in his exposure to the revolutionary liberal thinking of the time, which had been brewing in Europe for a while. His experiences led him to promise that he would liberate the South American Spanish colonies in his Juramento del Monte Sacro. Throughout his life, Bolivar inherited fortune after fortune, although always at the cost of tragedy, such as the death of his older brother, whose offspring were still too young, and thus the family’s inheritance passed off to Bolivar.
Bolivar’s wealth was also one of the reasons for the development and success of many of the emancipatory struggles in South America, as he not only led many of said efforts but also financed them. Although it is said that Bolivar died with none of his wealth remaining after having spent it all in the revolutionary struggles of South America, this is false, as Bolivar still possessed a range of profitable assets. Nevertheless, Bolivar was still charitable to those close to him, providing his family with economic support and even declaring in his testament that one-third of his wealth would return to his three nephews.
3. He Was a Great Leader, Though at Times Quite Ruthless
Simon Bolivar was famously known as “El Libertador,” or The Liberator. But despite his devotion to the emancipation of the Spanish colonies in South America, Bolivar was not just an idealist. Instead, he was a strategic military leader who often took risks to get ahead in his war efforts. In 1819, for example, the revolutionaries surprised the Spanish army in the Battle of Boyaca, resulting in the decisive fall of the Viceroyalty of New Granada.
Bolivar was both incredibly ambitious and decisive in his actions. In 1812, a massive earthquake hit Caracas, weakening the revolutionaries. That same year they suffered decisive defeats against the Spanish, resulting in the fall of the First Republic by 1813. The Spanish showed no mercy against the revolutionaries, but the rebel side took a dark stance too. Bolivar issued “el Decreto de Guerra a Muerte,” or the War to the Death Decree, which allowed the killing of any Spanish civilian who didn’t aid in the emancipatory struggle.
When the independence of New Granada was achieved, La Gran Colombia was born. But how the new nation was to be governed was a delicate and controversial subject. Bolivar believed a heavy hand was needed. He argued in favor of a president for life with almost unlimited reach in his power and a unitary form of government. Meanwhile, Santander, a former ally, argued for a federal government, limits to the reach and power of the presidency, and less influence from the military. Bolivar believed South America ought to be united, but with him ruling over the hypothetical nation. He understood that newly independent states would need a powerful figure to allow for such integration, and for a while, Bolivar was such a figure. Nevertheless, his tough stance came at a cost, and his dream crumbled.
4. Some of His Friends & Allies Eventually Became His Enemies
Historically, politics almost always involves betrayal and flip-flopping sides. Nowhere is it more noticeable than when major historical changes occur. During such massive reconfigurations of power and influence, it is quite common to see changes in factions and allegiances. For most of the 19th century, the Americas were the ideal home to this chaotic environment, particularly in the Spanish Colonies.
Francisco de Miranda, considered a precursor in the Latin American emancipatory struggle, had collaborated in many other conflicts aiming for liberal ideas and independence. He had fought in Africa, America, and Europe, participating in the American Revolution and the French Revolution. His name is even engraved on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Naturally, when the revolutionary war started in his native Venezuela, Miranda was called to lead by Bolivar and others. But when the war reached a delicate point, Miranda capitulated in the name of all the revolutionary forces, acting upon his previous appointment as supreme leader. Bolivar was confused by Miranda’s decision and believed his actions meant treason, so he had him arrested and delivered to the Spanish side. Miranda eventually died in captivity from natural causes.
Miranda was not the only one who fell out of Bolivar’s goodwill. When the war was won, the question of what would happen next was raised. Bolivar and Santander were the two foremost ideological leaders of the newly-born Gran Colombia. But their political differences were such that the former allies and friends fell apart and became adversaries. For a while, Bolivar remained the main leader, but some of his adversaries wanted to get rid of him. In 1828, an attempt on Bolivar’s life was made, and Santander was charged alongside other alleged collaborators. Santander was found a traitor and exiled, returning to Gran Colombia only after Bolivar’s resignation from the presidency.
5. Simon Bolivar Did Not Die from Conflict
Simon Bolivar certainly had a busy, demanding life. He was one of the most important leaders in the Americas during his life. He was a dedicated military leader, taking on the responsibility of a series of key battles and whole campaigns against the Spanish. And yet, despite all these, Bolivar didn’t die from war or betrayal. Instead, he died from tuberculosis, or at least that is what was believed at the time.
Later in life, Bolivar had lost faith in South American politics and felt alienated. He was briefly called for support after a former close ally, Jose Antonio de Sucre was assassinated. But Bolivar, who was already waiting to leave for exile, had grown sick, and his health continued deteriorating until his death in 1830 at the age of 47.
Centuries later, in 2008, Hugo Chavez’s government, unsatisfied with the conventional cause of Bolivar’s death, carried out an investigation to clarify the reasons behind his passing. The official report stated that Bolivar had actually died of histoplasmosis, a fungal infection with similar symptoms to tuberculosis. Furthermore, the report argued that the infection had been aggravated by arsenic poisoning. And though it is possible that rivals might have poisoned him, it was quite common at the time to use arsenic as a medical remedy, and Bolivar might have even taken it by his own initiative.
Bolivar’s life has gone down in history as one to be remembered. Like other Latin American independence leaders, Bolivar’s support and leadership of emancipatory movements in South America challenged the mighty Spanish Empire and its centuries-long colonial oppression over the Americas. But unlike many of them, Bolivar also dreamt of a united Hispanic America, a vast confederation that would not only aspire for emancipation but also for fraternity and prosperity.