Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Simon Says

There is a new biography of Simón Bolívar out. It is written by Marie Arana, a Peruvian-born author, editor and journalist. Her previous books include the memoir American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood and the novels Cellophane and Lima Nights.

Her Bolívar book is timely since its subject is a figure much evoked around the recent transition from the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro.

I happened to hear Arana interviewed by Scott Simon on National Public Radio last month, and one particular exchange has stayed with me. After Arana began with a brief summary of Bolívar’s military successes against the Spanish, Simon—taking his cue from the book—said, “Almost the major factor that separated Simon Bolívar from the American founding fathers is, Bolívar believed that you couldn’t fight a revolution for freedom if you kept slavery.”

Arana then told about Bolívar travelling to the United States and being irked by the slave market in Charleston. She concluded by saying, “And though he loved George Washington… he couldn’t do things the same way.”

The discussion then moved on to the Liberator’s tempestuous love life, his frustrated later years and the eventual rebirth of his legend.

There is nothing inaccurate about Arana’s and Simon’s comparison of Bolívar versus the U.S.’s founding fathers. The latter did leave slavery in place after the American Revolution while the former was against slavery. But it does leave a strangely distorted impression of the two. If you knew nothing more about North and South American history than what was provided in this interview, you would have no doubt that Bolívar was eminently superior to Washington, both morally and militarily.

But the fact is that, while Washington refused to accept an offer of becoming a monarch and only reluctantly agreed to stand for president which he relinquished after two terms, Bolívar ignored constitutions he himself implemented and ultimately declared himself dictator. Thousands of prisoners and civilians were slaughtered under his orders and, in the end, he was preparing to flee to exile in Europe when he died of tuberculosis at 47. Yes, it is to his credit that he proclaimed that “slavery is the worst human indignity” and that he freed the slaves he himself had inherited. More generally, however, he offered freedom to slaves only on the condition that all men between 14 and 60 serve in his army.

The bottom line, in terms of history, is that the nation Washington helped found has gone on to prosper under democratic principles ever since. As Arana notes, Bolívar did achieve impressive military victories against the Spanish and did free a larger territory from colonial rule than did Washington. But Bolívar’s dream of a united Gran Colombia fell apart disastrously, and the various countries that comprised it have been struggled—with varying degrees of success—to retain democracy and raise the living standard of their populations ever since.

The point isn’t, or shouldn’t be, which of the two leaders was “better.” Although separated by just a few years, their times and places in world history are very different. But Arana falls prey to an annoying habit of many in academia and the media and, frankly, at NPR. She concentrates on a couple of points of comparison that are not really representative to the overall accomplishments of the two men.

Moreover, she applies a double standard in her comparison. One gets judged by his deeds, complete with blemishes. The other gets judged mainly by his lofty but failed goals.

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