John Lynch’s superb biography of Simón Bolívar1 is no doubt a major achievement, a key book for anyone who wishes to make any sense of where many independent Latin American nations stemmed from and what they have made of themselves.

Bolívar became a mythical revolutionary warrior as well as an outstanding intellectual who elaborated the ideals of national liberation. His undaunted soul and astonishing military prowess eventually put an end to Spanish rule in what are now the six republics of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, the recently newsworthy country that bears his name.

Mr. Lynch is Emeritus Professor of Latin American History and former director of the Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of London. More than thirty years ago he wrote “The Spanish American Revolution, 1808-1826, (Norton, NY, 1973), a comprehensive and illuminating work frequently referred to by leading Latin American historians as The Book on the subject.

His biography of “The Liberator”, as Bolívar is also known in some of the Andean countries, departs from the bulk of hero-worshipping literature that, sadly enough, passes for History in Latin American countries. Yet Lynch is well aware that, “the independence of Spanish America is incomprehensible without the presence of the liberators and its subsequent history would be empty without the intervention of personal authority. In the action of Bolívar we observe the dynamics of leadership, the power to command and the modes of ruling (emphasis mine) in the diverse society of Spanish America, not the whole history of the age, but a great part of it.”

Those modes of ruling foreshadowed modern incarnations of Bolívar’s military authoritarianism that patterns current authoritarian populist projects throughout the region. Two centuries after the first independentist movements broke out in Spanish America, most of them inspired by the French Illustration and decidedly intent on the creation of liberal republics, what can be said on balance about liberty—about all liberties— in our nations?

Nostromo, a short novel by Joseph Conrad centered on the fictional country of Costaguana, is available at

Many enraged Latin American writers and scholars have denounced the poor opinion in which Mr. Joseph Conrad held our newly-born “liberal” republics. They think his views are supremacist and/or imperialistic. I concur with the few who believe that the fictional Republic of Costaguana—where Conrad set the action of Nostromo—is still a vividly accurate depiction what the “modes of ruling” we inherited from our founding fathers brought about.

(I cannot but digress briefly only to note that among Latin Americans you do not really speak of “founding fathers” but of “liberators”, “protectors”, “benefactors” and the like. One of our infamous 19th century “liberal tyrants” had himself unabashedly titled “the civilizing autocrat”.)

We can, as Mr. Lynch engagingly suggests, see Bolívar life and times as times of transition from colonial societies based on absolutist hierarchies, nobility values and inequality to nation states, but then one can only ask how Bolívar, an aristocrat revolutionist par excellence, conceived liberty in the many inceptive Costaguanas his epic gave birth to.

In his review of Lynch’s book, the Peruvian writer Alvaro Vargas Llosa addresses this question in a most incisive way:

Bolívar’s blunder was to contain, rather than to open, the doors of social mobility. He did not quite recognize the disjunction between the theoretical constitutions that he and his men passed and the kind of stratified society that existed beneath them. In his elitist view of the economy, shopkeepers and small traders were “vulgar people.”… As Lynch aptly states, “In Venezuela, where the colonial aristocracy was reduced both in numbers and importance, the great estates passed into the hands of a new creole and mestizo oligarchy, the successful warlords of independence.” So the faces may have changed, but the system was left almost intact….

Some of the measures taken by Bolívar were just, such as abolishing the Indian tribute and unpaid labor services, but for many Indians this simply meant having to pay more taxes as normal citizens. The real problem was that they were not in practice equal before the law, they owned very little property, and they could not engage in productive and commercial activities of their own because property rights essentially depended on the ruling elite.2

As almost any other post-colonial people, 19th century Latin Americans nurtured war myths and hero worshipping that helped themselves move ahead into their future without a Spanish king. Thus el culto a Bolívar—the Bolívar cult—was born, first as an spontaneous outpouring of popular devotion, almost immediately after Bolivar’s death. But soon a “more regimented and government inspired” doctrine was to be preached from on high.

Lynch’s rendering of the essentials of the official Bolivar cult and the way it has worked so far is worth quoting in extenso: “The cultists had a good story. A hero of pure Venezuelan lineage, after a tragic marriage and golden youth in Europe, assumes the leadership of national independence, provides the intellectual base for a continental revolution, and the military and political talents to create a union of states and win international respect, all the time asserting his manhood as a glorious lover. There were many Bolívars here, with any of whom people could identify. Venezuelan nationalist, American hero, macho male, Bolívar conformed to the roles. But hero-worship was not the same as the cult. This had a greater purpose. Bolívar was a model for the nation. A post-colonial people who, through no fault of their own, had been rendered incapable of improvement or of enjoying the liberty he had won for them, could be saved by his example and his guidance.”3

Many Latin American countries won independence for Spain in the early 1820s. In those times, standards of living were low, but as the economic historian Victor Bulmer-Thomas adverts, “not much lower than in North America, probably on a par with much of central Europe and perhaps higher than the newly discovered countries of the antipodes. All that was need, it was thought, were capital and skilled labor to unlock the natural resources in Latin America’s vast unexploited interior and unrestricted access to the wealthy markets of western Europe.”

Nearly two centuries later, that dream is still elusive. Few of the republics in the region can be deemed as developed. To the contrary, some remain extremely poor. Of course, you can always find pockets of wealth within any of our Costaguanas but these pockets do not make up for the deprivation suffered by the poor majority of the population. In the process, the region’s achievements in literature, art, music, popular culture, and yes, myths, has rightly won the world’s admiration. But, as Bulmer-Thomas rightly asserts, “this is only partial compensation for failure to bridge the enormous gap of the levels of economic development n the region and in the developed counties.”

Liberation myths instead of true, significant liberties: that’s something we have had plenty of, from Bolívar to “Evita” to “Ché” Guevara , myths that almost always signal towards a scapegoat that may be called “oligarchies’ unrelenting greed” or “yanqui imperialism.”

The “dynamics of leadership” that Lynch observes in his compelling magnus opus, dates back to colonial days and echo in Conrad’s depicting of the “liberal” Republic of Costaguana’s founding myths and popular caudillo’s “modes of ruling”: “the exaggeration of a cruel caricature, the fatuity of solemn masquerading, the atrocious grotesquenes of some military idol of Aztec conception and European bedecking, awaiting the homage of worshippers…”.

Two centuries later those dynamics still are at work as the major threat that hovers on the frail democracies of our many Costaguanas.


John Lynch, Simón Bolívar: A Life, Yale University Press, 2006

Álvaro Vargas Llosa, “Democracy’s Caudillo,” The New Republic, June 19, 2006. Available online at The Independent Review.

John Lynch, Ibid, page 301.


*Ibsen Martinez is a columnist, journalist, and award-winning playwright from Caracas, Venezuela. His writings have appeared in El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Letras Libres, Madrid, and El Pais in Madrid. Since 1995, he has written a weekly column for El Nacional.

For more articles by Ibsen Martinez, see the Archive.