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Simón Bolívar, El Libertador

The most powerful man in South America - in his day

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Plaza Bolivar and  Statue of Simon Bolivar

Plaza Bolivar and Statue of Simon Bolivar

Peter and Jackie Main
Simón Bolívar was a complex man. He was an idealist, an aristocrat secure in his heritage and status, a well-educated man and deep-thinker who liked things done his way, a visionary and a revolutionary.

He was born on July 24, 1783 in Caracas, the son of well-to-do patricians, don Juan Vicente Bolívar y Ponte and his wife, doña Maria de la Concepción Palacios y Blanco, and his early years were filled with all the advantages of wealth and position.

Tutors provided an excellent grounding in the classics, including the history and culture of ancient Rome and Greece, plus the neo-classical principles popular in Europe at the time, particularly those of the French political philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau.

His parents died when he was nine, and young Simón was left in the care of his maternal uncles, Carlos and Esteban Palacios. Carlos Palacios raised him until he was fifteen, at which time he was sent to Europe to continue his education with Esteban Palacios. On the way, he stopped in Mexico, where he astonished the Viceroy with his arguments for independence from Spain.

In Spain, he met and fell deeply in love with Maria Teresa Rodríguez del Toro y Alaysa whom he married in 1802, when he was nineteen. They went to Venezuela the following year, a fatal decision, for Maria Teresa died of yellow fever before the year was out. Heartbroken, Simón vowed he would never marry again, a vow he kept for the rest of his life.

Returning to Spain in 1804, Simón saw at firsthand the changing political scene when Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor and set his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne. Disenchanted with Napoleon's reversal of his earlier republican stance, Simón remained in Europe, traveling, witnessing the change back to monarchy and empires. It was in Italy that he made his famous vow to never rest until South America was free.

On his way back to Venezuela, Simón visited the United States, where he no doubt saw the difference between a new independent country and the colonies of Spain in South America. In 1808, Venezuela proclaimed its independence from Spain and Andrés Bello, Luis López Mendez and Simón were sent to London on a diplomatic mission. Simón Bolívar returned to Venezuela on June 3, 1811 and in August made a speech espousing independence. He took part in the battle of Valencia under the command of Francisco de Miranda, known as the Precursor. Miranda was also born in Caracas, in 1750, and joined the Spanish army. He was an experienced soldier, having fought in the American Revolution and the French Revolutionary Wars, and in the service of Catherine the Great, before joining the the revolutionary efforts in Venezuela in 1810.

Miranda acted as dictator of Venezuela until the Spanish royalist forces overturned the victory at Valencia and imprisoned him. Simón Bolívar went to Cartagena, where he wrote the Cartagena Manifesto in which he argued for cooperation between Venezuela and New Granada to secure their independence from Spain.

He was successful, and with support from New Granada, which then comprised Colombia, Panama and part of modern day Venezuela, invaded Venezuela. He took Merida, then Caracas, and was proclaimed El Libertador. Again, success was temporary and he was forced to seek refuge in Jamaica, where he wrote the famous Letter from Jamaica. After Miranda's death in 1816, and with help from Haiti, Bolívar returned to Venezuela in 1817 and continued the battle.

The Battle of Boyaca on August 7, 1819 was a great victory for Bolívar and his forces. The Angostura Congress founded Gran Colombia from the present-day countries of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador. Bolívar was named president and continued to solidify the new independence with continuing battles against Spain with Antonio José de Sucre, the military genius who acted as Bolívar's chief lieutenant; Francisco Antonio Zea, vice-president from 1819 to 1821; and Francisco de Paula Santander, vice-president from 1821 to 1828.

By this time, Simón Bolívar was well on his way to becoming the most powerful man in South America.

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