PROFILE Simon Bolivar: Liberator of South America, then and now

Legacy of Bolivar, who died in 1830 at age 47, still resonates in several South American countries that fight imperialism

Vakkas Doğantekin  | 24.07.2019 - Update : 24.07.2019
PROFILE Simon Bolivar: Liberator of South America, then and now


The legendary Simon Bolivar, born this day in July 1783, was the charismatic leader of Latin America’s independence movement from Spain.

The legacy of Bolivar, who died in 1830, still echoes across Central and South America.

His name appears in the names of countries, on currency, in numerous place names, and on statues across the world.

Ecuador, Bolivia and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela were named after Bolivar and are currently run by three bolivarianos – Rafael Correa, Evo Morales, and Nicolas Maduro, respectively.

His relentless fight against the European conquistadors and trailblazing ideas that cherished independence and freedom drove the Spanish colonizers from northern South America.

His later years were marked by the collapse of his grand dream of a united South America, yet he is still remembered as "The Liberator" who astonishingly liberated one million square kilometers over the space of 11 years -- specifically, the countries of Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Panama.

“In the unity of our nations rests the glorious future of our peoples,” he reportedly said, a quote that summarized his dream for a united South America, similar to the United States of America in the north with George Washington as one of its “founding fathers.”

One Latin American diplomat said of him: “Neither Washington nor Bolivar was destined to have children of their own, so that we Americans might call ourselves their children.”

Early life 

Bolivar was born in Caracas to a wealth family, one of a handful of “creoles” owning large swathes of land.

Both of his parents died while he was still a child: he had no memory of his father, Juan Vicente Bolivar y Ponte, and his mother Maria de la Concepcion Palacios y Blanco died when he was only 9.

Raised by his uncle and aunt, Bolivar received the finest education available in South America from both private tutors and esteemed schools.

His marriage to Maria Teresa del Toro y Alayza in 1802 was short lived, as she got sick and died of yellow fever the very next year.

From 1804 to 1807, he went to Europe to study in Madrid, where he met influential figures, including French leader Napoleon Bonaparte.


When he returned to Venezuela in 1807, he saw a popular desire for independence after efforts to ignite the independence torch in 1806 by another patriotic Venezuelan general, Francisco de Miranda, in the form of an invasion of Spanish-controlled territories ended in failure.

It was when Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808 and imprisoned King Ferdinand VII that the independence movement gained undeniable momentum.

On April 19, 1810, the people of Caracas, the territory of Venezuela’s capital, declared provisional independence from Spain, which meant nominal allegiance to King Ferdinand but self-rule in Venezuela until the Spanish king returned to the throne.

Bolivar rejected this partial independence and began a confidence-building tour in Europe, starting with Britain.

When he returned, patriots and royalists were still at odds. On July 5, 1811, the First Venezuelan Republic voted for full independence.

In 1812, the independence movement suffered a severe blow when a magnitude 7.7 earthquake devastated the liberated cities of Venezuela, killing nearly 20,000 people.

Spanish priests wasted no time in spreading religious propaganda, convincing a superstitious and naive population that the earthquake was divine retribution and poetic justice to punish the independence movement from Spain.

Royalist Capt. Domingo Monteverde rallied the Spanish and royalist forces and captured important ports and the city of Valencia, causing the first republic to fall and the Spanish to regain control of Venezuela.

This process also led to a falling out between Bolivar and Miranda.

The ‘Admirable Campaign’

Bolivar was defeated and went into exile, only to come back in 1812 to modern-day Colombia in a bid to join the independence movement there. He bravely fought the Spanish forces with 200 men he was given, and his reputation as a liberator across the territories grew bigger and bigger.

In 1813, he was strong enough to recapture Venezuela. His bravery in quickly driving his victorious forces to Caracas and establishing the Second Venezuelan Republic is still remembered to this day as the “Admirable Campaign.”

However, maintaining independence was not easy at a time when the Spanish colonizers still had military superiority. Defeated by Spanish commander Jose Tomas Boves at the second Battle of La Puerta in 1814, Bolivar was forced to leave Caracas, ending the Second Republic. Bolivar went into exile again.

In 1815, he penned his famous Letter from Jamaica, which chronicled the region’s struggles for independence.

When he returned, he saw many patriotic generals fighting each other, neglecting the real enemy. Bolivar made an example of Gen. Manuel Piar by executing him in October 1817, a clear message that brought other generals in line.

In 1817, Bolivar invaded Venezuela again and was elected the nation’s president.

Defeating the Spanish forces at the Battle of Boyaca in 1819, he liberated the territory which is modern-day Colombia.

Meanwhile, in Spain, Spanish liberals revolted against King Fernando VII, and Bolivar’s Gran Colombia was declared a reality with Bolivar as president.

In 1821, Bolivar marched to Ecuador and liberated it from Spain. The following year he met with Argentine liberator Jose de San Martin, who decided to turn over the entire rebel army to Bolivar. In 1823, the last Spanish forces were defeated in Venezuela. In 1825, he liberated Alta Peru, and Bolivia was founded.

Difficult years

Bolivar faced tough times from 1825 onwards when violent factionalism sprung up all over northern South America. In 1828, he proclaimed himself absolute ruler to resolve the political impasse in liberated regions.

That August, thanks to his lover, Manuela Saenz, he survived one of many assassination attempts.

Until his resignation as president and death in 1830, he dealt with uprisings that broke out all over liberated territories.

He died of tuberculosis on Dec. 17 in Santa Marta, Colombia.

Bolivar’s reputation declined throughout Latin America with the emergence of new factions, but as the new countries grew, they acknowledged that his memory and legacy was vital to nurturing a proud sense of nationhood.

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