SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Simon Bolivar is often called the George Washington of Venezuela - and of Bolivia, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador and Peru. George Washington threw colonialists out of one country; Simon Bolivar liberated six from Spanish rule, and was considered an artful military strategist with a vision of history. He was passionate about freedom and - well, just passionate, too.
Marie Arana has written a biography of a warrior statesman whose name is often invoked, but whose history is often, too little understood; "Bolivar: American Liberator." And Marie Arana is also a columnist for the Washington Post, a novelist, and author of the memoir "American Chica"; joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.
MARIE ARANA: Oh, it's a pleasure to be here, Scott. Thank you for having me.
SIMON: How did Simon Bolivar become known as El Libertador, the liberator?
ARANA: Ah, this is great; this is great, Scott, because it happened almost exactly 200 years ago. The revolution had failed once. He decided, OK, I can't free my own country, but I'll go and try to free Colombia and then come back into Venezuela - which is exactly what he did. So he came in, and the moment he entered with his liberating forces - which were, largely, Colombian soldiers - he was proclaimed "the liberator." And he routed all the Spaniards before him, all the way to Caracas. And so with a battalion of hundreds to go up against thousands, but to manage to really strike fear into the heart of the Spanish military machine, was quite an accomplishment. at the time.
SIMON: Yeah. And he did this in location after location...
ARANA: In location after location, throughout South America.
SIMON: Almost the major factor that separated Simon Bolivar from the American founding fathers is, Bolivar believed that you couldn't fight a revolution for freedom if you kept slavery.
SIMON: And this comes up, time and time again.
ARANA: Absolutely comes up time and time again. Bolivar really admired the American Revolution, the American will to independence. But when he traveled to the United States, he landed in Charleston, which was the largest slave market going, in the United States. And this irked Bolivar. And he understood, at that time, when he went back, that that was something that made his country and his continent very, very different from United States. And though he loved George Washington - and by the way, George Washington loved him - he couldn't do things the same way.
SIMON: Speaking of love, in a different sense - as we mentioned, Bolivar was a passionate man.
SIMON: Now, there were many names that we could mention but certainly, I want to talk about the very significant figure in his life - Manuela Saenz. You reprint an extraordinary excerpt from a letter - 1823 - from Manuela to James Thorne, her poor schmoe of a British husband...
SIMON: ...after she ran away with Bolivar. Let's listen to an excerpt of that, if we could.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) I only regret that you're not a better man, so that my leaving you would honor Bolivar more. (Sighs) We will marry again in heaven, but not on this Earth. On Earth, you're a boring man. Up there in the celestial heights, everything will be so English because the life of monotony was invented for you people who make love without pleasure, conversation without grace, joke without laughing. But enough of my cheekiness. You are a Protestant, and I am a pagan. That should be obstacle enough. But I am also in love with another man.
ARANA: She had a tongue on her. She was absolutely brash. She said what she felt. She dressed like a man, when she felt like it. She rode like a man. She really didn't care. There were people who loved that, and there were people who hated that.
SIMON: In the end, why didn't Bolivar's vision of a Gran Colombia workout?
ARANA: Well, you know, Bolivar was very good at making war, and moving through liberating the countries. But what happened, of course, whenever he left one country to go to the next, people who were left in place to rule - they wanted to have their own little fiefdom. So it was very hard for him to get that notion of unity going, even though he knew - and he was very, very advanced for his time - if these countries could unify, they could be far more powerful in the world.
SIMON: It's very sad, for someone who lived such a singularly heroic life, to read of his last few years ..
ARANA: Oh, yes...
SIMON: ...when the countries that he delivered into liberty, essentially wanted nothing to do with him; and he was becoming sick and frail.
ARANA: Yes, yes.
SIMON: And in the decades that followed, how did his legend grow back?
ARANA: Well, you know, it took many years - it took more than a dozen years for Venezuela to realize that it had really lost a great man. And so they asked for his body back from Colombia. And Colombia said, well, we'll give you his body, but we'll keep his heart. So here comes eviscerated Bolivar, back to Venezuela as a hero. He was entombed, of course, in a great pantheon, and similarly was enshrined in every country that he liberated. But it took many, many years for that to happen.
SIMON: And how did Hugo Chavez, now departed, try to associate himself with the image of Bolivar?
ARANA: Well, people had done this - he was not the first. I mean, there were many presidents who used Bolivar's name because it's a name that is almost chameleon-like, you know. You can use Bolivar if you're on the left; you can use Bolivar if you're on the right. That he would be used in such a way, for a specific ideology - which was, in Hugo Chavez's case, quite a socialist ideology - would have been very remarkable to Bolivar himself.
SIMON: Yeah. Still, an amazing test to Bolivar's vibrance, though, that so many years after he passed from the scene, there are people still competing to cash in on his legend.
ARANA: I say this all the time - you know, we don't have a George Washington Party, in this country. But in this day, in South America, people - there is the Bolivarian Party; you do go down the street, yelling Simon Bolivar's name. He's very much alive.
SIMON: Marie Arana; her new book, "Bolivar: American Liberator." Thanks so much for being with us.
ARANA: Oh, it's such a pleasure. Thank you so much, Scott.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.