Why you should care
Venezuela’s president and his opposition draw inspiration from this legendary Latin American leader.
The slender Sgt. Maj. Francisco Santander would not budge. It was 1813 in the sweltering border town of Cúcuta, Colombia, and Gen. Simón Bolívar was glaring at him.
Santander was reluctant to invade Venezuela. “March at once!” Bolívar yelled at Santander. Santander — though loyal to the Republican cause — was poorly cut out for war. Bolívar, on the other hand, was born for it, tells Marie Arana in her biography, Bolívar: American Liberator. He was adamant about the invasion. He gave the junior officer an ultimatum.
“You have no choice … Either you shoot me, or by God, I will certainly shoot you.”
Santander caved, and with 500 troops, he joined Bolívar and rolled down off the Andean range. Their aim? To kick the Spanish empire out of Venezuela after close to 300 years.
Foiling foreign tyranny is still a popular narrative in Latin America today. “It’s clear, public and notoriously well-known that Venezuela is the center of a world war authored by North American imperialism and its satellites,” said Nicolás Maduro this January.
In Venezuela today, both Maduro and his opposition, led by self-declared president Juan Guaidó, hearken back to Bolívar’s complex legacy.
And Bolívar, the independence leader who started it, is revered throughout the halls of Maduro’s regime in Venezuela as a savior, a revolutionary liberator and the holy spirit of Venezuela’s eponymous Bolivarian Revolution. Portraits of Bolívar hang on multiple walls of the presidential palace in Caracas. Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, spoke of Bolívar as a sort of Christ-like figure whose spirit kept the people of Latin America free from imperial forces. But that worship is a double-edged sword: Yes, Bolívar was considered a great general. But he’s also remembered as a mercurial politician who became a dictator within 10 years of liberating the territory from Spanish rule.
That day in Cúcuta, his men could taste revolution. They’d prepared for battle in the city of Mérida but saw none: Spanish forces had evacuated by the time they got there. Storming Cúcuta was one of the first steps in liberating Venezuela and forming a new national project. The huge tracts of land known today as Venezuela were glued onto what was known as New Granada, a territory that at the time encompassed modern-day Colombia and Panama, along with small pieces of Ecuador and Peru. Bolívar’s dream was a single republic, to be called Gran Colombia. At age 30, the horse-riding general had managed the first step in his lifelong dream of uniting the entire continent of Latin America into one independent superstate. It was one step closer to abolishing the Spanish octopus from every inch of the New World.
He began his own empire by rebuilding. The newly independent republic needed a new government. So, in 1821 the statesmen leading this new political project met at a stone church in the city of Cúcuta, from which Bolívar and Santander had set out to take Venezuela eight years earlier. There, they debated what form their new government of Gran Colombia – which was composed of modern-day Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and parts of Ecuador and Peru – would take.
“When they meet in Cúcuta, they debate federalism and centralism,” says Tomas Straka, a Venezuelan historian. The federalists wanted to model Gran Colombia in the image of the United States, a decentralized republic, but Bolívar wouldn’t have it — and eventually, Straka says, they agreed with Bolívar’s model of “fundamentally centralist government.”
Again, Santander disagreed. He instead envisioned a decentralized federalist system for Gran Colombia. Where Bolívar saw iron-fisted order as the right antidote for the new country’s chaotic badlands, Santander thought laws and institutions should be paramount. It was hard, however, to defy the general. The statesmen around Bolívar saw a Napoleon in their leader. They elected him president. But he effectively ignored the responsibilities, leaving Santander to administer the government in his absence so that he could continue with his military campaigns.
“He had never aspired to lead governments,” writes Arana. “His ambition – as simple as it was ardent – was to drive out the nation’s oppressor.” Bolívar set his sights southward, toward Peru.
In Bolívar’s absence, the fledgling republic soon started to show cracks. In 1822, rebellions around the republic sprang up and civil war broke out, explains Straka. At the same time, independence leaders in Caracas yearned for more autonomy and grew frustrated taking orders from the distant capital Bogotá.
In Venezuela today, both Maduro and his opposition, led by self-declared president Juan Guaidó, hearken back to Bolívar’s complex legacy. Maduro’s anti-imperialist bent is pure Bolívar. But so is Guaidó’s call to liberate Venezuela. And both could learn from the fate of Gran Colombia that reconstruction can be a much more difficult and long-term political project than liberation.
In 2019, Cúcuta still stands on the border of Colombia and Venezuela. The stone church where Bolívar received the presidency is crumbling, a victim of time and earthquakes. A little over a mile away is the spot where 30,000 migrants crossed the border daily until recent closures. Thousands are still estimated to be crossing illegally. Right next to the broken church sits Santander’s birthplace, a modest stucco home with perfectly intact walls that house a small museum.
Less than a decade after Gran Colombia’s founding, Bolívar returned to the region to try to save Gran Colombia by consolidating its territory. He failed, and the country collapsed.
“He tried to keep unity through a dictatorship, but it was a complete disaster,” explains Straka. “The main lesson for Maduro is that you can’t prolong a collapsed regime by using force.”