| Simón Bolívar | MR Online

A lesson from Simón Bolívar: ‘To Hesitate is to Perish’

Originally published: Internationalist 360° on December 20, 2021 (more by Internationalist 360°)

Speech in remembrance of the One Hundred and Ninety-first Anniversary of the Liberator Simón Bolívar’s passage to immortality, on December 17, 1830, celebrated at Rivadavia Park in the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, at the foot of the monument to Simón Bolívar.

Simón Bolívar advanced the ideals of the unity of Our America, the same ideals he shared with José Gervasio Artigas and José de San Martín. It went further in this endeavor because he strategically organized his entire struggle to advance with tenacity and coherence towards the creation of the Patria Grande (Great Homeland). He achieved part of his goals with the creation of Gran Colombia, which also took place on December 17, 1819, integrating five countries freed from the Spanish yoke: Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. Shortly thereafter, he would carry out San Martin’s liberating deed, achieving the liberation of Peru.

Military genius, enormous intellectual

But besides being a military genius, Bolivar was an enormous intellectual, a man who knew in detail the main authors of the Enlightenment and French Encyclopedism. He could quote Montesquieu as easily as he could quote Locke or discuss the theses of the American Federalists. He wrote thousands of pages during his short life: 92 proclamations and 2,632 letters as well as countless speeches and pamphlets. The exceptional intellectual imprint that Simón Rodríguez left on him was indelible throughout the 47 years of his life.

An enemy of fantasies and facile talk, Bolivar conceived a concrete formula to achieve the unity of the peoples and nations of Our America: a Confederation of States of the continent. This was an unprecedented proposal in universal history, since previous attempts to unify nations were conceived as a product of conquest, vassalage and subjugation. The history of empires, from the Roman and Persian empires onwards–the Carolingian, the Ottoman, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the English, the French, and the Dutch–are proof of this. Luis Vitale recalls well in his work La Larga Marcha por la Unidad y la Identidad latinoamericana (The Long March for Latin American Unity and Identity) that not even in Europe was there an attempt at unity like the one Bolivar had in mind. The one proposed by Napoleon was based, like the previous ones, on expansion, conquest and domination of the peoples.

Aware of those painful (and frustrated) experiences, Bolivar planned to unite nations and peoples of the same origin, with common language, customs and historical traditions on the basis of voluntary and autonomous agreements and without the disappearance of national states. He knew, as Simón Rodríguez had taught him, that if Spanish America was original, its institutions and government should be original, and its means of founding one or the other original.

“Either we invent or we err”, said the Master, and Bolivar took good note of this teaching. A new form of supranational unity had to be invented. A little more than a century later, an illustrious Peruvian, José Carlos Mariátegui, would coin a famous aphorism clearly inspired by Rodrigues: “socialism in Peru cannot be a copy or a copy but a heroic creation of its people”. Once again: to invent.

The lies of the oligarchy

The creation of this unprecedented project of Latin American unity was received with much suspicion by the oligarchic elites of the region. The Argentine historian, politician and president Bartolomé Mitre expressed this reaction clearly in 1864 when, referring to the Amphictyonic Congress of Panama (convened in June 1826 to lay the foundations for the union of the countries of Our America), he said that it was a plan invented by “Bolivar to dominate America”. Note the similarity between this unfounded claim and the one that almost two centuries later was directed against Commander Hugo Chávez Frías when he relaunched the project of Latin American unity, fiercely opposed by the ruling classes of the region that are desperate to satisfy the designs of the empire.

When, frightened by the fierce royalist counter-offensive, the Venezuelan Creole elite hesitated and was ready to abandon its independence efforts, Bolivar, together with Miranda, Ribas and others, successfully fought to radicalize the process through the activism of the Patriotic Society. In that context, he pronounced some words that are extremely topical when we think of some Latin American political-electoral situations, where sectors of the progressive camp and the left propose, as in Chile today, electoral abstention even when what is at stake is the destiny of the homeland. On July 3, 1811, the Liberator said.

To unite in order to rest, to sleep in the arms of apathy, yesterday it was a decline, today it is a betrayal. (…) Let us fearlessly lay the cornerstone of South American freedom. To hesitate is to perish!

Let us remember these words: “To hesitate is to perish!” At certain historical crossroads there is no room for indifference, hesitation, or paralyzing eclecticism, especially when the empire redoubles its criminal attacks in the midst of the ferocious pandemic of Covid-19.

The ideal of the unity of the peoples of Our America was a constant in the thought and action of the Caracas native. The following year, 1812, in the manifesto of Cartagena he said: “I am of the opinion that as long as we do not centralize our American governments, the enemies will obtain the most complete advantages”, and history proved him right. In contemporary terms, without the union of our peoples and our governments it will not be possible to neutralize or repel the American offensive aimed at carrying out the mandate synthesized in the Monroe Doctrine, definitively subjugating our peoples and seizing our lands and our wealth.

Bolivar, Haiti and slavery

The Bolivarian approach of unity was not -nor is it today, in the reformulation made by Commander Chávez- a mere expression of desires, a folkloric illusion or a brilliant fantasy, but rather it obeys an accurate geopolitical definition. It was based on the solidity granted to a great region of the planet by a tradition, a language, a common origin and customs. And above all, a community of destiny.

For Bolivar, the unity of Latin America was not an artificial whim, but rather it sprang from the history of its peoples, united by an “implicit pact” of the nations subjected to Spanish colonialism and which had fought hard for their self-determination. Without that unity, the destiny of our countries would be their definitive subjection to the colonial pact hegemonized by Washington.

The Liberator’s proposal, on the other hand, was an “American pact”, above the rulers of the day and the political conjunctures; it was, and is, the realization of a long-term strategic historical project, which two centuries later is still fully valid and which, in spite of being still unfinished, unveils and irritates those who only aspire to turn our countries into docile colonies of the American Rome. As the project of the construction of the Patria Grande is rooted in the deepest part of our history, it continues its march, sometimes at a fast pace, sometimes at a slow pace. But it advances. There are difficulties but it advances. Galileo’s famous phrase to his inquisitors applies here: “and yet it moves”.

The project of political independence acquired a social character when Bolivar visited the first republic of independent slaves in Latin America and the world: Haiti. In that heroic land, Bolivar realized that independence and the unity of the continent could not be achieved without simultaneously fighting for the freedom of the slaves and the emancipation of the oppressed classes. The first defeats of the liberators throughout the continent were a consequence of the initial weakness of popular participation and, in many cases, of the support that slaves and indigenous people gave to the royalist forces that appeared as enemies of their Creole oppressors.

Alexandre Petion, the Haitian president, gave Bolivar valuable military aid: 250 men, arms and ammunition for 6,000 more and a printing press, on the condition that he put an end to slavery in the new republic. That is why the Liberator declared that “Petion is the author of our independence”, emphasizing that no European nation and even less the United States gave any help to the Latin American independence. The triumph was achieved largely thanks to the help of Haiti, “the most democratic Republic in the world” according to Bolivar. Once on home soil, Bolivar did not forget his promises to Petion, proclaiming in 1816 and 1817 the liberation of slaves, in a country overwhelmingly dominated by slavocracy.

It was for this reason that Comandante Chavez was outraged when he read or heard supposed parallels between Bolivar and George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or any of the founding fathers of the United States. None of them freed their slaves. Washington held them under his dominion for 56 years, and only authorized doing so after his death, as he stated in his will. But only one (yes, one) of the 123 he owned at his Mount Vernon estate was able to enjoy freedom. The heirs of America’s first president violated the mandate of his will and all the others remained in slavery. Thomas Jefferson, owner of one of the largest plantations in Virginia, had more than 600 slaves on his Monticello estate. He freed only two while serving as the third president of the United States, five upon his death and as provided in his will, and the rest remained in slavery. Bolivar, on the other hand, freed them all.

Brilliant politician, institution builder

A final word to underline an often forgotten fact: Bolivar was not only a military genius, comparable to Napoleon, Julius Caesar, Hannibal or Alexander the Great; he was also a brilliant politician, an imaginative institution builder who was ahead of his time. Like Fidel, like Chavez, Bolivar flew higher, and saw farther and deeper. That is why he was misunderstood, fought and betrayed by many of his contemporaries and that is why he ended his days burdened by illness and immersed in poverty in Santa Marta.

As a politician he had an extraordinary lucidity to appreciate the role of culture and ideologies in the anti-colonialist struggles of his time, a legacy that still retains a peremptory relevance. A phrase masterfully sums up his thinking on this matter, when in his famous speech at Angostura he said that “The American people, having been yoke to the triple yoke of ignorance, tyranny and vice, have been unable to acquire neither knowledge, nor power, nor virtue. By deceit we have been dominated more than by force; and by vice we have been degraded more than by superstition.”

The same can be said of the clairvoyance with which he understood the importance of political communication in the struggles for independence. That which, much later, Comandante Chávez would call “the artillery of thought”. In 1818 Bolivar founded the weekly magazine “Correo del Orinoco”, for which the previous year he had written a letter to his friend Fernando Peñalver, at that time in Trinidad, saying: “Send me a printing press in one way or another, which is as useful as military equipment”. The cultural battle thus acquired, in the eyes of the Liberator, a centrality equivalent to conventional armed confrontations.

This is the man we are remembering today, the genius who dreamed of the Patria Grande, a project revitalized by Commander Hugo Chávez Frías and which, despite the stumbles and slowness, is still going on. That is why it seems appropriate to conclude with the heartfelt words of Cuban historian Francisco Pividal when he said:

that is how Bolivar is in the sky of America, vigilant and frowning, still seated on the rock of creation, with the Inca by his side and the bundle of flags at his feet. That is how he is, still wearing his campaign boots because what he did not leave undone is still there today, because Bolivar still has to do in America.

The Bolivarian dream continues its course, against the wind and tide of the empire and its lackeys. As the Argentine historian Horacio Lopez observed,

let us also put on our campaign boots to conclude, once and for all, the construction of the Patria Grande dreamed by Bolivar, San Martin and Artigas.

Nothing more. Thank you very much, Bolivar lives!

Note: in the preparation of this speech I have made use of the reading of several works by Luis Vitale, Néstor Kohan, Horacio López, Luis Britto García, Indalecio Lievano Aguirre, as well as several writings of the Liberator.

Monthly Review does not necessarily adhere to all of the views conveyed in articles republished at MR Online. Our goal is to share a variety of left perspectives that we think our readers will find interesting or useful. —Eds.