Simon Bolivar was hailed as a hero. He freed five countries from Spanish rule, and they loved him for it. Yet, after all the adoration and power, Simon died poor, in exile, had many enemies, and had lost the favor of the people. What went wrong?
These were Simon Bolivar’s three greatest mistakes.
1. Simon Bolivar’s first mistake: Unitary Government
In the 1820s, Simon Bolivar freed a huge territory that was twice the size of the original United States (and twice the size of Napoleon’s empire too).
He did realize it was too big to be ruled from one city. So he allowed two of the countries, Peru and Bolivia, to do their own thing and be sovereign republics.
But the other 3 countries he freed -Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador- plus Panama-, Simon joined in one big country: Gran Colombia.
Gran Colombia could have worked if what some of the other patriots proposed had been done: establish a federalist government. The U.S. had done it, and Mexico and Brazil -other big countries- would later choose this form of government too.
But Simon Bolivar’s mistake was that he did not believe in federalism. He thought it was a miracle it worked in the U.S. Simon believed only a strong central government could keep the freed territories from falling apart.
The provinces have too many problems
The capital of Gran Colombia was in Bogota, mid-way between Venezuela, Panama, and Ecuador. But even so, the distances were too big. It took weeks for dispatches to reach the capital and then as much time to make their way back to the provinces.
And the provinces were not happy. They had no autonomy, their taxes were going to Bogota, and their many issues were left unresolved.
Furthermore, they thought the senators in Bogota, which they pictured sitting happily in their offices receiving their taxes, did not care what was going on with them.
Meanwhile, the Bogotans were not happy either. Why did they, that had so many problems of their own with a recently founded republic, had to take care of everyone in the provinces? And why did the people in the provinces misbehave and did not follow their orders? (The answer was they could no., The Bogotans issued the orders without knowing the real conditions that the provincials were in.)
Plus, the four departments of Gran Colombia were too different among themselves, historically and culturally. Each saw the inhabitants of the other region as foreigners.
Provincials resented receiving orders from foreigners, while Bogotans resented having to take care of foreigners.
Resentment was festering
Finally, all the countries seceded, one by one.
First, Venezuela seceded from Gran Colombia, then Ecuador, and finally Panama.
Simon Bolivar tried to hold them together. But he was pretty much alone in his quest. Bogota-Colombia was happy to see them go (except for Panama that they did try to hold on to for a while).
The struggle cost Simon many allies and supporters, especially in the seceded countries. In these nations, they now saw him as a tyrant that did not allow them their promised sovereignty.
2. Simon Bolivar’s second-biggest mistake: Life-long presidency
Another big mistake of Simon’s was to believe that the new countries needed a strong, life-long president to survive. And, furthermore, that the president should name their successor.
It sounded dangerously like a monarchy -exactly what the patriots had been so keen on eliminating.
It did not start out like that, either. Simon was a republican who admired the Ancient Roman Republic.
When he was young, he saw Napoleon’s coronation in Paris and was fascinated by the spectacle. But he was deeply disgusted by how Napoleon had betrayed the French Revolution and the republic and made himself king.
In 1819, Simon said in a speech:
“Repeated elections are essential in popular systems, for nothing is so dangerous as to allow power to remain a long time vested in one citizen; the people become accustomed to obeying, and he to command, and this gives rise to usurpation and tyranny. ”
A life-long ruler in South America? Never!
Later on, after Simon won the independence of northern South America, he met Jose de San Martin.
San Martin was an Argentine general that had achieved the same feat as Simon. While Simon had fought the Spaniards in the north of South America, San Martin had done so in the south. He had liberated Argentina and Chile.
The heroic duo met in 1822 in Guayaquil, Ecuador. And they talked about the destiny of South America.
Simon was shocked to learn that San Martin thought they should call a European prince to govern the recently freed territories. It was madness, Simon thought. A life-long ruler in South America? Never! The territories had to become a republic!
Simon Bolivar changes his tune
Yet by 1826, Simon had come around to the same conclusion as San Martin.
He, too, now believed the new nations were too wild to be governed by a succession of elected officials. He thought that they needed a steady hand, aka a life-long president… and that he was the ideal man for the post.
Most disagreed with him. On both counts.
Simon was already the president of Gran Colombia when he decided it was a life-long appointment. The patriots and the people started to see him as someone who wanted to become king.
3. Simon Bolivar’s third mistake: dictatorship
But Simon Bolivar was not done. In 1828, he decided Gran Colombia was still too unruly, and that he needed dictatorial powers to steer it into course.
And just like that, and like Julius Caesar before him, Simon declared himself dictator.
And like in Caesar’s case, it did not go down well with the senators, who tried to kill him.
The rebellious faction burst into the Presidential Palace at night, but Simon fled through a window.
The conspirators were executed, except for their head, a former friend of Simon who had been his vice president, general Francisco de Paula Santander. Simon pardoned Santander and exiled him.
Simon survived, but his reputation never recovered after declaring himself dictator. Both the senators and the people now distrusted him and found him too autocratic.
It was at that time that Venezuela seceded from Gran Colombia.
And two years later, in 1830, Simon realized he did not have enough support to keep ruling. So he resigned the presidency.
He tried to return to his home country, Venezuela, but he could not. The Venezuelans, believing he wanted to attempt a coup d’etat, had revoked his citizenship. Simon went into exile.
Simon Bolivar is remembered as a great general. And his greatest achievement was freeing northern South America from Spanish rule.
Most historians agree that although Simon liked politics, he was not good at it.
It was in the military arena that he won every battle, and in the political one that he suffered his greatest losses.
By the end of his life, he had lost the support of the people. And he died depressed, in exile.
But a decade later (1840s), the people were ready to forgive and forget. They glossed over Simon Bolivar’s mistakes and started remembering him as the great general that had freed them from Spanish rule.
Nowadays, he is revered in the region. He has achieved superstar status. There are thousands of squares, avenues, and schools named after Simon Bolivar in South America -and, actually, around the world.
- Read next: Simon Bolivar’s greatest achievements