Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"Bolivar: The Liberator of Latin America" by Robert Harvey

One country's demi-god can be another's historical relic.

Simon Bolivar's profile in the United States is not a prominent one. Years ago there was a chapter somewhere in the elementary or middle school textbooks, but beyond that this prominent figure has not been the subject of an HBO miniseries, a biopic starring Antonio Banderas, or any such pop culture effluvia.

Robert Harvey has set out to change that in "Bolivar: The Liberator of Latin America."

He writes of his subject, "Yet as soldier, statesman and man of common humanity he stands head and shoulders above any other figure that Latin America has ever produced and amongst the greatest men in global history."

Given South America's status as perennial political delinquent and woeful economic laggard, the first half of his proposition is neither hard to argue with, nor much of a claim.

It is in support of the second that Harvey, a one-time scribe for the "Daily Telegraph" and "The Economist," sets out to make a case.

The task is a challenging one, not because of Bolivar's accomplishments, which were myriad and impressive, rather due to the staggering size and complexity of the continent in question, and the subject's disappointing lapses in judgment or, worse, humanity.

Harvey's recounting is an A to Z affair, tarrying long on the young Bolivar's development as a dissolute young man privileged enough to steep in the thought of Rousseau and the Europe where his writings were all the contemporary rage.

It's a portrait of another time and a disappeared class of person groomed with patience for whatever great feats might be in the offing.

Here is the budding Liberator loping through the old country, from romance to romance, landmark to landmark, musing upon his destiny, brimming with a proprietary sense of the glory that is his due.

Early on, Harvey takes an unorthodox detour into the biography of Francisco de Miranda, a revolutionary forerunner to Bolivar, and the victim of a fatal betrayal at the younger man's hands.

Yes, the two men's destinies were intertwined. And no discussion of the continent's revolutionary period would be complete without covering Miranda's career trajectory, but this section runs so long one forgets that Bolivar is the subject at hand.

Nonetheless, Miranda's life, his jaunt through 19th century Europe in particular, was so interesting and extraordinary, it is easy to see how Harvey could not help himself.

As they say in the sporting world, "No harm, no foul."

The narrative, which conveys the scope and workings of Spain's empire, the complex social and racial components of the continent's far-ranging regions, and the endless rivalries of the warlords driving the epoch, are rendered breezily.

Mr. Harvey does not hide his admiration for Simon Bolivar, nor does he make an effort at concealing his many flaws.

A former member of British Parliament, Mr. Harvey knows well the cracked armor of any beloved public figure. He seems to understand that, for the great and ambitious man, most success is seen through a rearview mirror, while the life itself is a torturous swim from shipwreck to shipwreck.

Bolivar did not rise up, whole, to save the struggling masses of Ibero-America.

He had a strong sense that the Spanish should be booted from their colonial holdings, but his first attempt found him on the side of Venezuela's privileged "criollo" classes and at odds with a rather ferocious hodgepodge of Indians, slaves, poor whites, and any admixture of the three.

It seems that the coalition he assembled to oust the Spaniards through military violence was one of convenience that required a constant re-cobbling.

Bolivar delivered Miranda into Spanish hands and imprisonment at Cadiz, Spain, where he died. He ordered the slaughter of 800 political prisoners under his command, slept with an unseemly number of women, and subjected his armies to terrible suffering and staggering losses with mad, never-say-die, strategies.

Harvey does not whitewash or reason these excesses away, rather attempts to place them within the context of the times in which they occurred. Whether he succeeds or not will depend upon the politics and sensibility of each reader.

The first third of the book, concerned as it is with Miranda's and Bolivar's development in the hothouse of European political thought, makes for great storytelling. The second part, covering the military effort, might have fallen into the familiar memes of war reporting (feints, out-flankings, charges, and counterattacks) were it not for the staggering topography Bolivar alternately battled and turned to his advantage, and which Harvey renders with color and passion.

The final part details Bolivar's attempt at the consolidation of those places from which the Spaniards had been chased into something governable -- the Liberator as statesman and politician -- and is marked by the melancholy his lack of success wrought.

The failures signify personal shortcomings only to the extent Bolivar could not be the best in every arena he proactively strode into.

Harvey's portrait is that of a true Renaissance man who excelled as a general, but was also a fair hand at writing political tracts, wooing the ladies, dancing, and envisioning a framework for the coexistence of disparate peoples across a sprawling landmass.

It is the portrait of an interesting man living a rather breathtaking story.

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