Marie Arana: Latin America’s Go-To Hero

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: Congress, NYT, Latin America, Hugo Chavez, Simon Bolivar, Marie Arana

Marie Arana, a journalist, novelist and adviser to the librarian of Congress, is the author, most recently, of “Bolívar: American Liberator,” and a guest columnist.

Can you name an American founder whose name is shouted in the streets, whose legacy inspires fanatical worship, whose image is used to bolster ideals not his own, whose mantle is claimed by both left and right? There is no Washington party, no Jeffersonian republic. No one runs for president in Madison’s name. But in Latin America, as the Venezuelan election on Sunday reminded us, the question is easy, and the answer is Simón Bolívar.

The past is very present in Latin America. Although Bolívar rode 75,000 miles to win the freedom of what are now six nations, his vision for a unified continent was never realized. In time, he was shunted to ignominy; a rigid racial hierarchy replaced Spain’s haughty overlords; the vast, powerful union he imagined spun into a riot of bickering caudillos; and although (with a higher moral instinct than Washington or Jefferson) he ended slavery more than a half-century before the Emancipation Proclamation, his dream vanished like a fickle specter. But his revolution grinds on.

Time has a way of tweaking history. In the United States, the anticolonial Tea Party was appropriated by those who wanted to turn back the clock. In Venezuela, Bolívar was retrofitted by the late Hugo Chávez into “Bolivarianismo,” a mix of anti-capitalism and free-handout socialism that has crippled the nation — the opposite of what Bolívar had in mind....

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