Ten years ago, I wrote a book titled Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot with the Colombian writer Plinio A. Mendoza and the Cuban writer Carlos A. Montaner. We have often been asked how we managed to agree on every sentence. The truth is that we didn’t. We had a major disagreement. As a native of Colombia, Plinio was a great admirer of Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan hero who liberated his nation from Spain in the early nineteenth century.

As a native of Peru, I was resentful of the man who had assumed the title of dictator of the country where I was born. At one point the quarrel over Bolívar became so severe that it looked like we might have to drop the chapter on nationalism, in which Bolívar—a small man who drank little, danced like a god, never smoked, had a penchant for the hammock, was an incurable erotomaniac, and used only the mild “carajo” to curse—was a central figure. But without that chapter, there could be no book. In the end, we both made compromises to save it.

These are the kinds of passions that Bolívar, the liberator of five South American countries (six if you count Panama, which was part of Colombia), continues to arouse. Not even two like-minded South Americans are able to agree on whether he was a great founding father born ahead of his time or a part of the reason why South America, two centuries after it gained independence, is still in its political and economic infancy. My own view of him has become slightly more benign, though I still insist that the Liberator was not only a military force of nature but also a dangerous strongman who did not understand that the best way to prevent the things he feared—factionalism, and ethnic and class revolt against the Creole elite—was the rule of law, and not an allegedly enlightened but still authoritarian caudillismo.

John Lynch’s new biography of Bolívar is sympathetic to its subject—more sympathetic, I think, than is warranted by the facts that it presents; but it is impeccably researched, uncommonly honest, and genuinely balanced, and also very well written. The general conclusion to which Lynch leads us is that Bolívar’s failures were due to factors beyond his control, that the leader of the independence struggle was a victim of the times he lived in. I am not so sure. Even though he towered above his peers in many respects and was the undisputed architect of the end of colonial rule, Bolívar embodied the original sin of the Latin American republics: elitism, authoritarianism, and an unexamined passion for what we call social engineering. Bolívar, who began to fight for independence in 1810 and died in 1830 a lonely man, repudiated by the nations that he had liberated and misgoverned, was a better imitator of Napoleon than of the British institutions he so admired—a leader in whom the military instinct for glory and command and the civilian instinct for long-term institutions were unevenly mixed, to the effect that the former overwhelmed the latter.

Bolívar was certainly a much better caudillo than the others—more strategic, more visionary, more learned. But he, too, belongs in the annals of the caudillos of Latin America, and caudillismo is still the heart of the Latin American problem. Bolívar would have deserved more sympathy if he had struggled and failed to establish liberal republics and promote social mobility and foster integration from below—rather than concentrating power in the name of social order and devoting his time to grandiose schemes of supranational integration from the top down among precarious South American states fabricated over highly stratified societies.

There is no question that Bolívar was a military genius, despite his scant training. He traveled some 75,000 miles (more than Columbus or Vasco da Gama) across peaks and valleys, learning from his defeats, forever fighting back, recruiting soldiers and raising resources in any way he could, exploiting his enemies’ weaknesses, and using speed to overwhelm superior forces. After two failed attempts—starting in 1810 and 1813—at establishing an independent Venezuelan republic, he returned from exile in Haiti in December 1816 to try again. By the end of 1819, Bolívar had liberated Venezuela and Colombia (then called New Granada) and created a republic comprising those two countries plus Ecuador, which was still in Spanish hands. In 1822, he liberated Ecuador, upstaging José de San Martín, who had freed Argentina and Chile, declared Peru independent, and set his sights on Guayaquil. In 1824, he went on to complete the liberation of Peru before sealing Bolivia’s independence the following year.

Bolívar’s strategic audacity, combined with a talent for picking good generals, such as Francisco de Paula Santander and especially Antonio José de Sucre, made him irresistible. As a military leader, he had fire in his belly: “I am consumed by the demon of war, determined to finish this struggle, one way or the other.” But the military genius, alas, was a political utopian, and therefore a failure. His grand designs all ended in tears. By 1830, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador had gone their separate ways; and his attempt to create an Andean confederation ended in war between various nations; and the Panama congress that he envisioned as the stepping stone toward a hemisphere-wide federation that would coordinate foreign policy and resolve disputes collapsed almost as soon as it was inaugurated in 1826.

But Bolívar’s failure is not the problem. The apologists for Bolívar actually revel in his failure to unite South America, because it makes a martyr out of him, and turns his enemies into an early version of the reactionary twentieth-century conspiracy against progressive revolution. The real Bolívar problem is to be found, rather, in some of his goals themselves, and in the man’s political behavior.

Lynch admits that Bolívar’s dreams of uniting the various countries were “illusory,” because they underestimated the power of factionalism; but he justifies Bolívar’s effort to be a supranational leader on the grounds of political necessity. “He saw the liberation of Venezuela and New Granada could not be accomplished separately, granted Spain’s ability to exploit the dividing line ...,” Lynch writes. “A unified front then had to be protected against Spanish counter-revolution from the south, and so Ecuador had to be won and brought into the union.” This is a benevolent interpretation. Bolívar was a man in search of glory (“I detest ruling as strongly as I love glory”) who had a passion for military affairs and loathed administration, and who therefore neglected the affairs of state, leaving them to his vice presidents so he could continue his military adventures. After becoming president of the republic of Colombia (made up of Venezuela, New Granada, and most of Ecuador), he left his vice president in charge and did not return for five years. During that time, he exasperated the Colombian government with constant requests for money that it no longer had to finance his campaigns. In between those campaigns, he would find time to send letters giving his opinion on all sorts of political and administrative matters from which he was far removed.

In his “Cartagena Manifesto” of 1812, Bolívar had spoken of “ethereal republics” in which institutions are built, as Lynch reminds us, on “abstract and rationalist principles far removed from concrete reality and the needs of time and place.” He died in December 1830, a broken man banished from his home country who had taken refuge in, of all places, the house of a wealthy Spaniard in northern Colombia, after a series of political rivals exploited his failed attempt to have the new constitution reflect his own political interests and his short-lived assumption of dictatorial powers. By then Bolívar’s institutional legacy was precisely that: ethereal, removed from reality, a fig leaf for strongman rule. “Bolívar was not a dictator by nature,” argues Lynch, “and he did not regard absolute power as a permanent settlement.” This, too, seems overly kind about a man who assumed dictatorial power in Caracas in 1813, in Angostura in 1817, in Lima in 1824, and finally in Bogotá in 1828 after his attempt to reform the constitution of Colombia that had been adopted in 1821 failed. (Whether he also assumed authoritarian powers in Bolivia for a very brief period in 1825 is debatable.)

Lynch suggests that “to criticize Bolívar ... for not being a liberal democrat rather than a conservative absolutist, is to leave conditions out of the argument.” He adds that Bolívar “could not be expected to win a completely new order in society and economy, for these were founded on long-term conditions rooted in history, environment and people, and not easily challenged by mere legislation.” A significant point seems to be missing here: Bolívar did not really attempt to establish the rule of law. His actions actually contributed to that general “chaos” of which Lynch thinks he was the victim.

I asked the historian Elías Pino Iturrieta, one of Venezuela’s foremost authorities on Bolívar, what he thinks. “Bolívar was an aristocrat well informed about liberal tendencies,” he told me, “but abysmally detached from the people.” In his letter from Jamaica in 1815, the historian explained, Bolívar spoke of “a new human gender” destined to be free, but he included only aristocrats within it. He maintained this line until his speech before the congress of Angostura in 1819, when he confessed his republicanism and spoke of citizenship. But then he insisted that candidates for citizenship were inept because of the Spanish culture. That is why he wanted a hereditary senate and a “moral power” (a fourth branch of government) whose object would be to have white Creoles teach social virtues to the rest. Insofar as his ideas were not shared by the liberal elites, he attempted an institutional reform that would make him the “father of the family” on whom the destiny of society would hinge.

When Bolívar returned to Colombia after his long journey in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, he tried to change the constitution and to introduce authoritarian elements such as the life presidency and the hereditary senate. He also toyed with the idea of crowning himself king. He did not do it in the end, and should be admired for ultimately restraining his supporters, but there is written proof—and Lynch refers to it—indicating that he was not at all averse to the monarchical notion (in this way, as in many others, he must not be compared to George Washington) and let the monarchists entertain it for too long, thereby further inflaming passions.

José García Hamilton, an Argentinean scholar of Bolívar, believes that the Liberator was consistently dictatorial: “In his Jamaica Letter [1815] and in the constituent convention of Angostura [1819] Bolívar postulated a political system with a life-term presidency, a hereditary chamber made up of the generals who had achieved independence. ... The Angostura convention did not approve this system for Venezuela, nor did the Cúcuta convention approve it in 1821, but Bolívar then wrote a constitution for Bolivia that included both elements. Although it was not approved as such in Bolivia, it was adopted in Peru [1825]. He then tried to extend that system to Colombia, but Santander (the vice president of Colombia) told him the procedure he was trying to use was not legal. ‘It may not be legal,’ replied Bolívar, ‘but it is popular and therefore right for a republic which is democratic.’”

There is some truth to García Hamilton’s statement that Bolívar “was the creator of military populism in Latin America, to which Santander in Bogotá and Bernardino Rivadavia [Argentina’s president] in Buenos Aires were opposed.” I would add that Bolívar poured scorn on caudillos and local chieftains who stood in his way only when they did not suit his purposes. Otherwise, he was happy to be their ally. Lynch himself points out that in 1821 Bolívar “issued a decree that in effect institutionalized caudillismo” by establishing two politico-military regions, one in the east and the other in the west, controlled by two caudillos who later came to haunt him and the country. Both usurped large amounts of land and created virtual dictatorships in their fiefdoms.

Bolívar rightly understood the political realities of his day. Going up against every local caudillo was not an option. But too often he made concessions to them beyond the exigencies of political necessity. In fact, toward the end of his life, Bolívar sided with José Antonio Páez, one of the caudillos whom he had legitimized in 1821, against Santander’s efforts to institutionalize the republic of Colombia. Santander had many flaws, but he was aiming in the right direction; Páez was just a typical caudillo.

Other historians tend to agree with the type of argument that Lynch gives in support of Bolívar’s political efforts. The Venezuelan historian Inés Quintero told me that “his political failure was due to the complexity of the contradictions triggered by the independence process. I don’t think the scale and the depth of the conflicts that originated with independence could be dealt with immediately and successfully. Bolívar ... was a child of the Enlightenment with all the good things and the bad things the Enlightenment entailed.”

I think that Bolívar aggravated rather than contained those anarchical, violent forces triggered by the independence struggle. He was obsessed with preventing pardocracia—a revolution by mestizos, pardos (coloreds), and blacks against the white elites who continued to rule after independence. He had always been conscious of this social divide, and of the numerical disadvantage of his race and class in a society in which blacks, mestizos, and Indians constituted three-quarters of the population. The rebellion of José Tomás Boves and his ruthless llaneros in the plains of Venezuela in 1814—the cause of the collapse of the second independent republic—left a deep mark on Bolívar.

He was also disturbed by the Haitian revolution. Dessalines, the former slave, had decapitated every white person who stood in his way before being assassinated himself in 1806; and a civil war subsequently produced a despotic regime in the north and a milder one in the south. Bolívar talked many times about his fear that a guerra de colores, a war of colors, could destroy the republic. The obsession with preventing pardocracia in Venezuela became a driving force of everything that Bolívar did militarily and politically, including the decision to fight on in other countries after independence had been achieved in his own, and the execution of former lieutenants such as Manuel Piar, and his alliance with local caudillos such as Páez, and, most importantly, the concentration of excessive power in his own hands.

Lynch’s biography addresses this issue very well while at the same time justifying Bolívar’s fear of pardocracia. One major point that is not stressed forcefully enough is that Bolívar’s great achievement early in the independence struggle was to turn the pardos, who had violently opposed the white Creole elites early on, against Spain. Juan Bosch, the late Dominican author and politician, devoted an entire book to this issue, called Bolívar y la Guerra Social, or Bolívar and the Social War. There are Marxist elements in his argument, but he suggests convincingly that Bolevar turned the energy of the colored masses away from their initial target—the elites—and toward the common enemy, the Spanish colonial regime. He calculated that keeping them in a constant state of war was the best way to spend that energy, and to deflect it from the leaders of the new republic. Bosch attributes Bolívar’s military overreach to this fear. I would add that his failure to let go of the reins of power and establish solid institutions partly stemmed from this fixation.

Prior to independence, the Spanish monarchy had been on the side of the lower classes for years, promoting a measure of social mobility, something the white Creole elite resented very much. Bosch argues that “the War to the Death,” a campaign of terror announced by Bolívar in 1813 declaring that even neutral Spaniards would be executed, was “an attempt by the young general to turn the social war—the anarchy, as he called it—into a war of independence.” Although the second republic that resulted from that effort was short-lived, Bolívar’s strategy would pay off later. His genius consisted in redirecting the popular hostility that had been unleashed against the elites toward the enemy.

But ultimately this anger would turn against him, in part because he boycotted liberal efforts to establish durable institutions that could control these forces, and in part because his dictatorial power structure reinforced, often unwittingly, the social stratification that these masses resented. The fear of racial and class revolt led the Liberator to adopt absurd measures, such as abolishing indigenous communities in Peru. He thought that abolishing this communal form of land tenure and distributing small individual plots would empower Indians. It did exactly the opposite: the disruption eventually opened the doors through which the local elites managed to usurp those properties and concentrate land in very few hands.

In his book El Culto a Bolívar, or The Cult of Bolívar, the Venezuelan scholar Germán Carrera Damas argues that from 1812 to 1814 the war was fought by the rich, and from 1814 to 1817 it was fought by the pardos and the slaves, and from 1819 onward it was conducted by the rich again, the landowners and the commercial monopolists. The caudillos were under their control. In some cases, the caudillos acquired so much property that they themselves became part of the rich elite. Bolívar’s blunder was to contain, rather than to open, the doors of social mobility. He did not quite recognize the disjunction between the theoretical constitutions that he and his men passed and the kind of stratified society that existed beneath them. In his elitist view of the economy, shopkeepers and small traders were “vulgar people.”

Wealth was based on land. As Lynch aptly states, “In Venezuela, where the colonial aristocracy was reduced both in numbers and importance, the great estates passed into the hands of a new creole and mestizo oligarchy, the successful warlords of independence.” So the faces may have changed, but the system was left almost intact, despite some mobility among pardos in education and in government. After independence, some ten thousand whites of Spanish descent owned Venezuela. Half a million pardos and mestizos were left out, many of them herded by the new elite into the haciendas and ranchos for minimal pay.

Some of the measures taken by Bolívar were just, such as abolishing the Indian tribute and unpaid labor services, but for many Indians this simply meant having to pay more taxes as normal citizens. The real problem was that they were not in practice equal before the law, they owned very little property, and they could not engage in productive and commercial activities of their own because property rights essentially depended on the ruling elite. Bolívar, distracted by military matters and obsessed with containing pardocracia, never really attempted to change this state of affairs. When he attempted reform, as in Colombia when he restored reservation land to Indians, he did not enforce it, leaving the legislators and the administrators to deal with the details and going on to conquer more lands. What happened in practice, as Lynch rightly demonstrates, is that the land became alienated and ended up in the hands of large landowners. A great opportunity was missed to create a property-owning society. Without it, there was no hope of a liberal republic under the rule of law. The British Whigs and the Founding Fathers of the United States, whom Bolívar greatly admired, understood the underpinnings of a free society in a way he himself never did.

Lynch attributes these failings to circumstance. But philosophically and politically, Bolívar’s priorities should have been different. Placing limits on government and decentralizing power had been the great achievement of the Founding Fathers. But the concentration and the centralization of power was the ominous legacy of Latin America’s independence struggle. Whatever other achievements Bolívar managed, and he managed plenty, this constitutes a fundamental flaw in his vision and leadership.

Unlike other admirers of Bolívar, John Lynch is honest about the Liberator’s shortcomings, about the four shadows that darken his reputation among less fervent observers: his betrayal of Francisco de Miranda, the precursor of South America’s independence; the execution of hundreds of prisoners at La Guaira prison; the “War to the Death” at the start of the campaign that led him to establish the second republic; and the execution of Manuel Piar, one of his own men, for insubordination. When the first republic collapsed, Miranda was captured by Bolívar just as he was about to flee Venezuela and handed over to the royalists (he would die a few years later in a Spanish prison). Bolívar’s justification was that Miranda had capitulated too soon and that his departure would leave the royalists free to renege on the terms of the capitulation. Lynch does not justify him, and he is right. Lynch is more understanding about the War to the Death decree, when, having learned the lesson of the collapse of the first republic, Bolívar decided to fight a ruthless campaign in order to instill fear in the enemy. The decree ultimately became a blanket authorization for indiscriminate repression. Bolívar encouraged or tolerated the execution and persecution of Spaniards and Americans who had committed the sin of being neutral or not helpful enough.

War is never lovely. But Bolívar’s tactics were particularly ruthless: he liberated slaves only if they would serve in the army of liberation, he plundered the treasury and took over other people’s estates to funds his campaigns, he decreed martial law to fill his ranks with those who had no appetite for war, and he executed many people. When he was fighting the revolt of the llaneros that eventually led to the collapse of the second republic, he ordered the execution of some eight hundred prisoners at La Guaira. Lynch devotes little attention to this episode and adopts a neutral tone, explaining that it was an action taken in light of the atrocities committed by the opposite side.

More justified, though equally illustrative of Bolívar’s ruthlessness, was the execution of his ally Piar, a mulatto who had fought the Spaniards in the east. Piar enjoyed his own power base and did not want to conform to Bolívar’s leadership. The Liberator had him executed, which he justified years later on the ground that Piar’s death was “a political necessity ... for otherwise he would have started a war of pardos against whites.” Again, Bolívar’s fear of racial conflict led him to act against Piar in a way that he did not act against Santander years later, when the white Creole revolutionary allowed an assassination attempt against Bolívar to go ahead in Colombia.

These actions were part of a war fought for the right reasons, but they were also the characteristics of a leader for whom the ends too often justified the means, and whose ultimate goal became confused with considerations of power rather than institution-building. Bolívar saw Santander, his vice president, as “the man of laws,” and himself as “the man of difficulties”; and it is a telling distinction.

The cult of Bolívar is a fascinating—and frightening—phenomenon in South America. It has now been taken up by Hugo Chávez for reasons of political convenience. (Meanwhile, Chávez is busy destroying the Andean Community of Nations because this regional bloc does not conform to his goal of scrapping the free trade agreements that some of the Andean countries have signed with the United States. Bolívar, who was pro-American and pro-integration, would cringe.) For much of the twentieth century, Bolívar’s cult was a thing of the right; but no more, as Chávez’s myth-making worship of Bolívar demonstrates. Quintero, who has written about the use of Bolívar’s ideas by the right and the left, thinks that “the procedure is the same in both cases: they use Bolívar’s ideas in a way that serves their purposes and they take him out of context. Some do it on the Caesarian right, others on the revolutionary left.”

As Pito Iturrieta, the author of important works on the “deification” of Bolívar, has shown, the cult of Bolívar started in 1842, when his remains were taken to Caracas. Then he became a prophet who foresaw the rise of dictator Antonio Guzmán Blanco in the nineteenth century, the tyranny of Juan Vicente Gómez between 1908 and 1935, the dictatorship of Pérez Jiménez between 1952 and 1958, the democratic governments that succeeded him, and now chavismo. The link between “Caesarism” and “Bolivarianism,” Iturrieta believes, started during the regime of Gómez in Venezuela, as the result of a book by Laureano Vallenilla called Democratic Caesarism, which appeared in 1919 and was translated into Italian in the fascist era, and applauded by Mussolini. It was also admired by the publicists of the Falange in Spain, among them Giménez Caballero, who said that Bolívar was a precursor of Franco. So Chávez has simply turned the cult around and transformed Bolívar into the precursor of his own revolution; and he has tied this trick to the popular liturgy that has surrounded Bolívar since the nineteenth century. If Bolívar were alive today, Iturrieta observes, he would be surprised to see a zambo, an individual of black and Amerindian origin, inhabiting the presidential palace and speaking in his name.

One could add, against the left-wing cult of Bolívar, that the Liberator was certainly no anti-imperialist. He constantly asked for Britain’s protection, even going as far as to offer London control of Nicaragua and Panama in exchange for help against Spain, and he applauded the Monroe Doctrine as a way of keeping French and Spanish ambitions at bay. In a great essay called “Marx and Bolívar,” the Venezuelan writer Ibsen Martínez quotes a letter from Marx to Engels in which he says that Bolívar “was the real Soulouque.” (Soulouque was the Haitian revolutionary who crowned himself emperor and established a reign of terror in his country.) In other writings, Marx accuses Bolívar of being incapable of “any long-term effort.”

Martínez documents the enthusiasm for Bolívar among supporters of dictatorship in other countries, and concludes: “It was only a matter of time before ... a demagogic Lieutenant Colonel and a populist, supported by the militaristic left ... educated in a military academy which, like that of Venezuela, was always the temple of the most fundamentalist Bolivarian theology, opted for changing the name of the Republic of Venezuela.” He is referring to the fact that Chávez has changed his country’s name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The Liberator, a man of the elite who believed in oligarchic institutions and spent a good deal of his life trying to avoid social revolution, is now the icon of left-wing populism. He must be turning in his grave.