July 18, 2006


Democracy's Caudillo (Alvaro Vargas Llosa, Hispanic American Center for Economic Research)

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.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 18, 2006 10:00 AM
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