By Allison Fedirka
Geopolitical Futures strongly incorporates an understanding of geography and history into our model and forecasting methodology. Understanding geography as well as critical moments in a region’s history helps explain the dynamics between nations we observe today. One key moment in Latin America’s history was its independence movement. In the early 19th century, external factors created a situation ripe for independence in Spanish America. However, several personalities played critical roles in initiating the movement, including Simón Bolívar, José de San Martín and Miguel Hidalgo. Each man left his mark on history. Here, we take a closer look at Bolívar, who had a unique vision for a unified region and future regimes. He helped lead independence movements in present-day Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Although he was a central figure who inspired the initial stages of the political systems we see in Latin America today, his vision for a unified region ultimately failed to materialize.
Demands for Autonomy Emerge
Spanish America’s independence movement started around 1810, when the first official declarations were asserted and battles were fought. However, the seeds for independence were planted about 20 years prior. Until the 1790s, Spain had the resources to govern Spanish America from a distance. It separated its territory into viceroyalties, and each viceroyalty responded directly back to the monarch. There was comparatively little interaction between them at this time.
Then, in the 1790s, Spain got absorbed into wars with France and Great Britain. A byproduct of this was that the Spanish colonies, now with several generations of American-born inhabitants, found themselves with a high degree of political and economic autonomy. Parallel to these events, the Spanish colonies saw the success of the French and U.S. revolutions, which proved that independence was possible. The viceroyalties enjoyed greater autonomy, and this helped re-enforce an independent sense of identity and regionalism. When the fighting in Europe settled, Spain moved to re-exert its presence in the Americas in a phase some historians refer to as a recolonization. Not surprisingly, many in the colonies, including American-born leaders, rejected the idea of answering once again to an overseas imperial power. When Napoleon’s troops invaded Spain in 1808, the Spanish American colonies had an opportunity to push for independence.
Like many revolutions, not all participants shared a clear picture of what the end goal should be and how to get there. Some called for complete independence, while others wanted greater autonomy under Spanish rule or to remain loyal to Spain. Though inspired by the U.S. and French revolutions, Bolívar did not intend to model an independent state in Spanish America after these nations. He envisioned independent countries brought together under a pan-American entity. While Bolívar wanted to unite all the freed viceroyalties under a common ruler, he strayed away from the U.S. federal model and embraced a system with a strong central leader. Bolívar outright rejected the implementation of a pure federal model in the newly freed lands of Spanish America. He did not believe that a federal system could withstand the turbulent environment and political factions present in Spanish America.
Bolívar was a product of the Enlightenment. He was born into Caracas aristocracy, and his station in life enabled him to travel and study in Europe, where he became very familiar with the leading schools of political philosophy. Under the tutelage of Simón Rodríguez, Bolívar was strongly influenced by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In line with the views prevalent in the Enlightenment, Bolívar subscribed to Rousseau’s “general will” concept, which calls on the intellectual and educated elite to identify what is in the best interest of the people. Bolívar believed that past subjugation under Spanish colonial rule left many of the American people ignorant and unable to acquire knowledge, power or civic virtue. Therefore, in the name of the greater good, Bolívar believed that these people should be freed.
Bolívar’s vision for an independent Spanish America ultimately promoted the inclusion of a strong central government. He sought an ad hoc political model that combined elements of monarchy, republicanism and federalism in an attempt to find the right balance between control, stability and unity in a new pan-American entity. Furthermore, his actions showed that he envisioned himself to initially be the primary leader of this emerging American grouping. He held the highest executive offices, which acted as a dictatorship, in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela with several of these terms overlapping. The hodgepodge of political philosophies and methods for implementing them in the newly independent nations fluctuated through the years. In his 1819 Angostura address during the wars for independence in Venezuela and Colombia, Bolívar said, “regular elections are essential to popular government.” Seven years later, he remarked, “we shall avoid elections, which always result in that great scourge of republics, anarchy.” There was a clear contradiction in his approach to governance at different times.
The Weakness of the New Regimes
In the final years of the region’s independence movement, Bolívar sought to set up regimes in countries that mixed republican principals and authoritarian rule. He feared that introducing too much liberty to uneducated masses would result in anarchy, thus necessitating a strong central authority. This idea of what a government should look like is reflected in the 1826 Constitution of Bolivia. This document created four separate branches of government: the executive, the legislative, the judicial and the electoral college. However, the executive office was heavily weighted with power. The president would serve for life and be succeeded by the vice president, who would be chosen by the president. Furthermore, the president had the power to appoint and remove officials, as well as full control of the armed forces.
However, by the end of his life in 1830, Bolívar failed to establish order in the lands he helped lead to independence – present-day Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia – due to the lack of alignment between his ambitions and the inherent constraints. Peru, where initial liberation victories were won under Gen. San Martín, rejected Bolívar’s rule; Ecuador was invaded; Colombia’s local leaders were in the midst of a power struggle; and Venezuela was in general disarray. Bolívar’s inability to simultaneously govern all the land he helped become independent can largely be attributed to geography. Not only is this an immense surface area, but it is extremely impassible terrain of mountains and rainforest. Even with the support of hand-picked vice presidents and other local leaders to rule in his absence, its sheer size and the physical barriers between major metropolitan areas discouraged large-scale governance or even an umbrella alliance.
Bolívar left his mark on history by leading independence movements in five countries in South America, despite the fact that he did not manage to create a well-establish government or any type of pan-American entity. Geography, not Bolívar, ultimately dictated the degree of cohesion between nations. The contradictions in his political philosophy over the course of the independence movement help explain why he was known as both a liberator and a dictator. This tension – and at times oscillation – between liberal intent and dictatorial behavior has continued to live on in the region.