Bolívar: American Liberator

Drawing on a wealth of primary documents, novelist and journalist Marie Arana brilliantly captures early nineteenth- century South America and the explosive tensions that helped revolutionize Bolivar. In 1813, he launched a campaign for the independence of Colombia and Venezuela, commencing a dazzling career that would take him across the rugged terrain of South America. From his battlefield victories to his ill-fated brief marriage and legendary love affairs, Bolivar emerges as a man of many facets: fearless general, brilliant strategist, consummate diplomat, passionate abolitionist, and gifted writer. A major work of history, Bolivar colorfully portrays a dramatic life even as it explains the rivalries and turmoil that bedeviled Bolivar’s tragic last days.


“Bolívar” won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for biography in April 2014.

Advance Reviews

“Finally, Bolivar gets the sweeping biography he deserves. He was the greatest leader in Latin American history, and his tale is filled with lessons about leadership and passion. This book reads like a wonderful novel but is researched like a masterwork of history.” Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs

“This is a magnificent story. Deeply researched and written with clarity, honesty, and verve, Marie Arana’s book tells the life of one of the greatest heroes and founders in world history. North Americans who know only of George Washington will thrill to read the epic adventures of his South American counterpart. As fantastic as Bolivar’s life appears, ‘it is not,’ as Arana says of Latin America’s bloody past in general, ‘magical realism. It is history. It is true.’” (Gordon S. Wood, author of Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815, Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University )

“With the eye and ear of a novelist, Marie Arana chants the epic of Bolivar with love, zest, and compelling authority.” (Walter A. McDougall, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations, University of Pennsylvania )

“Simon Bolivar has found the perfect biographer in Marie Arana, a literary journalist, brilliant novelist of South America, and wise historian as well. Her portrait of Bolivar is human and moving; she has written a powerful and epic life and times.” (Evan Thomas, author of Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Struggle to Save the World )

“Inspired. . . . Arana ably captures the brash brilliance of this revered and vilified leader.” (Kirkus Reviews )

“Arana is an indefatigable researcher, a perceptive historian, and a luminous writer, as shown in her defining, exhilarating biography of the great South American liberator Simón Bolívar. . . . Her understanding of the man behind the fame—and behind the hostility that enveloped him in his later years—brings this biography to the heights of the art and craft of life-writing.” (Booklist (starred review) )

“[Arana’s] vivid portrait shows us a charismatic man of high ideals, fiery oratory, unflagging energy and resolve, bold strategies, and a romantic aura. . . . Arana’s dramatic narrative is appropriately grand and enthralling . . . and it makes Bolívar an apt embodiment of the ambitions and disappointments of the revolutionary age.” (Publishers Weekly )

Reviews Since Publication

The Washington Post: By Joseph J. Ellis, April 05, 2013

At least in retrospect, Marie Arana was providentially prepared to write “Bolivar.” Of Peruvian ancestry, Arana has written a critically acclaimed memoir and two well-reviewed novels. She is also a former editor of The Washington Post’s Book World. As befits its subject, “Bolivar” is magisterial in scope, written with flair and an almost cinematic sense of history happening. Here are three samples of her narrative style. Read more.

The New York Times: By Paul Berman, April 5, 2013

Simón Bolívar, the Liberator, was the George Washington of South America, or so he was regarded by sundry eminences in the United States during a large part of his extraordinary career. Grandeur was his nature. He aroused adulation. He dealt a few preliminary military defeats to the Spanish imperial army, and in 1813, he entered victoriously, for the moment, into Caracas on a chariot drawn by white-gowned daughters of the leading families, as if he were a god or a Caesar. Read more.

The Los Angeles Times: By Hector Tobar, April 11, 2013

Deep into Marie Arana’s wonderful new biography of Simón Bolívar, “the George Washington of South America,” there’s a deliciously unexpected pause in the action.

It’s 1816, and Bolívar has set sail from Haiti. He’s on his way back to Venezuela, with an army set to take on the hated Spanish colonial authorities.

At the island of St. Thomas, he ostensibly stops for “supplies.” In reality, his fleet of ships has anchored so that Bolívar can pick up his mistress, Pepita Machado. The advent of text messaging is two centuries away, however, and the lovers have their signals crossed — Machado has sailed for Haiti. For three days, the fleet waits, and when a ship finally retrieves Machado, the flotilla waits one more day while she and Bolívar make love. Read more.

The New Yorker, Briefly Noted, June 4, 2013

The “George Washington of South America,” who freed various countries from Spanish colonial rule, emerges in this account as a complex hero. Born to privilege but orphaned early, Simón Bolívar wandered restlessly around . . .  Read more.

The New York Review of Books, by Enrique Krauze, June 4, 2013

Bolívar as hero has been a theme for hundreds of writers across the years. And it is the perspective adopted by Marie Arana, a Peruvian-born novelist and a former editor in chief of The Washington Post Book World, in Bolívar: American Liberator, her biography of Bolívar as the Homeric saga of an American Ulysses. She describes her objective as a popular history—“a sweeping, engaging narrative, more a cinematic epic than a scholarly tome”—and she has accomplished what she set out to do. Read more.

The British Edition

Bolivar UK jacket

“Thrilling, authoritative and revelatory, here at last is a biography of Bolivar, the maker of South America, that catches the sheer extraordinary unique adventure and titanic scale of his life with accessible narrative and scholarly judgement.” (Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Jerusalem: The Biography, Catherine the Great and Potemkin, and Young Stalin.)

The Telegraph (U.K.), by Nicholas Shakespeare, July 2, 2013

Superbly balanced . . . I suspect that one reason why her biography is so plausible and engagingly told is that the Peruvian-born Arana is herself a writer of fiction. Like García Márquez (who memorably fictionalised Bolívar in The General in his Labyrinth), she has an instinct for the vitalising detail – the bleached bull’s skull that Bolívar used as a chair; the pots and pans of Indian women known as rabonas clanging as they hurried after Bolívar’s army over that inhospitable terrain. As well, his sad and contradictory story demands a novelist’s empathy. Read more.

The Guardian (U.K.), by Giles Tremlett, June 15, 2013

Arana’s prose is often beautiful. A novelist turned historian, she tells Bolívar’s story wonderfully. Two centuries after his death, Bolívar inflames passions that better-known characters no longer ignite. Arana’s biography explains why. Read more.

A Summary of the Book: From Marie

When I was an unruly child in Lima, Peru, I was made to atone for my misbehavior by sitting alone on a hard stool in my grandparents’ living room. It was an airless chamber, shuttered against the coast’s alternating sun and fog. There were musty books in teetering bookcases, an ornately carved piano, marble-topped tables, bronze busts of illustrious Romans, and four immense ancestral portraits that seemed to watch me with pointed reproach. Two of the likenesses were of my beloved grandparents peering down with what I never saw on their real faces—sharp looks of haughty surprise. But the other two portraits were of an earlier vintage, painted 125 years before I was born.

One was of a stately general named Joaquín Rubín de Celis, my great great great grandfather, the first Spaniard to fall at the Battle of Ayacucho, which won Peru its freedom. The wistful beauty who stared from the other wall was the daughter he never knew, Trinidad, born a few weeks after a rebel sword pierced his heart. At sixteen, she married a rebel general, my great great grandfather Pedro Cisneros Torres, who had rushed down the Andes with Bolívar’s forces that fateful day in 1824 to fight against her father. After three hundred years of Spanish rule, with two of my ancestors battling one another in the dust of the cordillera, the yoke of colonialism was broken, the war of independence won. And so, although I had been instructed to sit in that room and ponder my waywardness, I could only wonder at the glories of rebellion. A lifetime later, I remain fascinated by that decisive moment and by the man at the crucible of American possibility: Simón Bolívar, “the Great Liberator” of the New World.

Bolívar’s life is one of history’s most dramatic canvases, a colossal narrative replete with adventure and disaster, victory and defeat. Driven by his vision of a free America, he single- handedly conceived, organized and led the independence movements of six nations—Venezuela, Panama, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru—an area roughly the size of modern Europe. The odds against which he fought—a formidable, established world power, vast areas of untracked wilderness, the splintered loyalties of various races—would have proved daunting for the ablest of generals with strong armies at his command. But Bolívar had never been a soldier. He had no formal military training. And yet, with little more than will and a genius for leadership, he freed much of Latin America and laid out his dream for a unified continent.

Along the way, he had to deal with the region’s racial diversity: There were blacks, whites, Indians—all suspicious of an uncertain future. To win Caracas, he battled a sadistic, golden- haired pirate. To win Colombia, he engaged the black president of Haiti. To win Venezuela, he enlisted inmates from hospitals, teenage boys. To win Peru, he manumitted Latin America’s slaves a full half-century before the Emancipation Proclamation. To undertake his punishing march over the Andes, he called his officers to a wasteland of bleached skulls and told them how his army of 2,500 ragtag men would cross land that was waist-deep in rain, then scramble over the icy promontories to win America its freedom. Half the cattle they brought for food drowned. Hundreds of soldiers died in the perilous crossing. But two hundred battles and thirteen years later, Bolívar’s army of independence prevailed. That clear success was due to the founder’s vision, which never faltered, and yet the end of his life was anything but reward.

Whereas Bolívar is worshiped in Latin America, his extraordinarily dramatic life story is hardly known here. What we do know is his name. Writers and politicians summon it to explain leaders as disparate as Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Juan Peron, and Alberto Fujimori; in truth, all have drawn from the legacy of this remarkable man. Every humble Latino immigrant imports some aspect of his complex mythology.

But a resonant story has yet to be truly told.

At first, the trajectory of his career suggested nothing but glory. As he gathered victory upon victory, the Liberator’s legend spread throughout the world. But the last six years of his life ended in poverty, illness, and exile. Not one founder of the United States of America traveled a similar span from greatness to ignominy. The difference is revealing. The swift unraveling of a hero’s appeal is a story played out over and over in contemporary Latin American politics. It happened to Peron, Fujimori, Pinochet, Toledo, Vicente Fox, and countless others who have risen

to presidential office, but the world remains surprised each time it happens. The Bolivarian phenomenon is unique in Latin America, and one I explore in this book.

Bolívar’s accomplishments are legendary. His skillful use of guerrilla tactics and his insistence on leading soldiers in the field set a standard for future commanders. The institutions he built and the constitutions he wrote—calling for racial equality unmatched in the hemisphere—survive to this day. And though in his time he was adored and reviled in equal measure, history has granted him an undisputed place in the pantheon of heroes.

But what kind of man was he, really? Study him long enough, as I have, and the flesh and blood man emerges. He may have been a philosopher and a visionary, but he was also an orphan who kicked stones in the back alleys of Caracas. He was a flamboyant, self-assertive personality, who could befriend a prince as easily as he could a pauper. He loved to argue. He loved contests of physical prowess. He loved to dance. And though he was no stranger to bordellos, he preferred the company of mistresses. Even as he pursued his bloodiest campaigns, he would send for a lover—Pepita Machado or Manuelita Sáenz. In 47 years of life, he had more than 35 of them. Often, he chose them from among the flocks of young girls who ran out from the liberated towns to welcome him with crowns of laurel. The delicate but plucky Pepita would travel long distances, accompanied by her mother and escorted by crude revolutionaries, to spend rapturous nights with him in his tent. Hurrying to meet him after the Battle of Angostura, she died of sheer exhaustion.

But apart from the passions and physical exploits, Bolívar was an enormously learned man. His words live on in a rich collection of letters and speeches. Few leaders have possessed his knowledge of world history, his facility in letters, his brilliant verbal command. And few have captured the drama of their times so eloquently. It is no exaggeration to say that Bolívar stands among the most accomplished of Latin American writers.

The Book

Whereas books on Simón Bolívar abound in Spanish, few exist in English. The British historian John Lynch’s very solid biography, published by Yale two years ago, was the first to appear in fifty years. But it is a scholarly volume, with little of the vibrant drama that colored the Liberator’s life. Probably the best-known book on Bolívar is a magnificent work of fiction, The General in His Labyrinth, by Gabriel García Márquez, but it imagines only the last four months of Bolívar’s life, when, broken and dying, he makes his way to exile. Little wonder that few know the full man.

I have told Bolívar’s life story in a brisk, sweeping narrative. I have relied overwhelmingly on primary sources throughout Latin America. I have plumbed sources in Spanish, French, Italian, English, and Portuguese. I have tracked world opinion in North America and Europe. And yet, though the book is meticulously researched and accompanied by a full scholarly apparatus, it is more of a cinematic epic than a scholarly tome.

As a writer whose work has always aspired to explain the Latin temperament, I believe I am uniquely qualified to write this biography. Having grown up in Peru with all its splendid and shabby contradictions, I instinctively understand the complicated culture that produced Simón Bolívar. I understand the driving ideals of liberty and justice that animate his story, and I understand the bigotry that weighs it down. I know that Bolívar’s courage was Latin America’s godsend, but I also know that his hubris was its greatest curse. I believe that he is the quintessential icon of Latin maleness—that we insure his immortality by recreating him in our sons. And I think that, ultimately, his life serves as a metaphor of Latin identity. To paraphrase García Márquez, the story of Bolívar is, more than anything, a story about us.

Bolívar: American Liberator is a vivid, engaging, popular narrative. My goal has been to capture a history that continues to speak to the Americas. Why, for instance, did Hugo Chavez rename Venezuela so that it includes Bolívar’s name? Why did Fidel Castro model a Marxist vision after him? Why does Subcomandante Marcos compare his jungle lookout to Bolívar’s vigil in the fields? Why do men in presidential palaces and schoolchildren in impoverished shantytowns believe he holds a promise for them? Why is there a resurgence of “Bolivarianism” throughout the continent? Why is he the only hero of Latin American independence whose name we know?

It is a tale for the hemisphere, a lesson for our times. I greatly look forward to introducing readers to this unforgettable story.

The Author

Marie Arana is the former literary editor of The Washington Post. She has published four books: the memoir American Chica, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/ Martha Albrand Award; The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work; as well as two novels set in South America: Cellophane (a finalist for the John Sargent Sr. Prize) and Lima Nights.

Arana has also written introductions for numerous books, among them the widely popular National Geographic book of photographs of Latin America: Through the Eyes of the Condor, which was translated into 50 languages. She is a contributor to a prize-winning volume on Machu Picchu, as well as collections on writing and Hispanicity. In the course of her career, she has written countless feature pieces on culture for The Washington Post, Civilization magazine, the National Geographic, the Smithsonian magazine, and other publications. She is a sought-after speaker on literary criticism, the American publishing industry, and Hispanic identity, appearing on television, radio, and at universities throughout the country. In the course of writing her biography of Bolívar, she was granted scholarly chairs at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University and the John Kluge Center at the United States Library of Congress.