Bolívar's Ghost

by Michael W. Stowell

July 29, 2002


"There is but one law which, from its nature, needs unanimous consent. This is the social compact; for civil association is the most voluntary of all acts. Every man being born free and his own master, no one, under any pretext whatsoever, can make any man subject without his consent. To decide that the son of a slave is born a slave is to decide that he is not born a man."
--Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The protests in Arequipa, Peru, last month were similar to other protests occurring throughout Latin America in recent days. Unionist workers joined social reformers and 'common' laborers in the ongoing struggle against the economic structure of free-market capitalism. The pending acquisition of the region's two state-owned electrical generators, Egasa and Egesur, by foreign interests brought such outrage into the streets that President Alejandro Toledo had to declare a state of emergency, suspend the $167 million sale, and retrofit his cabinet. Government sell-offs have led to widespread layoffs and President Toledo's government is today besieged by protests and popular discontent, much of it fueled by the Toledo administration's inability to alleviate abject poverty. Many people there blame the privatizations, seeing them as a vestige of the corruption-riddled presidency of Mr. Fujimori, who is now in exile in Japan. Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, Peru's former economy minister, resigned under pressure last week and stated that "Everywhere you look, people say, 'The guys followed the model and they're in the soup. So obviously the model does not work.'"

In Brazil, rebellion against American-led capitalist exploitation has generated overwhelming support for labor leader Luiz Inácio da Silva, known as Lula, who is now out front in the bid for October's presidential election.

In Paraguay, protests last month blocked the $400 million sale of the state phone company by President Luis González Macchi, and last week deadly demonstrations led the president to declare a state of emergency.

Ecuador's sale of 17 electricity distributors was short-circuited by political resistance last spring.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez has his hands full of political unrest due to the deep divisions over economic policies.

Widespread rioting last December in Argentina forced a change of presidents and many there blame the unrest on corrupt politicians and the government's adoption of economic policies from abroad that have left the country with $141 billion in public debt, a devastated banking system and 20% unemployment. Argentines are now supporting Elisa Carrio, a corruption fighter in Congress who despises the International Monetary Fund. She is now the early favorite in the upcoming presidential election.

All this Latin American blowback comes as foreign direct investment in Latin America has dropped from $105 billion in 1999 to $80 billion in 2001. Most of the major sales of state companies to private investors have already been completed and there's not much promise left in the scheme for the globalization of capitalism. The false hope raining down from corporate boardrooms evaporates before it hits the ground in South America.

In Bolivia, Evo Morales, an indigenous leader who promised to nationalize industries, finished second among 11 candidates for president. Mr. Morales is the leader of the country's coca growers and is opposed to the coca eradication program sponsored by the US as part of the "war on drugs." The ever-so-predictable Bush administration has responded through the US ambassador to Bolivia, Manuel Rocha, who has warned that if Mr. Morales were elected US aid would be cut off.

"The Bolivian electorate must consider the consequences of choosing leaders somehow connected with drug trafficking and terrorism," Mr. Rocha said in a speech last month, "I want to remind the Bolivian electorate that if they vote for those who want Bolivia to return to exporting cocaine, that will seriously jeopardize any future aid to Bolivia from the United States."

Ambassador Rocha's comments have enraged many Bolivians and enhanced the popularity of Mr. Morales, who called the ambassador his "best campaign chief."

Upon contemplating all of the current developments in Latin America, my heart is drawn to the remembrance of the continent's most famous revolutionary and his political philosophy. If you are unfamiliar with Simón Bolívar, you cannot recognize the legacy he has left in the heart of Latin America. Consider his life and times. The spirit that captured his imagination is alive and well in the countryside.

Simón Bolívar was born on July 24, 1783 to wealthy Creole parents in Caracas, Venezuela. He received a sophisticated education through private tutors in Caracas and in 1799 furthered his education in Spain. After marrying a woman of Spanish nobility and losing her to yellow fever a year later in Venezuela, he returned to Europe and immersed himself in the philosophies of Rousseau, Locke and Voltaire.

Upon returning home via the recently independent United States, Bolívar joined the revolution against Spain in Venezuela (1810) under the command of Francisco de Miranda. They were defeated by Spain and he was forced to leave the country, but in 1812 came back to Venezuela and by 1813 had captured Caracas and became the dictator. In 1814, the Spaniards defeated him again so he hid from them in Jamaica and Haiti until his return with a confederation of forces in 1817. After their victory Bolívar was elected President of Venezuela.

In 1819 Bolívar and his compatriots defeated the Spaniards in Boyaca, across the Andes Mountains in present day Columbia. The republic of Columbia was then formed and Bolívar became President. He freed Ecuador in 1822 and, after leading Peru to its independence, Bolívar was elected President of Peru in 1825 and then organized a new republic in southern Peru that was named Bolivia in his honor.

While liberating an area almost five times that of Napoleon's conquests, Bolívar revealed his unique style. He never led a military force of more than 1000 insurgents and, at a time when women were valued for nothing more than beauty, his companion, Manuela Sáenz, served as a colonel in his army, and faced his greatest challenges with him.

Bolívar is called the Liberator. He is remembered as the South American revolutionary who was the most significant leader in the struggle for South American independence from Spain, but he did not fare as well as a governor because he insisted that his vision of a "Grand Columbia" of unified, liberated countries be the only one, and his autocratic rule brought strife and civil wars of independence from him. Today he is honored throughout South America, and in Venezuela and Bolivia his birthday is a national holiday.

When I contemplate this great revolutionary's motivations, I'm taken to examining the political philosophy that empowered and emboldened him. As I've mentioned, he was greatly influenced by the musings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, so allow me to briefly quote from a treatise that must have inspired Bolívar, from Rousseau's "The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right" from Book IV, chapter 1, "That The General Will Is Indestructible":

"As long as several men in assembly regard themselves as a single body, they have only a single will which is concerned with their common preservation and general well-being. In this case, all the springs of the State are vigorous and simple and its rules clear and luminous; there are no embroilments or conflicts of interests; the common good is everywhere clearly apparent, and only good sense is needed to perceive it. Peace, unity and equality are the enemies of political subtleties. Men who are upright and simple are difficult to deceive because of their simplicity; lures and ingenious pretexts fail to impose upon them, and they are not even subtle enough to be dupes. When, among the happiest people in the world, bands of peasants are seen regulating affairs of State under an oak, and always acting wisely, can we help scorning the ingenious methods of other nations, which make themselves illustrious and wretched with so much art and mystery?

"A State so governed needs very few laws; and, as it becomes necessary to issue new ones, the necessity is universally seen. The first man to propose them merely says what all have already felt, and there is no question of factions or intrigues or eloquence in order to secure the passage into law of what every one has already decided to do, as soon as he is sure that the rest will act with him.

"Theorists are led into error because, seeing only States that have been from the beginning wrongly constituted, they are struck by the impossibility of applying such a policy to them. They make great game of all the absurdities a clever rascal or an insinuating speaker might get the people of Paris or London to believe. They do not know that Cromwell would have been put to 'the bells' by the people of Berne, and the Duc de Beaufort on the treadmill by the Genevese.

"But when the social bond begins to be relaxed and the State to grow weak, when particular interests begin to make themselves felt and the smaller societies to exercise an influence over the larger, the common interest changes and finds opponents: opinion is no longer unanimous; the general will ceases to be the will of all; contradictory views and debates arise; and the best advice is not taken without question.

"Finally, when the State, on the eve of ruin, maintains only a vain, illusory and formal existence, when in every heart the social bond is broken, and the meanest interest brazenly lays hold of the sacred name of 'public good,' the general will becomes mute: all men, guided by secret motives, no more give their views as citizens than if the State had never been; and iniquitous decrees directed solely to private interest get passed under the name of laws."

If one were to believe in ghosts, it would not be hard to imagine the ghost of Simón Bolívar striding about the countryside in Latin America, reading aloud from Rousseau...

"Never exceed your rights and they will soon become unlimited."

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Simón Bolívar

"That the General Will is Indestructible," by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

"The Social Contract," by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)


Michael W. Stowell is chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Friends of the Arcata Library in Arcata, CA. He is the producer/editor/videographer of numerous public access television programs; he is a naturalist, a gardener, a bicyclist and a Swans' columnist.

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Published July 29, 2002
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