Today is the birthday (1783) of Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios, commonly known by the shorter Simón Bolívar, a Venezuelan military and political leader who played a major role in the establishment of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia as sovereign states independent of Spanish rule. Bolívar was born into a wealthy, aristocratic criollo family. Criollo is often translated as “creole” but that gives the wrong impression. They were people of pure Spanish descent, born in South America but generally thinking of themselves as Spanish, with strong family ties and allegiances to Spain. Like other criollos of his day, he was educated in Europe from a young age. There, he was introduced to the thoughts and ideas of Enlightenment philosophers, which inspired him with the ambition to liberate his native Venezuela from Spanish rule. Taking advantage of the disorder in Spain prompted by the Peninsular War, Bolívar inaugurated his campaign for independence in 1808, and within three years an organized national congress had been established. Despite a number of hindrances, including the arrival of an unprecedentedly large Spanish expeditionary force, the revolutionaries eventually prevailed, culminating in a patriot victory at the Battle of Carabobo in 1821, which effectively freed Venezuela.
Following this triumph over the Spanish monarchy, Bolívar participated in the foundation of the first union of independent nations in Latin America, Gran Colombia, of which he was president from 1819 to 1830. Through further military conquest, he also liberated Ecuador, Peru, and finally, Bolivia (which was named after him), assuming the presidency of each of these new nations. At the peak of his power, Bolívar held near-absolute power over a vast territory from the Argentine border to the Caribbean.
Modern-day historians consider Bolívar to be a deeply polarizing leader, with criticism aimed especially at his belief that a strong presidency, maintained for life, is essential to a state’s survival. Nevertheless, most Latin Americans laud him as a meritorious liberator, whose revolutionary ideas and reforms continue to leave a lasting legacy today. I might be handed my head in Argentina if I voiced my own skepticism over the worth of Bolívar’s political convictions. Like his close friend and colleague, the Argentine liberator José de San Martín, he is deeply revered for ridding the northern provinces of Spanish tyranny and his aristocratic, dictatorial values benefit South America. He was, for example, vehemently anti slavery, and believed firmly in the power of education. In the end it comes down to whether you believe (a) that a benevolent dictatorship is better than a corrupt democracy (which I do), and (b) that Bolívar was a benevolent dictator (which I wonder about). Certainly South America has had more than its fair share of dictators who generally believed they were benevolent despite ghastly actions that no sane person can approve of. Karl Marx wrote that Bolívar was “the most dastardly, most miserable and meanest of blackguards,” which is certainly over the top, but which highlights his polarizing influence.
Rather than give you a history lesson concerning Bolívar’s actions and beliefs, let me regale you with some quotes and you can decide. In my usual rush I cannot find Spanish originals for all of them and the translations lose something. Although Bolívar was not necessarily a man of the people I find his ideals praiseworthy:
A state too expensive in itself, or by virtue of its dependencies, ultimately falls into decay; its free government is transformed into a tyranny; it disregards the principles which it should preserve, and finally degenerates into despotism. The distinguishing characteristic of small republics is stability: the character of large republics is change.
Among the popular and representative systems of government I do not approve of the federal system: it is too perfect; and it requires virtues and political talents superior to our own.
The United States appear to be destined by Providence to plague America with misery in the name of Freedom.
Colombians! My last wish is for the happiness of the mother land. If my death contributes to the end of partisanship and the consolidation of the union, I shall be lowered in peace into my grave.
The three greatest fools (majaderos) of history have been Jesus Christ, Don Quixote . . . and me!
Do not compare your material forces with those of the enemy. Spirit cannot be compared with matter. You are human beings, they are beasts. You are free, they are slaves. Fight, and you shall win. For God grants victory to perseverance.
To practice justice is to practice liberty.
I have plowed the sea. Our America will fall into the hands of vulgar tyrants.
We have been ruled more by deceit than by force, and we have been degraded more by vice than by superstition. Slavery is the daughter of darkness: an ignorant people is a blind instrument of its own destruction. Ambition and intrigue abuses the credulity and experience of men lacking all political, economic, and civic knowledge; they adopt pure illusion as reality; they take license for liberty, treachery for patriotism, and vengeance for justice. If a people, perverted by their training, succeed in achieving their liberty, they will soon lose it, for it would be of no avail to endeavor to explain to them that happiness consists in the practice of virtue; that the rule of law is more powerful than the rule of tyrants, because, as the laws are more inflexible, every one should submit to their beneficent austerity; that proper morals, and not force, are the bases of law; and that to practice justice is to practice liberty.
My recipe today is Venezuelan carne mechada (pulled beef) also sometimes called ropa vieja (old clothes). When served with black beans and rice plus fried plantains it is known as pabellón criollo (pictured), sometimes thought of as Venezuela’s national dish. Carne mechada is also used to stuff arepas, empanadas, and pastelitos.
Carne Mechada Venezolana
1 kg stewing beef
1 green onion, sliced
1 mint leaf
2 sprigs parsley
1 stalk celery, chopped
½ onion, sliced
½ red bell pepper, sliced
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 ½ onions
1 ½ bell peppers
1 clove garlic
3 ajíes dulces (small sweet chiles)
2 sprigs cilantro
Cut the beef into 3 or 4 large pieces. Place in a large, heavy saucepan and cover with stock. Add the salt, green onion, peppermint, parsley, celery, onion and bell pepper. Bring to a slow simmer, skim, and cover. Cook for 3 to 4 hours until the beef is falling apart.
Remove the beef from the stock and pull it into shreds using two forks before it cools too much.
Cut the sofrito ingredients into slivers and in a large, heavy skillet add the oil, and sauté the sofrito ingredients until they are soft. Add the beef and continue to sauté for about 3 minutes.
Add the tomatoes, salt and black pepper to taste and, the cilantro.
Add a little of the beef stock and cook at medium heat until the liquid is reduced.