Simon Bolivar's birthday on 24 July was commemorated by the new proactive Venezuelan Ambassador Augusto Montiel who organized a gathering to discuss the legacy of El Libertador (the Liberator).
Bolivar is not just a Liberator of Venezuela. He has a special place in the history of Latin America as the hero of independence of not one country but five; Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. In fact, Bolivia was named after him which is unique in the history of the world. He went even beyond the five countries and had a vision for Latin America as a whole. He was the first true Latin American dreamer, thinker and statesman who laid the foundation for regional unity. It is this legacy which endures to inspire Latin America even now.
Bolivar was an inspiring leader of many dimensions. He was a an audacious and exceptional military strategist who lead successful campaigns against the Spanish colonial forces. He was a revolutionary and a political thinker. Although he came from a wealthy oligarchic family, he became a reformer championing equality and abolition of slavery. He called on the governments to provide education as the fundamental duty.
Bolivar was a colorful Latino personality and had as many conquests in the camp of the opposite sex as in the battlefields. But the macho mujeriego, was himself conquered by La Libertadora del Libertador (lady liberator of the liberator) Manuelita Saenz. Her story is portrayed poignantly in a Venezuelan film with the same title, released in 2000.
Critics point to the inconsistencies and contradictions of his personality and especially his dictatorial inclinations. While there is truth in these, they should be seen in the larger perspective in the context of the time of political instability and challenges faced by the newly liberated countries without adequate preparation to rule by themselves.
It was Bolivar who made the first official call for Latin American integration in 1824. As president of Gran Colombia, he invited the other countries in the region to send diplomatic representatives to the proposed Congress of Panama in 1826. In this conference, a Treaty of Union, League and Perpetual Confederation was signed on 15 July by the Andean and Central American states as well as Mexico. The Treaty which consisted of 31 articles provided for common defense and resolution of territorial disputes among other things. It was an extraordinary and ambitious achievement at that time of the history of the region. Although this union did not survive, it provided inspiration to many other attempts at integration since then. The latest is the formation of CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in 2011. While its goals are modest, it is a useful forum for the countries of the region to have their own identity and voice without the intrusive presence of US. Besides this larger union, the countries of the region have established several subregional groups such as Mercosur,Andean Community, SICA, ALBA and Pacific Alliance. Thanks to these groupings, there is substantial increase in intra-regional trade, cooperation and free movement of people.
Integration is not only useful for facilitation of free movement of trade, services, capital and people. It has given collective strength and security. UNASUR, the union of the 12 South American countries formed in 2008 as an umbrella organization for security among other goals, has already set successful examples of protection of democracies and sovereignty of member countries. It had sent delegations to defuse political crisis when the democratically elected governments were challenged in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador in recent times. In 1996, Mercosur had prevented a military coup by Gen Oviedo in Paraguay. But for these timely and decisive initiatives by the regional groups, the coup makers and their external patrons might have succeeded in messing up the democracies of those countries. Even now, Venezuela would have faced more external threats if it were not a member of Mercosur and Unasur. The external forces have certainly been deterred and they are now more cautious and less blatant ( as was the case in Honduras) because of the regional unity.
Bolivar was prophetic when he said' The United States appear to be destined by providence to plague Latin America with misery in the name of liberty". Latin America has been a victim of US military interventions and its support to military dictatorships and polarization of societies in the name of its anti-communist war. The latest case was the support to the coupsters in Honduras in 2009 when the democratically elected government of President Manuel Zelaya was overthrown. The war on drugs is another excuse for US intrusion into Latin American internal affairs. While the Latin Americans need to exercise constant vigilance against external threats, it does not mean that they should continue the bad habit of using external bogey to hide their internal flaws and problems. The Latin Americans need to set their own countries in order with political stability and inclusive economic growth.