Ask most North Americans what they know about Simón Bolívar, and the answer will likely be that he was “the George Washington of South America.” As Marie Arana’s highly readable biography makes clear, this comparison only goes so far. Both men were brilliant generals who played a key role in liberating their native soil from a colonial oppressor. And both went on, however reluctantly, to take up political power once their revolutions were won. But in other ways the two men, like the two revolutions, were sharply different.

Bolívar’s legendary campaigns covered half a continent; he is said to have ridden 75,000 miles on horseback, crossing vast plains, malarial swamps and frigid Andean passes in pursuit of the Spanish forces. His victories were dazzling, but the seesaw struggle for independence from Spain proved to be far longer, far bloodier and far crueler than anything seen in the American colonies. Civilian massacres and mass executions were common on both the royalist and republican sides, and hostilities sometimes threatened to descend into a war of racial vengeance, with black, Indian and mixed-race soldiers enlisting alongside the Spaniards to fight against the largely Creole—American-born white—republican forces.

At the center of this turmoil is the fascinating figure of the Liberator. Charming, obstinate, he was a gifted orator, a visionary thinker and a passionate believer in Enlightenment ideals. But as Arana never hesitates to point out, Bolívar had his share of flaws as well. He has been sharply criticized for the “war to the death” he proclaimed against all Spaniards on American soil, soldiers and civilians alike. More importantly, he was unable to achieve his dream of unifying the territories he had freed, which by the time of his death from tuberculosis in 1830 had broken apart into the squabbling states of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and his namesake Bolivia. His generals had turned on him, his followers were accusing him of monarchical ambitions, and he died “reviled, misunderstood, slandered in every republic he had liberated.” It would take another generation for South America and the world to put Bolívar back on his famous white horse.

Arana brings a novelist’s eye to the Liberator’s life, describing in colorful detail his jaunty youth, the grueling military campaigns, the complex political machinations and his often scandalous mistresses. Bolívar is not just an impressive biography but an enjoyable, occasionally astonishing read. Indeed, if it weren’t for the hundred pages of endnotes, one might suspect this Peruvian-born writer of mixing a little magical realism into her tale.

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