Simón Bolívar: the search for the man behind the legend

Writer William Ospina explores the mythical leader in a new book

Before he became the liberator of Latin America, Simón Bolívar was a man in love. His first and only wife was the Spaniard María Teresa del Toro y Alayza, and her premature death just eight months after their wedding in a Madrid church in 1802 left him a marked man.

"If she had lived, perhaps Bolívar would have become one more landowner in Caracas, devoted to his wealth and his family life," argues the Colombian poet, essayist and novelist William Ospina. His new book En busca de Bolívar (or, In search of Bolívar), seeks to unravel the mysteries behind "a fascinating and contradictory man."

Ospina, author of Ursúa and The Country of the Cinnamon, describes his latest work as "a Cubist portrait" of Bolívar. "I wanted to approach his biography from an artistic point of view," he explains.

The book uses brief chapters to explore various periods in Bolívar's life. "The moment he died, he achieved mythical status," says Ospina. "His enemies would rather have him as a legend than a rival. Bolívar as a symbol could be used to their best advantage."

The search for the man behind the legend led Ospina to Perú de Lacroix, a French general who had fought in Napoleon's armies and who years later fought alongside Bolívar. His Diary of Bucaramanga uncovered a Bolívar who was "the converging point of many people at the same time," says Ospina. Bolívar could lose control when he was beaten at cards and was a man "incapable of settling for small victories."

"Power turned him into a model of politics or military art, or simply into a model for a statue," says Ospina. "But we have to look at his human nature first. He was a lover of nature, a dancer and a man who enjoyed traveling. His figure is still very much alive in Latin America." argues Ospina.

An orphan at the age of nine and a widower at 19, Bolívar was convinced that "everything he loved was touched by death, and that he was not born to be happy," says Ospina.

"He became convinced that his personal goal was to free the forces that would build his dream of a new America," he continues.

Ospina's research work shows his metamorphosis from a young man born into a wealthy family in the colonies into the founder of a new culture, who strongly identified with "the symbols and the myths of the New World."

"Without Bolívar and the other liberators of Latin America, there would never have been a Pablo Neruda or a Diego Rivera. They took that first step," says the writer.

"His challenge was to found republics. It was not about fighting for independence from Spain in order to simply change owners. The great landowners, the slave owners, did not agree with his ideals," he says.

Ospina holds that the idealization of Bolívar shrouds his ideas and his project for Latin America. He even says that the oft-quoted "Bolívar's dream" was about something more than utopia.

"The continental union did not gain traction because his generals preferred to have tailor-made republics."

Yet two centuries later, says Ospina, this fusion is "more achievable than ever."

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