Simon Bolívar and
the American Dream by Richard Walch
"The New World is but one nation; one with a single origin, language, culture, and religion."1
"A united America, if Heaven grants us our wish, would be called the queen of nations. Our America would be, with time, the empire of the universe and the capital of the world."2
-both quotes attributed to Simon Bolívar
Simon Bolívar's vision of Latin America was of a single nation composed of all the countries of Spain's colonial empire in the New World... an area spanning from New Spain and California through the Caribbean and Central America to Peru and the Rio de la Plata. Joined by "history, language, and culture", his "Queen of Nations" would have unified a region larger than any nation of the time, today encompassing the national boundaries of 23 modern-day Latin American nations (17 continental and six Caribbean). But his dream was not to be realized.
It is curious that Bolívar's vision of a Latin American nation ultimately failed due to regionalism. As he saw it, the entire area was bound by a single identity as Spain's American colonies. For the area to break up into the plethora of nations that exist today seems chaotic and random, especially when taking into account the global trend of the time towards unification and federalism. While the United States of America formed one republic, and the many kingdoms and principalities of Europe were uniting to form nation-states under central governments, Spain's New World holdings were seperating and breaking down into smaller, decentralized nations. Why?
In answering this question, one must look back to the colonial structures put in place by the Spanish upon the discovery and conquest of Latin America in the early 16th century. The administration of the empire began with the exploitation of the land's material wealth, especially gold and silver, and in order to do this, Spain's royal authorities relied on a heirarchical system of rule. The roots of modern-day Latin American nationalism stem from these divisions. These divisions were maintained, on a grass-roots level, by a) the cabildos, which served as local councils under Spanish control, and b) the Spanish monopoly system of trade. As the cabildos gained stature, rivalries arose, serving to aggravate the distinctions that existed between geographical regions. By the time of Bolívar and the other patriots 300 years after Columbus' first voyage, these divisions doomed any continental unity.
In order to administer the great geographical breadth of Spain's holdings in America, a heirarchy of control was established. The control started with the King and Queen of Spain, who appointed Viceroys to govern over what were initially the two great geo-political entities of the empire: Peru and New Spain. The Viceroys were peninsulares (European born Spaniards) who owed great loyalty and allegiance to the Spanish throne. The Viceroys governed their respective states through the audiencia, which served as a sort of court. But as the Empire expanded demographically and economically (but not geographically), it became necessary for the Crown to expand the system of government. In 1739, an additional Viceroy was created in northern South America. Called New Grenada, it was centered in Bogotá. The 18th century saw other changes. The audiencias, which were politicized by creoles (American-born Spaniards) and peninsulares and prone to substantial adminstrative gridlock, were replaced by the intendancy system, which returned control to the hands of more autocratic and decisive Crown servants3. As this shift occured, towns within the empire began setting up cabildos, based on the cabildo abierto used in Spain centuries before. Serving as a sort of local council, these groups were normally made up of creoles (but, depending on the size of the city involved, could also include peninsulares)4.
By the end of the 18th century, the empire had been further divided. A new Viceroyalty was formed in Rio de la Plata (its center in the port of Buenos Aires), and three "captaincy-generals" were formed- one in Guatemala City, on in Cuba, and the last in Caracas. By the turn of the century, Latin America could already by divided into no less than six geo-political entities. Thus, seemingly arbitrary regional distinctions began arising within the Empire. New Spain, dominating the northern sphere of Spain's American influence, took on an identity very different from that of the Rio de la Plata, which occupied the Empire's southern-most region. Although these initial differences were absolutely artificial (based only on the work of Spanish politicians and administrators) as the years passed each area developed unique economic and political characteristics.
As the cabildos were formed, they began to take on regional personalities. The best examples were in Buenos Aires, Lima, and Caracas, where the cabildos could hace influenced real policy decisions. The three cabildos' reactions to the independence movements of the early 19th century illustrate the regional political flavor of the empire. In Buenos Aires, a ten-year old political struggle culminated in the city's creole-led cabildo's declaration of autonomy from Spain and the assumption of governing power from the Spanish King Charles5. In Caracas, similar to in Buenos Aires, the city's cabildo was at the forefront of national autonomy. But, because of a very different political, economic, and military situation, the newly formed junta immediately faced hostile royal opposition from within the colony, and the government fell back into Spanish control6. Finally, the administration of Lima, the central urban area in Peru, never fell to the liberal ideals that toppled the conservative government of Buenos Aires. Instead, Peru was dominated, to the very end (and beyond), by politicians who were fiercly loyal to the Spanish Crown7. These three examples shed light on the distinctions that had developed over three centuries of colonial administration.
But simple geo-political divisions were not the only regional divisions that impaired unity. Economic interests varied greatly within the empire. Although silver mining was the first great source of wealth for the Crown in the New World, it was only a matter of time before the colonial economies began to diversify. With this diversity came the rise of economic influences besides Peru and New Spain. By 1790, both Buenos Aires and Caracas were well established centers of trade. Both were governmental
centers (Buenos Aires was the seat of administration of the Rio de la Plata viceroy, and Caracas was the capital of its captaincy-general and home to an audencia) and were on the short list of ports that had the approval of Spain's intra-empire trade system.
The acceptance of Caracas as a principle port marked its emergence as an economic power on the Caribbean. Of course, other South American ports on the Caribbean competed for the trade of the region's goods. The export of gold mined from New Grenada's mountains helped Cartagena to grow to be one of the Crown's four designated export channels. As the Bourbon reforms swept through Spanish America, Cartagena also became the center of Spanish military power in the Caribbean. Farther south, silver that was mined in Peru, once exported through Lima, began to work its way to the more convenient, protected port of Buenos Aires. At first its export was tightly regulated, even criminalized, by the Crown. But as it became apparent that free trade was more economically beneficial, these restrictions were lifted. To the detriment of Peru, Rio de la Plata became home to southern Latin America's premier ports8.
This diversity of competing interests is also illustrated by the great differences that existed within the empire in its economic systems. While mining in Peru relied heavily on the mita, or native labor draft, subsistence farming in Central America was done largely by Spanish colonists, and cash cropping of sugar in the Caribbean was handled by black African slaves. In New Spain, large plantations relied on the colony's impoverished masses to provide labor.
Thus, as geo-political differences laid the foundation for the colonies' regionalism, economic differences, in terms of role within the empire, policy/administration, and needs, cemented the seperation. When Napoleon's invasion of Portugal and Spain in 1807 unseated King Ferdinand, the responses throughout Spanish America, as discussed above, varied greatly. After fifteen years of fighting across the continent and within Spain, these political and economic differences had determined the national boundaries that, more or less, exist today.
The actual mechanism for the formation of nations was the cabildo. Because every major city had one, cabildos represented the commercial and political base of their regions. Based on the geographical areas demarcated by the Spanish, cabildos began banding together9. Cabildos in and around Buenos Aires formed the nation of Argentina. The people of "upper Peru" split from their more royalist neighbors in Peru proper and formed "Bolivia", electing Bolivar "president for life"10. Even in New Grenada, where Bolivar's liberation had begun, the cabildos were disintegrating his vision of a Gran Colombia. The cabildos in Caracas and surrounding areas broke from the Bolivarian government centered in Bogotá and created their own nation: Venezuela. Similiarily, cabildos in the south-western part of the nation formed a seperate Ecuador. What was once a great continent of people with a common language and history had splintered into a mishmash of almost a dozen countries in Spanish South America alone.
The Spanish stucture of administration for its empire had thus doomed Bolívar's dreams of a trans-continental Latin American nation from the start. Even before Europeans were settling his homeland of Venezuela, the Spanish were laying the
groundwork of regionalism by dividing the area into two great viceroys. From this
foundation, the empire was further subdivided as time passed, preventing forever a unity of politics. Additionally, economic differences began emerging as the great geographical size of the empire impacted Spanish colonial commerce. Finally, the Spanish established the cabildo as a way to govern its holdings. What began as an informal, open council would eventually establish the mechanism for the nationilization of every geo-political division within the empire.
Eduardo Astesano, “La Nación Sudamericana: Indianidad- Negritud- Latinidad”.
Buenos Aires: Ediciones Tematica, 1986. pp. 6-7.
Víctor Andés Belaunde, “Bolivar and the Political Thought of the Spanish American
Revolution”. Octagon Books, 1967. pp. 5-7.
Mark Burkholder and Lyman Johnson, “Colonial Latin America”. Oxford University
Press, 1998. pp. 274-276.
4. Thomas Skidmore and Peter Smith, “Modern Latin America”. Oxford University
Press, 1997. p. 26.
J.B. Trend, “Bolívar and the Independence of Spanish America”. The Bolivarian
Society of Venezuela, 1951. pp. 10-11, 154.