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Magdalena North: a Canadian's view of Netflix's Bolivar

By Keith Henderson
web posted September 16, 2019

The average family income in the state of Maryland is US$78,000. Chile's is the best in South America, US$24,000, twice as much as Colombia's. Venezuela is a well-known catastrophe.

Bolivar on NetflixWhy? North and South/Central America both began in colonialism, possessed ample natural resources, benefitted from European connections, separated from their imperial roots in the same 90 years between 1775 and 1867, and ought to have pursued parallel trajectories toward power, unity, stability, and prosperity. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, Venezuela the current, most egregious example. Why the difference? Some answers can be found in Netflix' sprawling, 60-part Spanish language (English subtitles) series, Bolivar, more in Gabriel Marquez' The General in his Labyrinth, a sobering, heart-wrenching, sometimes horrific In Memoriam to that same, larger-than-life, Latin American Liberatore, about whom most North Americans, myself included, remain woefully ignorant. 

In 1783, Simon Bolivar was born into a wealthy Creole family whose estates, among the best in Venezuela, lay in the vicinity of Caracas. Raised by a family slave, having lost his father at age 3 and his mother at age 9, in his teenage years Bolivar was shipped off to Europe where he acquainted himself with the writers of the French Revolution and (some say) witnessed Napoleon crown himself emperor of France, an act subsequently ratified by the 1804 constitutional referendum but which Bolivar came (curiously) to disapprove. At 18 he married a young Spanish aristocrat of Venezuelan origin, Maria Teresa del Toro y Alayza, and returned to Caracas, only to see her die nine months later of yellow fever.

One could argue these last were the seminal events of Bolivar's life. Dedicated to personal libertad, he subsequently burnt through countless affairs and never remarried, substituting instead the "love of the people," to whom he was pleased to present himself in the heavy gold-embroidered and epauletted uniform of a conquering general, mounted, like his inspiration, on a ubiquitous white horse. As befits so contradictory an historical figure, Bolivar's ambivalent admiration of Napoleon is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. Napoleonism is what separates him (and 200 years of subsequent Latin American history) from the successes of North America.

On the positive side, Bolivar was a consummate military leader, certainly the equal of Washington, if not superior, in wars of astounding scope and brutality of the sort Goya captured so eloquently in Spain. High among the Bolivar's 79 battles ranks the 1819 crossing of the Andes at Pisba, a pass so dangerous, so cold, and at such altitude his royalist enemies never thought he could negotiate it, though he did, at the cost of a thousand lives of peasant fighters who followed their general despite the fact that they were without coats and even shoes. Bolivar descended the western slopes of the Andes, gathered more men, and in scenes masterfully recounted in the Netflix series, took Santa Maria di Bogota.

Liberals have spent the last 150 years pooh-poohing Thomas Carlyle's "Great Man" theory, mistakenly, I believe, their critiques a variant of the "you didn't build that business" poppycock, a leveller-type "you're no better than we are" fantasy that distrusts genius and anything unique. Bolivar was unique, prodigious, unprecedented. Still, we are creatures of our times and have seen where egomaniacal "greatness", puffed-up poseurs like Il Duce, and mesmerizing screamers like Adolf Hitler, can lead. "Washington's words," writes biographer Marie Arana (Bolivar: American Liberator), "were measured, august, dignified ... the product of a cautious and deliberate mind. Bolivar's speeches and correspondence, on the other hand, were fiery, passionate..., the prose at once lyrical and stately, clever but historically grounded, electric but deeply wise." Can we miss which our biographer prefers? But then, almost in the same breath, she announces that, unlike Washington, Bolivar "came to believe Latin Americans were not ready for a truly democratic government: abject, ignorant, suspicious, they did not understand how to govern themselves...." Electric? Deeply wise? Or tragically misguided, superior, vain, and ultimately corrupt, the very reverse of cautious political dignity and deliberation.

North American revolutionaries had much in their favour, chief among which a unified, white, protestant political and military cadre. Bolivar made much of the difference. A slave owner himself, it took him years to appreciate that non-whites might fight valiantly (if not viciously) for their freedom, a fact that asserted itself more and more clearly as minority plainsmen, led by the cunning and barbaric Boves, defeated him, collapsed his second republic, and sent him fleeing into exile in Haiti. Imagine Washington facing not only British troops but hordes of fighting, vengeful black ex-slaves, all excellent horsemen, bound on reversing a racial hierarchy that had persisted for over 300 years. "Our people are nothing like North Americans," Bolivar later wrote:

It is impossible to say with any certainty to which human race we belong.... This diversity places upon us an obligation of the highest order.... We will require an infinitely firm hand and an infinitely fine tact to manage all the racial division of this heterogenous society.

For South America, a truly democratic system was out of the question. Such a system, he believed, was "so sublime that it might be more fully for a republic of saints."

Consider the hard-won constitutional inheritance jettisoned by such attitudes. Forget Magna Carta. The rule of law is replaced by presidential decree. Term limits don't exist. The best we see is a "president for life" or "dictator of Peru" (both posts Bolivar held) making a semblance of abandoning power, teasing the political élite with the chaos that might thereby ensue, then feigning reluctance at reassuming unquestioned authority – a pattern of behaviour the Liberatore repeated more than once. Checks and balances are scattered to the wind, elections replaced by parades and popular festas, complete with nubile women bestowing laurel wreathes on conquering heroes. Congress becomes a sham, constitutions mere pamphlets to be ripped up and rewritten, federal principles anathema – too divisive, "Unity, unity, unity!" Bolivar's watchword, while disunity and separatism, violence and rapine abound, as regional warlords compete for power. Bolivar's dream of a United States of South America is dispersed, his Gran Colombia quickly segmented into the ancient Spanish vice-royalties that preceded it. Assassination trumps orderly succession, the prime victim General Antonio José de Sucre, Bolivar's political son, substituting for the biological one he never had, shot in the back in the forests of Ecuador.

At the end of his life, beset by tuberculosis, a shadow of his legendary stamina and prowess, escaping popular opprobrium in a boat on the appropriately named Magdalena river, Bolivar tasted the food of his choices. Could there be a more sombre, telling prophesy for the future of a continent? "America is ungovernable," he wrote.

He who serves a revolution ploughs the sea. All one can do in America is leave it. The country is bound to fall into unimaginable chaos, after which it will pass into the hands of an undistinguishable string of tyrants of every colour. Once we are devoured by all manner of crime and reduced to a frenzy of violence, no one will want to subjugate us.

Such are the bitter fruits of Napoleonism. As prescient as Bolivar could be on the battlefield, how could he not have foreseen where his anti-democratic, his anti-constitutional predilections would lead? Could we imagine Washington or Lincoln, not to mention Thomas D'Arcy McGee ever saying such things?

After the death of his wife, Bolivar buried his baptismal garments in her coffin. A notorious womanizer, he might just as well have buried his constancy, both toward democratic norms and in his personal life. Sexual freedom, political freedom: in the general's mind they were the same. He once interrupted the voyage of an entire squadron of ships bound for Venezuela in order to pick up his mistress and her mother on another island. Usually the interruptions went the other way – prosecuting revolution the perfect pretext for abandoning love affairs. He abandoned many, throughout the Caribbean, sometimes more than once, as he did to the great love of his later life, the woman who twice saved his life, his mujer loca, Manuelita Sáenz.

The illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Quito businessman, Manuela Sáenz was raised in a nunnery. A less “conventy,” docile young girl would be hard to imagine. After jumping from the convent window to pursue an affair with a royalist officer, Manuela, played with glamorous aplomb by California-educated, Colombian actress Shany Nadan, submitted to her father’s demands and married James Thorne, a British-born trader 20 years her senior. “The lobster,” she called him, whom Arana described as a “portly, stuffy, middle-aged fuddy-duddy,” though (felicitously, as it turns out) Netflix cast the basketball player sized, six-foot-nine Tim Jannsen in the role. Plainly unhappy with her lobster, “as jealous as a Portuguese,” Manuela followed Bolivar’s revolutionary ascent from a distance and when he entered Quito in triumph she made sure to be noticed, the start of their powerful, scandal-ridden, tragically moving love affair.  

As played by Nadan, Netflix's Manuela Sáenz is feisty, gritty, beautiful – well-matched to Luis Gerónimo Abreu's immensely credible Bolivar. She insists on fighting at the front, dances with him in his victory celebrations, nurses him through his increasingly violent coughing fits, spirits him hurriedly out of bedroom windows, and bars the way to her lover's would-be assassins with the butt of her rifle. Despite all this overweening loyalty and pluck, Bolivar often refuses to allow her to accompany him on his frequent military excursions, sometimes lasting for months, shows no unwillingness to share her with her lobster, avoids commitment, asks her for "time," relents, then slips away again, suggesting that she's too untoward, that she embarrasses him, (using puppets, she'd organized a mock execution of his rival, Santander), that she doesn't understand the proprieties demanded of a "president for life." In occasional scenes in the film, Nadan's Manuelita does approximate the mistress's excesses. She drinks and swears with her ribald soldier buddies and smokes cigars, but there's never quite the degree of rambunctious eccentricity Gabriel Marquez depicts in The General in his Labyrinth, where Manuelita travels to meet her general,

in a caravan worthy of Gypsies, with her trunks on the backs of a dozen mules, her immortal slave-women, and eleven cats, six dogs, three monkeys educated in the arts of palace obscenities, a bear trained to thread needles, and nine cages of parrots and macaws that railed against Santander in three languages.  

The final months of Bolivar's life represent a tragic guttering out, of physical energy, of political aspiration, of spirit, of love. Surrounded by an almost universal opprobrium in Bogota, denied the right to return to his birthplace – Venezuela, now a separate, hostile republic – penniless, mortally ill, bereft of his beloved Manuelita whom he never saw again, and accompanied only by a few loyal supporters, Bolivar journeyed northward down the Magdalena River, stopping at Honda, at Mompox, at Barranca Nueva, his goal ostensibly exile in Europe, but his true destination emptying himself into eternity. Unable to eat, beset by bouts of delirium, compounded by the sweltering humidity of these river towns and the Magdalena itself, brown and infested with crocodiles, Bolivar died on December 17, 1830, having been removed by ship to the more salubrious island of Santa Marta, at the time an enclave of Spain. In a modest ceremony, he was buried in a tomb in the island's cathedral walls. His beloved Manuelita suffered a similar fate. Exiled from Bogota by Santander, whom she loathed, she landed in Paita, as Arana describes it, "a tiny fishing village on the coast of Peru," where she sold cigars and sweets and did translations for passing whalers, "consoled in her abandonment," writes Marquez, by memorable visitors like Garibaldi and Herman Melville.

Most Russians think Vladimir Lenin, embalmed and on open display in a Moscow mausoleum, should be given a decent burial. Venezuelans have the opposite problem. They can't seem to leave Simon Bolivar's body alone. In 1842, only a dozen years after his death, his arch-nemesis, Paez, began the first of a series of desecrations. He disentombed the general, to please Colombians left his heart preserved in a small urn in the Santa Marta cathedral, and buried him (to take advantage of his popularity) in the same Caracas to which he'd denied him access twelve years before. Thirty years later, another Venezuelan dictator dug him up again and reburied him in a newly constructed "National Pantheon." Hugo Chavez followed the same path in 2010. He ripped up the constitution, rewrote it, declared Venezuela a "Bolivarian Republic," and performed the ritual disinterment, this time along with a handful of Paita dirt labelled "the symbolic remains of Manuela Sáenz," destined for reburial in the same National Pantheon. Bolivar's exhumation was for a very special purpose: to perform a socialist DNA test. The general had been poisoned, hadn't he? By "Colombian autocrats" no less. But Chavez' results proved inconclusive.

Conclusive beyond a shadow of a doubt is the fact that Manuela Sáenz did not accompany Bolivar on his final voyage down the fated Magdalena River. He left her behind, as he so often did, and in his bouts of delirium kept calling out for her, though they were never reunited. In his lucid moments, Bolivar was able to prepare his will. He left nothing to his Manuelita. Bolivar cared little for personal commitment in love. It seems he had the same indifference to Edmund Burke's wisdom of preceding generations, bequeathed to us in the form of judgment and settled law, the basis of what we've come to call "peace, order, and good government," what may well constitute the defining difference between North and South America.

Conclusive too (in an ironic way) are the modesty and simplicity of Bolivar's Santa Marta cathedral tomb, not to mention Manuelita's unmarked grave in Peru, quiet pointers not to the political theatrics of dictators, South America's endless parade of Caudillos, Juan Peron, Augusto Pinochet, Fidel Castro, but to the cautious political dignity and deliberation of a Washington or a Thomas D'Arcy McGee. For Canadians, the lessons are particularly poignant, Bolivar's life and legacy clear reminders of the dangers of disrespecting constitutions and the rule of law, of playing the Napoleon card, conducting referenda on the future of the country (which we did twice, in 1980 and 1995) without the slightest legal framework surrounding the results. To this day, the leaders of Quebec's political élite play Paez to the rest of Canada's "Gran Colombia." They refuse to sign constitutions, use their demurral to blackmail the rest of the country into absurd political concessions, pump up French generals by naming bridges after them, pretend to have the authority to set their legal status within the federation (or out of it) all by themselves, and disparage the amending formula, the only mechanism that could enable legally sanctioned change. We have our own inheritors of Bolivar and the Bolivarian tradition. The trouble is most Canadians don't know it. ESR

Keith Henderson is former leader of Quebec’s Equality Party and author of Acqua Sacra (DC Books 2016), a crime novel detailing Quebec, Italian, and Libyan construction company corruption.        

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