South Americans have long admired the U.S. model of democracy (at least until six years ago), but historically, have never been able to fully realize this ideal in their own governments. While a number of Spanish American countries are starting to move in that direction, it has taken nearly two hundred years and a great deal of social and political upheaval. Simón Bolívar, the “Father of South American Independence,” eventually realized that the Spanish-speaking countries of his time lacked what he defined as a “political culture,” and therefore any sort of U.S.-style democracy would be long in taking root, if indeed it ever did. The reasons are to be found in contemporary forms of South American government as well as attitudes and ideas regarding the notions of liberty, equality and what constituted “representative government.”
Revolutions in North America, France and Haiti had in the late eighteenth century made great impressions on the inhabitants of Venezuela. These impressions ranged from admiration to revulsion and apprehension. The North American war of independence was seen as having resulted in the “moderate” practice of liberty, whereas the French revolution “conjured up visions of savagery…rather than political and social redemption.” 1 The Haitian revolution of 1803, having started as a slave uprising, was the fulfillment of every white slave owner’s worst nightmares, and caused understandable apprehension among the slaveholding gentry. 2
Unlike most of the United States, the social hierarchy was not necessarily a simple matter of skin color. It is true that nearly all black Africans were slaves; however there was a class of free blacks as well as mestizos – people of mixed Indian and European blood, and zambos, who were of Indian and African ancestry. Many of the creoles – white Europeans native to the New World – had some small amount of Indian and/or African ancestry.3 Despite the specter of slave rebellion, most whites were concerned about the pardos – “brown” people of mixed African and European ancestry who constituted nearly fifty percent of the population. 4 Pardos worked as salaried employees, and some had managed to acquire property. Like free blacks, pardos were legally barred from obtaining a higher education and therefore could not enter the professions. The law and social custom also prevented pardos from marrying whites, and subjected them to other forms of institutionalized discrimination; however, the colonial authorities – who were peninsulares from Spain – did not always enforce these laws. This allowed some pardos to become professionals and accumulate significant wealth. The fact that pardos might have equal rights with peninsulares and creoles was also of great concern to the gentry as well as middle- and lower-class white, seen as a threat to the established order.5
Bolívar was the son of an aristocratic family, but there is no evidence to suggest that he shared the racial attitudes of his class. In later life, he did express concern about the increasing political and social influence of the pardos, yet insisted on legal equality for all citizens, regardless of race.6
In any event, the revolutions in North America, France and Haiti had begun to reinforce an idea that the creoles had long been considering: that the monarchal and theocratic Spanish form of government was simply obsolete and irrelevant. Unlike governments such as that depend upon force and terror, Spanish rule was based on loyalty to a paternalistic “father figure,” backed by the authority of God through Holy Catholic Church. Ideas of the Enlightenment filtering in from North America and Europe (to which Bolívar had been repeatedly exposed in his youth and in the course of his extensive travels) and other issues had served to undermine the image and credibility of the Spanish Crown.7 On the other hands, many creoles feared that the removal of Spanish authority would bring about a revolt in which they might lose their own power. In the end, the ineffectiveness of the local peninsulare authorities, combined with the intervention of Napoleon in Spain, led to the first rebellion and formation of the first Venezuelan Republic in 1810. It did not last; the patriots were unable to hold on to the rural areas outside the capital city. An outright declaration of independence on 3 July 1812 was rejected by numerous creoles and even people of color. Next, an earthquake later that year killed 15-20,000 people and was seen as Divine judgment. Many royalist-held areas were unaffected, leading many to believe that God was angered by the rebellion. Finally, there was the problem that would ultimately undermine Bolívar’s dream of a united Spanish America: the fact that the idea of Venezuela as a unified nation was not particularly ingrained in the people’s imagination. Venezuela was a collection of provinces that had been brought together little more than three decades before, and local, regional loyalties took precedence.8
The issue of regional and localized loyalties was exacerbated by economics and racial tensions as well as geography. In a document dated December of 1812, Bolivar made an appeal for unity. The “Cartegena Manifesto” called upon Venezuelans to help in winning back the country. He wrote of the reasons of why he thought the rebellion had failed – including “patriots’ lack of energy” in their opposition, as well as a certain political idealism. A U.S.-style federalist government would be too weak to stand, he felt, writing: “Is there a country anywhere…capable of ruling itself during times os unrest…by a system as complicated and weak as a federalist government?” 9 By the time Bolívar was ready to carry on the struggle for independence, most of the upper classes, wearied by years of warfare, had abandoned the idea.10 Most of Bolívar’s support came from the lower classes as well as blacks, mestizos and pardos. On the other hand, one of Bolívar’s commanders, a pardo named Manuel Piar, had attempted to undermine Bolívar’s authority, which created fears the old racial tensions between the pardos and the old gentry might be exploited in order to foil the latter’s attempts to create a new republic. Bolívar also failed to win over the fiercely independent llaneros – horsemen who herded wild cattle on the high plains, fearing that the establishment of Bolívar’s republic would lead to the end of their way of life.
By now, republican guerillas and revolutionary supporters had scattered throughout the Caribbean and Mexico, where they represented little threat to Spanish authority. Bolivar perceived that the real heart of any independence movement was to be found outside the Spanish sphere of control. His first destination was British-held Jamaica, where he presented the case for revolution to whatever audiences he could find. In many ways, it was bluster. In a document known as the “Jamaica Letter,” dated September of 1815, Bolivar defends his views on independence, taking it for granted that the struggle will be successful – despite the defeat suffered by the rebels and Spain’s considerable remaining power. Bolivar also comments on the lack of material support from the U.S. and European powers, with whom he felt Spanish-Americans had a great deal in common. His greatest insight, however, is in his evaluation of the present and future of Spanish America – “neither Indian nor European, but a species midway between the legitimate proprietors of this country and the Spanish usurpers.” 10
Eventually, Bolívar was able to realize his dream of a united political entity when in 1825, the Republic of Bolivia was created and brought into Gran Columbia – the nation he had forged only through years of warfare. Within a year however, the new nation began to fall apart. In April of 1826, a regional issue in Valencia, Venezuela which had been smoldering began to flare up into rebellion. Caracas considered having to take orders from a “Columbian government located in the heart of the Andes” to be an “affront to its dignity.” 11 Alleged scandals surrounding Bolívar’s vice-president, Francisco Santander and a controversy over his election further served to undermine Venezuela’s participation in the union. By 1828, Bolívar’s supporters called on him to assume dictatorial powers in order to preserve the union. Eventually, Bolívar agreed, if his fellow citizens would consent.
Despite his assumption of those powers, inter-regional conflicts continued to cause fissures. Alleged support by the Peruvian government of mutineers and questions about Bolívar’s personal life continued to threaten the coherence of the nation. By April of 1830, it was apparent that the nation Bolívar had struggled to create was doomed to disintegrate. He resigned as president and planned to go into exile.12 The nation of Gran Columbia did not long survive his departure, succumbing to the pressures of special, localized interests that had little interest in liberal, republican ideals.
In short, Spanish America, while desiring to separate from Spain, was not yet ready to give up the old Spanish institutions that were incompatible with republican democracy.