Simón Bolívar, El Libertador

The great hero of Latin American independence, Simón Bolívar, was born in Caracas on July 24, 1783, into a criolla family of the city's commercial cacao elite. The second of four children, young Simón lost both parents by the time he was 9 years old. Raised by an uncle and sent to private schools in both Venezuela and Europe, Bolívar was well educated and erudite. In 1802, while in Europe, he met and married María Teresa Rodríguez del Toro, a Spanish aristocrat. However, María Teresa died of yellow fever just a few months later, soon after the couple's return to Venezuela. Despondent, Bolívar sought solace in travel.

His travels following the death of his wife brought him into direct contact with the leaders of and results of both the French and American revolutions. In Europe, he also met famed scientist and explorer Alexander von Humbolt, who further sowed the seeds of Bolívar's revolutionary work. Humbolt allegedly told Bolívar that South America was ripe for freedom but lacked a charismatic leader to lead the struggle.

Upon his return to Venezuela, Bolívar began political opposition to Spanish rule and, soon after that, armed struggle. By 1812, he had taken over the Venezuelan independence movement and spent most of the next 20 years in armed combat. Bolívar mounted a series of impressive long-range campaigns against Spain that are still admired and studied. He ultimately liberated the area comprising modern-day Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. However, his dream of a united "Gran Colombia" never took hold, and Bolívar himself fell quickly out of political favor following the defeat of the Spanish.

Bolívar may have set the model for military men seizing and dictating political power throughout Latin America. He was an eloquent and stirring orator. In private, he was also renowned for his saucy tongue and numerous affairs. His most famous lover, Manuela Sáenz, was an Ecuadorian woman who saved him from an assassination attempt. Their story is immortalized in Gabriel García Márquez's The General in His Labyrinth.

Bolívar died of tuberculosis on December 17, 1830, in Santa Marta, Colombia, nearly broke and on his way to living in self-imposed exile in Europe. Twelve years later, in 1842, his remains were interred in Caracas. In 1876, they were ceremoniously transferred to the Panteón Nacional. Today, his presence and legacy are omnipresent in Venezuela: The principal public park in every town and city bears his name, as does the country's currency.

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