The magnificent seven

Liberators: Latin America's struggle for independence 1810-1830

Robert Harvey <em>John Murray, 561

Telling the story of Latin American independence through biography is a good idea and a necessary corrective to the tendency in academe to see this struggle against the Spanish crown in terms of economics, class conflict, Creole versus peninsular Spaniard, positivism versus Catholicism - anything, in fact, rather than the hard fighting and dying that was actually involved. Robert Harvey has identified a "magnificent seven" as his hero liberators: Sebastian de Miranda (Venezuela), Simon BolIvar (Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador), Jose de San MartIn (Peru), Bernardo O'Higgins (Chile), AgustIn Iturbide (Mexico), Lord Thomas Cochrane (Chile) and Emperor Pedro I of Brazil.

As a narrative historian, Harvey is excellent, and his account of the hedonistic Miranda and the death-driven BolIvar is a pleasure to read. His research on BolIvar has led him to conclusions that he sometimes seems reluctant to accept. BolIvar was a fanatic: he betrayed Miranda to the Spanish; double-crossed San MartIn at the famous meeting in Guayaquil in 1822; beheaded prisoners of war; and slaughtered all civilians (even peaceful ones) who refused to back him openly. BolIvar believed, and issued proclamations to the effect, that all military enemies were by definition guilty of "war crimes", and that, consequently, the rules of war did not apply. BolIvar's example has informed the entire bloody history of 19th-century caudillismo and 20th-century military dictatorship in Latin America; in this respect, his spiritual descendants are Galtieri and Pinochet.

Overawed by the legend of BolIvar the liberator, Harvey wavers between myth and fact: he describes him as "a figure of megalomania and evil, one of the great monsters of history", as well as a "great man . . . transcendental monument". Harvey's sympathies are clearly with the less flashy and more reserved San MartIn, but he never claims that he was the greater figure. Without San MartIn's great victories at Chacabuco and Maipu in 1817-18, BolIvar could not have triumphed at Boyaca in 1819, nor could his strong right arm, Antonio Jose de Sucre, have finished off the Spanish at Ayacucho in 1824.

Despite Harvey's highly readable narrative, and his entertaining asides on the lubricious charms of the women of the various liberators, he goes astray in two main areas. First, his choice of three of the liberators seems eccentric. Admiral Cochrane, his brilliant qualities notwithstanding, was a super-grade mercenary, not a nationalist deliverer. Iturbide, the short-lived Emperor of Mexico, was what Australians call a "one-pot screamer". As for Pedro I, he was not a liberator in any sense. "It would be easy to dismiss him as a lightweight," Harvey writes. Not just easy, but deadly accurate. Pedro I before and after 1822 was rather like Emperor Hirohito before and after 1945, but nobody would seriously suggest that Hirohito's survival under MacArthur makes him a liberator. Three much more deserving candidates might have been Sucre (in Bolivia), Artigas (Uruguay) and Francia (Paraguay).

Harvey's second fault is his wobbly contextualisation of the struggles. His knowledge of the hemisphere outside his chosen 20 years is shaky, and the thumbnail sketch of 19th- century Paraguay, with Francis and the Lopez family predictably cast as mindless villains, is gross caricature. So, too, is his bizarre description of Rosas and Urquiza in Argentina as "gaucho thugs", which tells us more about Harvey than the River Plate. He also argues that the independence movement in Latin America was military and aristocratic, whereas in the US it was economic and middle-class - hence the different cultures and histories. But the cults of the lawyer in Latin America and of "no duty to retreat" armed violence in the US have far more importance than is allowed for in such an unnuanced classification.

Even more puzzling is Harvey's Panglossian conclusion, when he allows himself the pious hope that "a vicious circle of political and economic underdevelopment in Latin America . . . may now have been broken". Try telling that to the miners of the Bolivian altiplano or, indeed, any inhabitant of cartel- ridden Colombia.

This article first appeared in the 22 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Hacking their way to a fortune