Hispanic Heritage Month: When Bolívar and San Martín decided the fate of South America

On a hot day in July of 1822 in the Ecuadorean port city of Guayaquil, the two men who did more to shape the borders of modern Latin America than anyone else met in a small room in Guayaquil’s city hall for a meeting where both egos and political philosophies clashed.

When Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín sat down to discuss the future of Peru and South America as a whole, both were decorated military commanders responsible for freeing much of the region from Spanish rule. While both held a mutual admiration for each other, both also wanted the glory of finally defeating Spain’s forces in South American once and for all.

The remnants of Spain’s once-mighty army were holed up on the high ground around Cuzco in what it now modern day Bolivia. And while the force was weakened tremendously by battles with both Bolívar and San Martín, the armies of both liberation fighters were thought not strong enough to defeat the Spanish on their own.

During their four-hour discussion and following evening banquet, Bolívar and San Martín’s similarities and disparities arose in talks that would not only shape the history of modern Latin America but also make one of these brilliant military commanders one of the most famed men in western history while the other one would quietly slip out of history’s limelight.

To better understand what brought these two leaders to this Ecuadorean port city in 1822 – and the events that occurred later – one must first know who both Bolívar and San Martín are.

Known as the Liberator throughout much of Latin America, Bolívar was born in 1783 into an aristocratic family in what it today Caracas, Venezuela but spent much of his child being educated in Spain. He returned to Venezuela in 1807 and quickly got his first taste of the revolutionary life when he joined in the resistance movement following Napoleon naming Joseph Bonaparte King of Spain and its colonies.

By 1810, the resistance had proved successful and Bolívar traveled to Britain on a diplomatic mission. Keeping close watch on the turbulent situation engulfing Venezuela while he was away, Bolívar returned to Caracas and soon after had amassed a group of followers who eventually founded the Venezuelan Second Republic in 1813.

The Liberator, as he was now dubbed, was soon forced to flee to Jamaica after civil war erupted in Venezuela and it was in the Caribbean where Bolívar penned his now famous “Letter from Jamaica, which called for a South American republic with a parliamentary setup modeled after England and a life-long president – something for which he was later heavily criticized.

Bolívar was able to rally support and returned to South America, where he successfully began the “liberation” of the continent. By 1821, Bolivar was the leader of Gran Colombia – a massive country that included modern day Colombia, Panama, Ecuador and parts of Brazil and Guyana.

It was on the heels of these victories that Bolívar met his independence counterpart and rival, San Martín, in Guayaquil.

Born in the military life, San Martín certainly had the resume and experience to carry out his successful campaigns throughout South America.

While he was born in northern Argentina in 1778, his solider father moved the family back to Spain when he was 6 years old and the young San Martín quickly begin his military career as a cadet in the Murcia infantry regiment. He distinguished himself in the Spanish military fighting the Moors, the British and the Portuguese and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel while fighting against the Napoleonic forces.

San Martín’s home nation of Argentina wasn’t ever far from his mind and hearing of a revolt in 1812 against the Spanish, the soldier resigned from his post in the military and sailed for Buenos Aires to join the patriot forces, where he helped train troops and lead the successful independence of Argentina in 1814.

For three years he trained his newly formed Army of the Andes to attack the Spanish in Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, which by 1821 he had successfully defeated and was named supreme protector of Peru. The Spanish, however, still had their forces up in the highlands when Peru’s supreme protector sat down to discuss the future of the region with the dictator of Gran Colombia, Bolívar.

San Martín realizes that he will be unable to defeat the Spanish forces on his own and instead offers to serve under Bolívar in the joint enterprise – a move the Liberator rejects.

Realizing there is no clear way to save face, San Martín ultimately relinquishes control of Peru to Bolívar and discreetly sails out of Guayaquil harbor. Bolívar would go on to annex Ecuador into Gran Colombia and free Peru from the clutches of Spain, while San Martín eventually retired back to Europe where he died in 1850.

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