In the spring of 1816, with the backing of the small republic of Haiti, Bolívar launched an invasion of Venezuela. After a disastrous failure, he returned to Haiti. In 1817, he returned to his homeland to lead the revolutionary army. He recruited José Antonio Páez, who led an army of llaneros (plainsmen) and European veterans of the Napoleonic wars. Resuming the war, he occupied part of the lower Orinoco basin. At Angostura (now Ciudad Bolívar) a congress elected him president of Venezuela.
There, in 1819, he conceived his brilliant strategy of attack. With a force made up largely of llaneros under Francisco de Paula Santander and Páez he crossed the flooded Apure valley, climbed the bitterly cold Andean passes, and defeated the surprised Spanish forces at Boyacá (Aug. 7, 1819) in one of the great campaigns of military history. The same year, he was made president of Greater Colombia (present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama). Venezuela's freedom was secure following his victory at Carabobo (June, 1821). Ecuador was liberated when he and Antonio José de Sucre won the battle of Pichincha in May, 1822. In Quito, Bolívar met (1822) the woman who was to accompany him for much of his life, Manuela Sáenz, 1797?–1856, a devoted revolutionary and progressive thinker.
From Quito, Bolívar undertook to free Peru, where the forces of the great Argentine liberator José de San Martín were already operating. At Guayaquíl in July, 1822, Bolívar and San Martín met in secret. What occurred there is still unknown, although speculation continues to this day. The outcome was the withdrawal of San Martín. Bolívar commanded the patriot forces that won at Junín and Ayacucho in 1824, bringing to a victorious conclusion the revolution in South America. He organized the government of Peru, and dispatched Sucre to conquer Alto Perú, which became Bolivia.
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