CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ She was the lover of one of Latin America's greatest heroes, Simon Bolivar, and one of his most trusted confidants.

But Manuela Saenz spent her last 25 years despised and destitute, selling tobacco in a dusty port in northern Peru and translating letters North American whale hunters wrote their lovers in Latin America.

``Manuelita'' died in disgrace during a diphtheria epidemic in 1856. Now, 142 years after her body was dumped in a mass grave and her belongings _ including most of Bolivar's love letters _ were burned, many Latin Americans are starting to think of her as one of the continent's greatest heroines.

``She really is perhaps the most important woman in Latin American history,'' Venezuelan historian Denzil Romero says. ``She had more political influence than even Eva Peron,'' the former first lady of Argentina popularized in the play ``Evita.''

Books and newspaper articles in Bolivar's native Venezuela finally are painting flattering portraits of the independence hero's lover of eight years. Two movies are in production that portray her as more than simply Bolivar's mistress; she is also a liberated, intelligent woman who played an important role in the revolution.

The demonization of Saenz has dissipated faster elsewhere in Latin America. She is considered a national heroine in Ecuador, and Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote warmly of her in his 1989 novel, ``The General in His Labyrinth.''

But for years, a moralistic streak among Venezuelans condemned Saenz as the adulterous lover of a demigod, writer Muriel Pilkington said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

Historians left her out of their books and authorities destroyed or hid letters and documents that referred to her, Victor Von Hagen writes in his authoritative 1989 biography, ``The Four Seasons of Manuela.''

As recently as the mid-1980s a proposal to erect a bust of Saenz in a square in the Andean mountain city of Merida provoked fierce opposition from the Catholic Church.

Her detractors describe her as immoral and promiscuous, said Venezuelan director Diego Risquez, whose movie ``Manuela Saenz'' is to be released next year.

Bolivar freed Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia _ the country named after him _ from Spanish rule, but died hated and disgraced after his dreams of a united South America collapsed in a power struggle. His lover's reputation fell under the same cloud.

Bolivar's reputation eventually was restored, and he became one of the region's most revered historical figures. But it has taken much longer for Saenz to get her due in a culture where politicians' mistresses are widely accepted as long as they stay in the background.

Former President Carlos Andres Perez tried to keep his relationship with Cecilia Matos relatively private although Venezuelans were aware the couple had two children. Jaime Lusinchi's mistress, Blanca Ibanez, accompanied the president on a state visit to Spain in the 1980s, provoking mild disgust.

Venezuelans are reassessing Saenz, an elegant, audacious woman who read the Greek and Latin classics. She was a highly decorated colonel in the independence army, and some considered her a pioneer for women's rights.

Born in 1797 as the illegitimate daughter of a Spanish aristocrat in Quito, Ecuador, she grew up in a Catholic convent. Her father forced her to marry an English businessman whom she despised and later left.

She secretly raised money and distributed propaganda for the independence movement before she even met Bolivar at a ball honoring his triumphant entry into Quito in 1822.

They spent the last eight years of his life together _ far longer than any of his other lovers. Bolivar was only 19 when his wife of eight months died, and he swore he would never marry again.

Saenz challenged some of Bolivar's ideas and served as his eyes and ears to detect rebellion in the army.

When mutinous officers rushed through the presidential palace in Bogota, Colombia, one night in 1828, she helped him to escape through a window. Bolivar dubbed her ``The Liberator of the Liberator.''

``It was a relationship of equals,'' Romero said.

After Bolivar's death in 1830, Saenz was barred from Colombia and her native Ecuador. Destitute, she lived out her days in the seedy northern port of Paita, Peru. She was disabled when the wooden stairs in her home, weakened by termites, collapsed.

Herman Melville, on a whaling expedition in 1841 that reached the northern tip of Peru, sought her out. Von Hagen, in his biography of Saenz, quotes Melville as saying of her: ``I admire you, not as the victor crowned by honors, but as the defeated.''