"War to the Death": A Brief History of Venezuelan Independence
The first European to sight the coast of Venezuela was Christopher Columbus during his third voyage to the New World in 1498. Initially assuming it was another island; the explorer landed and in his encounter with the natives, acquired ornamental pearls. These precious goods enticed Spain to explore further. The following year, an expedition led by Alfonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci led to the discovery of Lake Maracaibo, located in the northwest of the country. The natives’ huts were set on poles around the shore, which reminded Ojeda of Venice, inspiring him to name the land Venezuela, or “Little Venice”. The relation with the natives however was not so pleasant, and in a minor skirmish twenty were slain and five taken captive. This clash marked the first instance of blood being spilt in the name of Spain in South America. Certainly, a great deal more would follow. In 1810, Venezuela became the vanguard of a continental conflict that resulted in the expulsion of Spain from the New World.
Pre-revolutionary Venezuela could be characterized as a land dealt initially with indifference by the Spanish crown, yet a land rich in resources, and populated by diverse peoples. The Aztec and Incan empires never reached the boundaries of present-day Venezuela. Notes Venezuela: A Country Study , the indigenous population lacked cohesive, unified organization. The tribes mainly existed independently. Some were nomadic while others lived in villages with sophisticated agricultural techniques, including irrigation and terracing. According to the Area Handbook for Venezuela , many of these tribes were hostile, militaristic societies. This lack of unity and warrior society made in difficult for Spain to subjugate the population. With one exception, Chief Guaicaipuro, of the Carib tribe, raised an army of ten thousand to terrorize Spanish settlers. The warriors were eventually routed, when in 1568, a Spanish troop raided Guaicaipuro’s camp at night and murdered him. This uprising did not dissuade the Spanish from continuing to raid the country. They established slave factories in Coro and El Tocuyo, whose legacy accounts for the fact that by the 1750s, only ten percent of the population was indigenous.
Venezuela has rich arable land, with a vast amount of natural resources, including tobacco, cattle, and cocoa. However, these resources were largely ignored throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries due to Spain’s preoccupation with gold bullion. The Crown continued to seek the mythical El Dorado in other regions of the Americas and viewed Venezuela as mainly a location to acquire slaves. Additionally, due to its long coast stretching from Panama out towards the Caribbean islands, it was primarily used as a natural watchtower for Spanish cargo ships transporting gold. Petroleum was discovered, as early as 1500, but of course with the lack of the internal combustion engine, there was not much use for it until four centuries later. In 1528, this disinterest in the country led to a contract between Spain and a German banking firm, the House of Wesler. At this time, Charles I of Spain was vying for the title of Holy Roman Emperor, and used this contract as a way of paying for his “campaign”. For the next twenty-eight years, German governors ruled, until 1556, when the contract ended.
With the contract suspended, Spanish settling resumed. This was further encouraged by the upswing of the African slave trade, which promoted migration to the country and excelled the production of the agricultural goods, mainly cocoa. By the 1700s, Venezuela became five distinct provinces, Caracas, Cumaná, Mérida de Maracaibo, Barinas, and Guayana. All of which exercised local autonomy. The social hierarchy of the period would play an important role in the coming revolution. At the top were the penisulares, those born in Spain, present in a nominal percentage. Next, considered the pivotal group in the independence movement, the criollos, born in America by Spanish parents, constituted roughly twenty percent of the population. Following the aristocratic classes were themestizos and pardos, who represented roughly fifty percent of the population by the mid-1700s. The former were people descended from mixed Spanish and indigenous parents. The latter were mixed Spanish and African. At the bottom were the African slaves, who constituted twenty percent of the population, followed by the indigenous, roughly ten percent. In 1728, in order to stop British and Dutch merchants from stealing profits from Spanish merchants, the Crown granted exclusive trade rights to the Caracas Company.
The monopoly of the Caracas Company made the Venezuelan farmers indignant. The Company offered them low rates for their goods and charged excessive prices for imports. This strife led to the first insurrection against the Spanish throne. In 1749, a revolt led by a poor farmer, Juan Francisco de León, was squelched tragically by Brigadier General Felipe Ricardos. Ricardos was later made governor of Caracas in 1751. In 1777, Venezuela was granted political authority, centralized in Caracas. In 1786, the Audiencia of Caracas was created and local cabildos (town councils), seated with criollos, were formed, strengthening local government. Indignation and defiance continued to grow. More diminutive uprisings occurred in 1795, 1797, and 1799.
The Murmurs of Revolt
Francisco de Miranda was a key figure in the outset of the Revolution. Miranda was born in 1750, into the wealthy criollos class in Caracas. He was educated in Europe, and became enraptured by the liberal ideals of the French Revolution. Though he lived outside of his home country for thirty years, John Charles Chasteen, in Americanos, suggests that he “styled” himself a revolutionary and never diverged from his desire to liberate Venezuela. Miranda was acquainted with several notable figures. He met and befriended George Washington during the American Revolution. He also knew John Adams, Thomas Paine, and Russia’s Catherine the Great. The Area Handbook for Venezuela refers to him as the “Morning Star of the Spanish American Revolution”, named so because of the events that unfolded in 1806, four years before Venezuela would renounce their allegiance to the Spanish Crown. Miranda had been making preparations to liberate Venezuela nearly his entire adult life. In 1805, he requested aid from then-president Thomas Jefferson, who refused because the U.S. was not at war with Spain and did not intend to be. Miranda eventually receives finance from the British and in 1806, hires mercenaries mainly from the U.S. On August 2nd of that year, this small force of a few hundred men entered the city of Coro, believing the inhabitants would welcome them. In reality, all they found was a deserted town, whose inhabitants had heard of Miranda’s voyage, and did not want any part of it. After eleven days in country, Miranda received intelligence that local militias were gathering to thwart him, and his small army fled back to the United States. The first liberation attempt was a crushing failure. Chasteen posits that it was because Miranda sought to persuade Venezuelans with French liberal ideas alone, that he was unsuccessful in convincing them of. The dynamics of the population were much more complex.
The indignation of the farmers and the influence of the French Revolution on many of the elites laid the cornerstones for the Venezuelan desire for independence. The Napoleonic Wars in Europe was essential in precipitating the movement as well. In 1808, Napoleon invades Spain. At the time, the Spanish people were infuriated by their king, Charles IV’s, lackluster leadership. Charles is forced to abdicate his throne, and his son Ferdinand VII is crowned king. Ferdinand and the royal family are taken captive by Napoleon’s invading forces. In 1810, Napoleon appoints his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, king of Spain, which sparks a four-year guerrilla war between loyalists and French forces. Venezuela capitalizes on this chaos as the Caracas cabildo refuses to recognize Joseph as king. On April 19, 1810, the cabildo names itself a junta, a political and military group, which they claim in the name of Ferdinand VII. The junta deposes the Caracas governor, Vicente Emparán. On July 5, 1811, Venezuela declares independence. Later that year, on December 21st, the first constitution is written, giving birth to the First Republic.
La Patria Boba
The Revolution had a tumultuous beginning. Historians know the First Republic as La Patria Boba, or “the Silly Republic” (Venezuela, A Country Study). This was because the cabildos of Coro, Maracaibo, and Guayana never recognized the declaration of independence, preferring rule by Joseph, across the Atlantic. According to Venezuela, A Country Study, the formative years of the revolution was a “racially defined civil war”. Pardos and llaneros (cowboys) were denied the rights given to the criollos. Pardos were at an even greater disadvantage because they faced growing contempt from the white elites. Chasteen notes, the Spanish monarchy, in the 1790s granted pardos the ability to become legally “white”, and that, before the law passed, “pardos…could not do certain things associated with high social rank – such as ride a horse, wear silk, carry a sword, or study at a seminary – reserving those honors for bona fide (white) americanos” (19) (“americanos” is Chasteen’s term for criollos). Therefore, criollos continued to discriminate against them after independence was declared. The llaneros also felt that the revolutionary movement did not represent them. They were mainly poor plainsmen. One of them, José Tomás Boves, unified the llaneros, which would compose most of the royalist forces in the early years of fighting. In April 1812, Miranda was named supreme commander. The lack of unity led to the defeat of Miranda’s forces by the Spanish General Domingo Monteverde on July 25, 1812. Miranda was taken prisoner, and dies in a Spanish prison in 1816. The second in command, a sophisticated gentleman of the Venezuelan elite, Simon Bolívar Palacios, flees to New Granada (present-day Columbia), which had also recently declared its independence.
Simon Bolívar shares many similarities with his predecessor Miranda. However, where Miranda met defeat with more failure, Bolívar suffered defeat only to retaliate with glorious conquest and a lofty aspiration to see all of Latin America united under one banner. Born in 1783 to a prestigious Venezuelan family, Bolívar went to live with his uncles in Europe after being orphaned at age nine. Like Miranda, he was educated there and became fascinated with the Enlightenment and French Revolution. While in Spain, he met María Teresa Rodríguez de Toro, from a family of equal social status, and married her in Madrid. The couple returned to Venezuela and owned a sugar plantation. Tragically, after a few months of marriage, María contracted a tropical fever and died in January 1803. Several years later, in 1822, Bolívar meets Manuela Sáenz, who would be his mistress for the rest of his life. In 1813, after gaining notoriety for military victories in Columbia, Bolívar was given an army to take back to Venezuela. He declares the infamous “War to the Death”, in which he delivers an ultimatum to all Spanish and royalist forces. On August 7th, 1813, he defeats Spanish forces in Caracas and is named “El Libertador”. The Second Republic is created with Bolívar assuming dictatorial powers.
The Second Republic
Chasteen notes that the Second Republic was more “precarious” than the first had been. True, Bolívar had liberated Caracas, but most of Venezuela was still held by royalist forces. José Tomás Boves, the leader of the llaneros, defeats Bolívar at the Battle of La Puerta in September of 1814. Additionally, Napoleon is defeated at the Battle of Waterloo the same year, and King Ferdinand VII sends reinforcements that further hinder the independence movement. Bolívar flees to Jamaica, effectively ending the Second Republic. Boves, however, dies while attempting to eradicate the revolutionary’s remaining forces. His death becomes fortuitous to the Venezuelan cause because his successor, José Antonio Páez, refocuses the llaneros ambitions, effectively convincing them that the true enemy is Spain and not the revolutionary elites from Caracas.
In exile, Bolívar composes the “Jamaica Letter”, which is largely a call for British aid (Chasteen). From Jamaica, Bolívar moves to Haiti, where he recruits British veterans from the Napoleonic Wars. In 1817, Bolívar returns to force his way back into Venezuela. Páez, along with his llaneros, ally themselves with Bolívar and his British troops. The combined forces make significant advances in reclaiming both Venezuela and New Granada when they defeated royalist forces at the Río Orinoco. On February 15th, 1819, at the Congress of Angostura, Bolívar calls together twenty-six delegates from the two countries, and states his intentions for the Third Republic. Chasteen asserts, “Venezuela and New Granada, long deprived of the experience of self-rule by Spanish tyranny, needed strong, stable authority…Bolívar was not enthusiastic about democracy” (133). In other words, Bolívar believed that the pre-existing internal strife of the country would not benefit from elected representation, which would only exacerbate the differences. Venezuela needed one strong leader. The day after the Congress, Bolívar was elected the first president. Caracas still remained in Spanish hands but two seminal battles followed, which would conclusively liberate Venezuela and New Granada from Spanish rule.
The Battle at Boyacá Bridge, Disintegration, and Reunion
On August 7th, 1819, after an excruciating march through deluged llanos and over the main range of the Andes, Bolívar led his forces in a surprise attack at Boyacá, defeating the Spanish garrison there. This battle liberated New Granada, allowing Bolívar to return focus to his home country. In June of 1821, Bolívar wins another victory at Carabobo, outside of Caracas, marking the end of Spanish rule in Venezuela. In August, representatives from New Granada and Venezuela meet in Cúcuta, on the border, and draft the Constitution of the Republic of Gran Colombia. This new constitution assigns Bolívar president, Francisco de Paula Santander, a Colombian general who aided Bolívar at Boyacá, vice president, and Páez, military commander. Panama and Ecuador would also be incorporated into Gran Colombia once their territories were completely liberated. The sore point for Venezuelans in this document was the naming of Bogotá, Columbia as the capital of the new republic.
The 1820s marks the conclusion of the revolutions in South America. A revolt in Spain makes it impossible for Ferdinand VII to mount a successful counterattack. With Gran Columbia secured, Bolívar ventures south to fight in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru. Meanwhile, in Venezuela, Páez curries nationalism in his fellow Venezuelans. He promotes the resentment they feel, as again they are being ruled from afar, in Bogotá. A power struggle erupts between Santander and Páez, and culminates in Venezuela’s secession from Gran Columbia in 1829. When Bolívar returns, he finds himself an enemy of the state. He is given a pension and exiled. On a tour through the land that he liberated, he dies in December of 1830 (Márquez).
Venezuela incurred the greatest casualties of all the warring Latin American nations. Roughly one-third of the population, about 300,000 people, were killed or wounded (Area Handbook). The legacy of Venezuelan independence is an ambivalent one. For a century afterwards, Venezuela was ruled by competing caudillos, essentially, despots. Though the country did experience some prosperity under Páez’s sixteen years of rule after 1830, the infrastructure of their principal export, cocoa, was largely neglected and destroyed during the years of revolution. Coffee became the new lucrative export until oil succeeded it in the 1930s. Between 1830 and 1900, over fifty armed insurrections occurred (Area Handbook). The country achieved some stability under the dictator Juan Vicente Gómez from 1908 to 1935, but democracy did not exist more than nominally until 1958. Venezuela started as a poor, neglected territory, to experiencing years of turmoil, to become one of the wealthiest countries in South America (Venezuela: A Country Study). The events of the revolution were not altogether satisfactory in bringing prosperity to Venezuela, however, it did realize for Venezuelans something that all people seek: liberty.
Blutstein, Howard I. et. al. Area Handbook for Venezuela. Washington D.C.: Foreign Area Studies, Library of Congress, 1997. Print
Chasteen, John Charles. Americanos: Latin America’s Struggle for Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
Haggerty, Richard A. ed. Venezuela: A Country Study. Washington D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1993. Print.
Márquez, Gabriel Garcia. The General in His Labyrinth. New York: Vintage, 2003. Print
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