The Epic of Independence
Miranda was born in Caracas of wealthy criollo parents in 1750. Following a checkered career in the Spanish Army, Miranda spent virtually the rest of his life living in nations that were at odds with Spain, seeking support for the cause of the independence of his native Spanish America. Although he was a professed admirer of the newly independent United States, Miranda's political vision of Latin America, beyond independence, remained equivocal. In 1806 he led an expedition that sailed from New York and landed at Coro, in western Venezuela. Expecting a popular uprising, he encountered instead hostility and resistance. Miranda returned to Britain, where in 1810 Bolívar persuaded him to return to Venezuela at the head of a second insurrectionary effort.
Events in Europe were perhaps even more crucial to the movement for Latin American independence than Miranda's efforts. In 1808 French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte's troops invaded Spain amidst a family dispute in which the Spanish king Charles IV had been forced to abdicate the throne in favor of his son, Ferdinand VII. The fearful Bourbon royal family soon became Napoleon's captives, and in 1810 the conquering French emperor granted his brother, Joseph, the Spanish throne, precipitating a four-year- long guerrilla war in Spain.
These events had important repercussions in the Caracas cabildo (city council). Composed of a criollo elite whose allegiance to the crown had already been stretched thin by the gross incompetence of Charles and his feud with his son, the cabildo refused to recognize the French usurper. Meeting as a cabildo abierto (town meeting) on April 19, 1810, the Caracas cabildo ousted Governor Vicente Emparán and, shortly thereafter, declared itself to be a junta governing in the name of the deposed Ferdinand VII. On July 5, 1811, a congress convoked by the junta declared Venezuelan independence from Spain. Miranda assumed command of the army and leadership of the junta.
A constitution, dated December 21, 1811, marked the official beginning of Venezuela's First Republic. Known commonly by Venezuelan historians as La Patria Boba, the Silly Republic, Venezuela's first experiment at independence suffered from myriad difficulties from the outset. The cabildos of three major cities--Coro, Maracaibo, and Guayana--preferring to be governed by Joseph Bonaparte rather than by the Caracas cabildo, never accepted independence from Spain. The First Republic's leadership, furthermore, distrusted Miranda and deprived him of the powers necessary to govern effectively until it was too late. Most damaging, however, was the initial failure of the Caracas criollo elite insurgents to recognize the need for popular support for the cause of independence. Venezuela's popular masses, particularly the pardos, did not relish being governed by the white elite of Caracas and therefore remained loyal to the crown. Thus, a racially defined civil war underlay the early years of the long independence struggle in Venezuela.
When a major earthquake in March 1812 devastated proindependence strongholds while sparing virtually every locale commanded by royalist forces, it seemed that the very forces of nature were conspiring against La Patria Boba. Despite the gravity of the circumstances, Miranda's July 25, 1812, surrender of his troops to the Spanish commander, General Domingo Monteverde, provoked a great deal of resentment among Bolívar and his other subordinates. Miranda died in a Spanish prison in 1816; Bolívar managed to escape to New Granada (present-day Colombia), where he assumed the leadership of Venezuela's independence struggle.
Bolívar was born in 1783 into one of Caracas's most aristocratic criollo families. Orphaned at age nine, he was educated in Europe, where he became intrigued by the intellectual revolution called the Enlightenment and the political revolution in France. As a young man, Bolívar pledged himself to see a united Latin America, not simply his native Venezuela, liberated from Spanish rule. His brilliant career as a field general began in 1813 with the famous cry of "war to the death" against Venezuela's Spanish rulers that was followed by a lightning campaign through the Andes to capture Caracas. There he was proclaimed "The Liberator" and, following the establishment of the Second Republic, was given dictatorial powers. Once again, however, Bolívar overlooked the aspirations of common, nonwhite Venezuelans. The llaneros (plainsmen), who were excellent horsemen, fought under the leadership of the royalist caudillo, José Tomás Boves, for what they saw as social equality against a revolutionary army that represented the white, criollo elite. By September 1814, having won a series of victories, Boves's troops forced Bolívar and his army out of Caracas, bringing an end to the Second Republic.
After Ferdinand VII regained the Spanish throne in late 1814, he sent reinforcements to the American colonies that crushed most remaining pockets of resistance to royal control. Bolívar was forced to flee to Jamaica, where he issued an eloquent letter that established his intellectual leadership of the Spanish American independence movement. A number of local caudillos kept the movement alive in Venezuela. One, José Antonio Páez, a mestizo, was able to convince his fellow llaneros along the Río Apure that Boves (who had been killed in battle in late 1814) had been mistaken: that the Spanish, not the criollo patriots, were the true enemies of social equality. The alliance of his fierce cavalrymen with Bolívar proved indispensable during the critical 1816-20 stage of the independence struggle. Another caudillo chief named Manuel Piar, after outspokenly encouraging his black and pardo troops to assert their claims for social change, however, was promptly captured, tried, and executed under Bolívar's direction. This ruthless disposition of Piar as an enemy of the cause of independence enhanced Bolívar's stature and military leadership as the "maximum caudillo."
Based near the mouth of the Río Orinoco, Bolívar defeated the royalist forces in the east with the help of several thousand volunteer European recruits, veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. Although Caracas remained in royalist hands, the 1819 Congress at Angostura (present-day Ciudad Bolívar) established the Third Republic and named Bolívar as its first president. Bolívar then quickly marched his troops across the llanos and into the Andes, where a surprise attack on the Spanish garrison at Boyacá, near Bogotá, routed the royalist forces and liberated New Granada. Nearly two years later, in June 1821, Bolívar's troops fought the decisive Battle of Carabobo that liberated Caracas from Spanish rule. In August delegates from Venezuela and Colombia met at the border town of Cúcuta to formally sign the Constitution of the Republic of Gran Colombia, with its capital in Bogotá. Bolívar was named president and Francisco de Paula Santander, a Colombian, was named vice president.
Bolívar, however, continued the fight for the liberation of Spanish America, leading his forces against the royalist troops remaining in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru. In the meantime, the Bolivarian dream of Gran Colombia was proving to be politically unworkable. Bolívar's fellow Venezuelans became his enemies. King Ferdinand, after an 1820 revolt by liberals in Spain, had lost the political will to recover the rebellious American colonies. But the Venezuelans themselves expressed resentment at being governed once again from far-off Bogotá.
Venezuelan nationalism, politically and economically centered in Caracas, had been an ever-increasing force for over a century. During the 1820s, Venezuelan nationalism was embodied in the figure of General Páez. Even the tremendous prestige of Bolívar could not overcome the historical reality of nationalism, and in 1829 Páez led Venezuela in its separation from Gran Colombia. Páez ordered the ailing and friendless Bolívar into exile. Shortly before his death in December 1830, the liberator of northern South America likened his efforts at Latin American unity to having "plowed the sea."
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