Biography of Jose Antonio Paez

Jose Antonio Paez
Jose Antonio Paez. Portrait by Martin Tovar y Tovar

Jose Antonio Páez was a warlord who joined the cause of Venezuela's independence from Spain and fought alongside Simon Bolivar and other patriot leaders. An illiterate warrior from the harsh plains of southwestern Venezuela, Paez nevertheless  proved a highly skilled leader of men and wartime general. After Venezuela had achieved its independence from Spain, Paez led it to break away with Bolivar's Greater Colombia.

Paez then became the first president of an independent Venezuela and dominated Venezuelan politics for decades.

Early Life of Jose Antonio Paez

Paez was born in 1790 in the town of Barinas in western Venezuela. His father worked as an employee in a tobacco shop and the family had no money or prestige to speak of. Like most of the men in the area, Jose Antonio learned to ride a horse as a young man and spent his time ranging the vast plains. He worked hard, married young and made a living tending and trading cattle. Life was harsh on the Venezuelan plains, and the men who lived there were rugged, tough and ferociously lethal with their lances and machetes. Even among these men, Jose Antonio stood out as a courageous fighter, talented horseman and skilled leader of men. When Paez was twenty, Venezuela declared independence from Spain and soon the plains were embroiled in the struggle. When war broke out, Paez was quickly recruited into a cavalry battalion, and by 1813 he had his own command.

The Plainsmen go to War

Paez fought against the Spanish government, but not all of the llaneros (plainsmen) did: many fought for Spain under the ruthless Tomas "Taita" Boves. Most of the plainsmen didn't care much for politics and simply enjoyed fighting and looting: Paez as well as Boves knew this and ruled their men by offering plenty of opportunities for both.

Venturing into the plains was a risky proposition for any army at the time, either royalist or patriot, as Boves, Paez and a handful of other warlords were unpredictable and fierce. The plainsmen fought nearly naked and on horseback, wielding long spears and lances. On the open plains they were nearly unstoppable, but they rarely ventured far from home.

Paez Takes Command

Boves died in 1814, and although his lieutenant Tomas Morales took over his force, he was not the leader Boves had been and many of the plainsmen joined other armies, including that of Paez. By 1818, Paez had superseded all of the other warlords and effectively ruled the plains. Paez was friendly to the patriot cause and attacked Spanish armies and outposts, but reluctant to share command. When Francisco de Paula Santander visited Paez to demand that he join forces and take orders, Paez only laughed and gave Santander a good scare before letting him go. Paez respected Simon Bolivar, however, and the two worked together with great success on several occasions. It didn't hurt that Bolivar favored giving land taken from Spaniards and royalists to those who had fought on the patriot side.

The Battle of Carabobo

In June of 1821, the Spanish leaders sent out as many troops as they could find to defend the entrance to Caracas, under the command of General Miguel de la Torre.

They took up a defensive position on the plain of Carabobo. Bolivar and Paez met there and joined forces; together, they outnumbered the royalists by roughly 6,500 to 5,000. On June 24, they met in battle. At first, the patriot forces could make little headway against the entrenched Spaniards, but a legion of British volunteers opened a hole in the enemy line. Paez swiftly sent in his lethal cavalry, which was able to attack straight through to the Spanish rear. From there, it became a rout. Paez was one of the heroes of the Battle of Carabobo and Bolivar was able to liberate Caracas.

Greater Colombia and La Cosiata

With only pockets of resistance in northern South America remaining, Bolivar was able to carry out one of his greatest dreams: the creation of Greater Colombia. This vast nation included parts or all of present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, Brazil, Guyana and Peru.

This nation was headquartered in Bogota and led by Bolivar in an uneasy truce with his powerful political rival Francisco de Paula Santander. Paez was named governor of important sections of Venezuela.

Greater Colombia proved difficult to govern, however, because of the great distances involved, differences between the peoples who made up the nation, and petty fiefdoms and ambitions of local leaders. Only Bolivar could hold it together, and he was often absent, campaigning in Peru. In 1826, Paez led a rebellion referred to as "La Cosiata," or "the meaningless thing." It began over Paez' reluctantly following one of Bolivar's orders to conscript men for the army and soon blew out of proportion. For a while, Venezuela essentially separated from Greater Colombia, but when Bolivar returned in 1828 he was able to smooth the whole thing over, in part by granting full pardons to everyone involved.

Paez, President of Venezuela

In 1830, Bolivar fell ill and died. Without his leadership, Greater Colombia soon fractured into more or less the nations of northern South America that we know today. In Venezuela, a constitution was written and Paez became President. He ruled the country through his popularity as a war hero, his great charisma and a convenient alliance with the wealthy class. From 1830 to 1846 Venezuela was relatively peaceful and prosperous. Paez served as President from 1830 to 1835 and again from 1839 to 1843. The rest of the time, he was the power behind the presidency.

During his time as President, Paez managed some modest successes in spite of having to put down several rebellions.

Some schools were built, immigration was encouraged and some industry was created. Paez also handled the question of the separation of church and state - always a dangerous topic in Republican era South America - with skill, secularizing the government while reassuring the church of its important place in national affairs.

In 1850, Paez was ousted and forced into exile. He returned in 1858 and resumed the presidency from 1861-1863. He was exiled once again in 1863 and died in New York City in 1873.

Legacy of Jose Antonio Páez

In many ways, Paez was the prototypical "caudillo" (strongman) leader, similar to Juan Manuel de Rosas in Argentina or Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna in Mexico. He was an uneducated plainsman who rose to great heights because of his courage and charisma, but nevertheless he proved to be a skilled leader for his young nation. Jose Antonio Paez is revered by modern Venezuelans, who respect his contributions as a patriot general and early leader of their country. Many towns, streets, stadiums, plazas and more are named for him across the nation, and his face has graced coins and bills on several occasions.

Sources:

Harvey, Robert. Liberators: Latin America's Struggle for Independence Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 2000.

Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present.. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962

Lynch, John. The Spanish American Revolutions 1808-1826 New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.

Scheina, Robert L. Latin America's Wars, Volume 1: The Age of the Caudillo 1791-1899 Washington, D.C.: Brassey's Inc., 2003.

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Minster, Christopher. "Biography of Jose Antonio Paez." ThoughtCo, Nov. 10, 2015, thoughtco.com/biography-of-jose-antonio-paez-2136427. Minster, Christopher. (2015, November 10). Biography of Jose Antonio Paez. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-jose-antonio-paez-2136427 Minster, Christopher. "Biography of Jose Antonio Paez." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-jose-antonio-paez-2136427 (accessed December 13, 2017).