Venezuela's Revolution for Independence from Spain

15 Years of Strife and Violence end in Freedom

Simon Bolivar. Painting by Jose Gil de Castro (1785-1841)

Venezuela was a leader in Latin America's Independence movement. Led by visionary radicals such as Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Miranda, Venezuela was the first of the South American Republics to formally break away from Spain. The decade or so that followed was extremely bloody, with unspeakable atrocities on both sides and several important battles, but in the end the patriots prevailed, finally securing Venezuelan independence in 1821.

Venezuela Under the Spanish

Under the Spanish colonial system, Venezuela was a bit of a backwater. It was part of the Viceroyalty of New Granada, ruled by a Viceroy in Bogota (present-day Colombia). The economy was mostly agricultural and a handful of extremely wealthy families had complete control over the region. In the years leading up to independence, the Creoles (those born in Venezuela of European descent) began to resent Spain for high taxes, limited opportunities and mismanagement of the colony. By 1800, people were talking openly about independence, albeit in secret.

1806: Miranda Invades Venezuela

Francisco de Miranda was a Venezuelan soldier who had gone to Europe and had become a General during the French Revolution. A fascinating man, he was friends with Alexander Hamilton and other important international figures and even was the lover of Catherine the Great of Russia for a while.

All throughout his many adventures in Europe, he dreamed of freedom for his homeland.

In 1806 he was able to scrape together a small mercenary force in the USA and Caribbean and launched an invasion of Venezuela. He held the town of Coro for about two weeks before Spanish forces drove him out. Although the invasion was a fiasco, he had proven to many that independence was not an impossible dream.

April 19, 1810: Venezuela Declares Independence

By early 1810, Venezuela was ready for independence. Ferdinand VII, the heir to the Spanish crown, was a prisoner of Napoleon of France, who became the de facto (if indirect) ruler of Spain. Even those Creoles who supported Spain in the New World were appalled.

On April 19, 1810, Venezuelan Creole patriots held a meeting in Caracas where they declared a provisional independence: they would rule themselves until such time as the Spanish monarchy was restored. For those who truly wanted independence, such as young Simón Bolívar, it was a half-victory, but still better than no victory at all.

The First Venezuelan Republic

The resulting government became known as the First Venezuelan Republic. Radicals within the government, such as Simón Bolívar, José Félix Ribas, and Francisco de Miranda pushed for unconditional independence and on July 5, 1811, the congress approved it, making Venezuela the first South American nation to formally sever all ties with Spain.

Spanish and royalist forces attacked, however, and a devastating earthquake leveled Caracas on March 26, 1812. Between the royalists and the earthquake, the young Republic was doomed. By July of 1812, leaders such as Bolívar had gone into exile and Miranda was in the hands of the Spanish.

The Admirable Campaign

By October of 1812, Bolívar was ready to rejoin the fight. He went to Colombia, where he was given a commission as an officer and a small force. He was told to harass the Spanish along the Magdalena River. Before long, Bolívar had driven the Spanish out of the region and amassed a large army, Impressed, the civilian leaders in Cartagena gave him permission to liberate western Venezuela. Bolívar did so and then promptly marched on Caracas, which he took back in August of 1813, a year after the fall of the first Venezuelan Republic and three months since he had left Colombia. This remarkable military feat is known as the "Admirable Campaign" for Bolívar's great skill in executing it.

The Second Venezuelan Republic

Bolivar quickly established an independent government known as the Second Venezuelan Republic.

He had outsmarted the Spanish during the Admirable Campaign, but he had not defeated them, and there were still large Spanish and royalist armies in Venezuela. Bolivar and other generals such as Santiago Mariño and Manuel Piar fought them bravely, but in the end, the royalists were too much for them.

The most feared royalist force was the "Infernal Legion" of tough-as-nails plainsmen led by cunning Spaniard Tomas "Taita" Boves, who cruelly executed prisoners and pillaged towns that had formerly been held by the patriots. The Second Venezuelan Republic fell in mid-1814 and Bolívar once again went into exile.

The Years of War, 1814-1819

During the period from 1814 to 1819, Venezuela was devastated by roving royalist and patriot armies that fought one another and occasionally amongst themselves. Patriot leaders such as Manuel Piar, José Antonio Páez, and Simón Bolivar did not necessarily acknowledge one another's authority, leading to a lack of a coherent battle plan to free Venezuela.

In 1817, Bolívar had Piar arrested and executed, putting the other warlords on notice that he would deal with them harshly as well. After that, the others generally accepted Bolívar's leadership. Still, the nation was in ruins and there was a military stalemate between the patriots and royalists.

Bolívar Crosses the Andes and the Battle of Boyaca

In early 1819, Bolívar was cornered in western Venezuela with his army. He was not powerful enough to knock out the Spanish armies, but they were not strong enough to defeat him, either. He made a daring move: he crossed the frosty Andes with his army, losing half of it in the process, and arrived in New Granada (Colombia) in July of 1819. New Granada had been relatively untouched by the war, so Bolívar was able to quickly recruit a new army from willing volunteers.

He made a speedy march on Bogota, where the Spanish Viceroy hastily sent out a force to delay him. At the Battle of Boyaca on August 7, Bolívar scored a decisive victory, crushing the Spanish army.

He marched unopposed into Bogota, and the volunteers and resources he found there allowed him to recruit and equip a much larger army, and he once again marched on Venezuela.

The Battle of Carabobo

Alarmed Spanish officers in Venezuela called for a cease-fire, which was agreed to and lasted until April of 1821. Patriot warlords back in Venezuela, such as Mariño and Páez, finally smelled victory and began to close in on Caracas. Spanish General Miguel de la Torre combined his armies and met the combined forces of Bolívar and Páez at the Battle of Carabobo on June 24, 1821. The resulting patriot victory secured Venezuela's independence, as the Spanish decided they could never pacify and re-take the region.

After the Battle of Carabobo

With the Spanish finally driven off, Venezuela began putting itself back together. Bolívar had formed the Republic of Gran Colombia, which included present-day Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama. The republic lasted until about 1830 when it fell apart into Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador (Panama was part of Colombia at the time). General Páez was the main leader behind Venezuela's break from Gran Colombia.

Today, Venezuela celebrates two independence days: April 19, when Caracas patriots first declared a provisional independence, and July 5, when they formally severed all ties with Spain. Venezuela celebrates its independence day (an official holiday) with parades, speeches, and parties.

In 1874, Venezuelan President Antonio Guzmán Blanco announced his plans to turn the Holy Trinity Church of Caracas into a national Pantheon to house the bones of the most illustrious heroes of Venezuela. The remains of numerous heroes of Independence are housed there, including those of Simón Bolívar, José Antonio Páez, Carlos Soublette, and Rafael Urdaneta.

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.

Lynch, John. Simon Bolivar: A Life. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006.

Santos Molano, Enrique. Colombia día a día: una cronología de 15,000 años. Bogota: Planeta, 2009.

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