Antonio Guzmán Blanco (1829-1899) was a Venezuelan lawyer and politician who ruled as dictator of Venezuela from 1870 to 1888. He was a flamboyant leader, surrounding himself with sycophants and ostentatious wealth while the people of Venezuela suffered. His corruption was legendary, and he took a personal slice off the top of every governmental project. He enjoyed traveling abroad and was eventually deposed in absentia by irate Venezuelans while visiting Paris in 1888.
Early Life and Politics:
Antonio Guzmán Blanco was the son of Antonio Leocadio Guzmán, founder of the Venezuelan Liberal party. Young Antonio was given a very good education, and he proved to be intelligent and energetic. He served in the diplomatic service, including some time in Washington, D.C. He was very involved with Venezuelan politics, and when General Juan Crisóstomo Falcón rose up in rebellion against the conservative government of José Antonio Páez, Guzmán was at his side. When Falcón triumphed in 1863, Guzmán was made Vice President.
Rise to the Presidency:
In 1866 General Falcón resigned the presidency, leading to several years of chaos in which conservatives and liberals fought over the presidency. In 1869 Guzmán, who had been in exile, led a rebellion and seized power for himself, wresting power away from conservative president José Ruperto Monagas and his brief successor Guillermo Tell Villegas. Guzmán became president in April of 1870 and would hold onto power directly or indirectly until 1888.
Progress in Venezuela Under Guzmán:
Guzmán is often compared to his contemporary, Mexico’s Porfirio Díaz
. Both men oversaw great economic progress in their nations, but at a high social price that would eventually cost them their thrones. In Guzmán’s Venezuela, new schools were built, highways and railways were expanded and improved and the economy was strengthened with freer trade and improved national credit. Although Guzmán himself was corrupt, he insisted that lower level administration official be honest, and the result was a more efficient national government.
Guzmán’s Tight Grip on Power:
Also like Porfirio Díaz
, Guzmán clung to power through a generous support of the military and a ruthless intolerance of his enemies. With the military happy, he was able to jail and threaten his political enemies and shut down the press. He was easily re-elected in 1879 and 1886. His great weakness was his love of travel, particularly to Europe: he would occasionally install a puppet president (generally Joaquín Crespo) and spend months abroad, ruling by telegram. As dictators go, he was fairly benign, generally preferring to lock up or drive off his enemies as opposed to murdering them.
Guzmán and the Church:
A Grand Master of the Freemasons and rabid anti-clericalist, Guzmán sought to curtail the power, wealth and influence of the Catholic Church at every turn. He nationalized church property, abolished convents and monasteries, wrested control of education from the church in favor of the state and finally even attempted to set up a state religion. This was too much for the people of Venezuela, and Guzmán was forced to show a little restraint.
Guzmán’s Love of Paris:
A seasoned traveler and diplomat, Guzmán was happiest in Paris. He made many efforts to turn Caracas into a Paris of the New World, widening the boulevards and adding an opera house, presidential palace and even a Pantheon to house the bones of Venezuela’s most illustrious dead. In this, he was a big spender, devoting government funds to the beautification of the city. Like many who did so, he is appreciated today by those who enjoy the beauty of his public works, but the spending was unpopular at the time.
Guzmán’s personal vanity is the stuff of legend. He commissioned numerous portraits of himself, enjoyed being called by his titles “The Illustrious American” and “National Regenerator.” He delighted in receiving honorary degrees from universities and decorations from foreign governments. Statues of him were put in parks all over the nation and his portrait hung in most government offices. His presidential palace was lavish, and he surrounded himself with admirers.
Loss of Power and Death:
In 1888, Guzmán was once again in France, ruling by telegram. The people of Venezuela, sick of the wasteful despot, rose up in revolt, destroying his statues and issuing clear threats concerning what would happen to Guzmán if he ever returned. Puppet President Hermógenes López wisely stopped taking Guzmán’s telegrams and oversaw a transition of power to Juan Pablo Rojas Paúl. Guzmán himself, personally wealthy and happy in Paris, chose to remain, where he died in 1899. His remains were moved to the Pantheon he built in 1999, on the centennial of his death.
Legacy of Antonio Guzmán Blanco:
Guzmán disliked corruption and created the most efficient government that Venezuela had seen since the departure of the Spanish decades before. Although he took a cut of every project, he did not see himself as crooked: rather, he saw the money as a fair reward for his skillful handling of a tough job. All of the perks that came with the job were rightfully his, in his opinion.
In the end, Guzmán was probably a fair judge of his own legacy. He was tough on his enemies, wasteful, pompous and more than a little detached from the reality of his countrymen, but still, he left the nation a better place than he found it. His contributions (the beautification of Caracas, the railroads and highways and the schools) have all lasted, while his personal greed has faded into time. He was a strong hand when Venezuela needed it: his eighteen years in office were preceded and followed by chaos and partisan bickering.
Source: Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.