Throughout South America's struggle for independence, Venezuela and Venezuelans such as Simón Bolívar led the way. Responding to civil turmoil in Spain, Venezuela was the first nation in South America to declare independence and maintain it for more than a couple of months (creoles in Quito had led a brief autonomy movement in 1809). Led by Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Miranda, the First Venezuelan Republic did not endure, but was nevertheless a crucial step forward for the independence of northern South America.
Francisco de Miranda, the Precursor
Francisco de Miranda (1750-1816) was a Caracas-born intellectual who traveled a great deal, serving in the Spanish army and as a general in the French Revolution. He had illustrious friends like British Prime Minister William Pitt, Alexander Hamilton and Catherine the Great of Russia (he was her lover as well). Throughout his travels, Miranda remained dedicated to the cause of liberty for Spain's South American possessions. In 1806, he secured private funding for an invasion: he and 500 men held the Venezuelan port town of Coro for two weeks before being driven out by Spanish forces. Defeated, he returned to London to organize another try.
Strife and War in Spain
In 1808, Napoleon invaded Spain, which had been an inconsistent ally in his campaign to dominate Europe. He placed his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne and imprisoned King Charles IV of Spain and his heir, Ferdinand VII. In January of 1809 a representative of the new Spanish government arrived in Caracas and airily demanded the populace swear allegiance to Joseph Bonaparte. The city exploded in indignation and a council of Creole leaders was set up to rule in the name of Ferdinand and to investigate and expose those loyal to the French. In April of 1810 Caracas learned that a Spanish government loyal to Ferdinand had been defeated in southern Spain, solidifying France's hold on the country.
Establishment of the First Venezuelan Republic
This latest outrage was too much to bear, so on April 19, 1810 the people of Caracas set up their own government, declaring themselves in control of the city and region until such time as Ferdinand was reinstated. The difference was that this time, Caracas broke not only with Napoleonic Spain, but also the rebel Spanish council that pretended to rule in Ferdinand's name. The regions and cities around Caracas all decided for themselves whether or not to recognize the Caracas council's status. Some did and some did not, leading to a de facto civil war between royalists and those in favor of independence.
Simon Bolivar's Delegation to London
Seeking support for the new government, brash young revolutionary Simón Bolívar traveled to London at the head of a small delegation including noted scholar Andres Bello. The Venezuelans met with some high-ranking British officials, but neither aid nor recognition was forthcoming: Britain preferred to hedge its bets with Ferdinand's government-in-exile. The delegation did make contact with the exiled Miranda, however, and convinced him to return. When Miranda arrived in the port of La Guaira in December of 1810, he was greeted as a conquering hero, hoisted on the shoulders of the populace and cheered.
Bolívar, Miranda and the Radicals
A congress of the different regions was called in early 1811 to try and end the civil strife. Meanwhile, the influential Miranda and Bolívar were both pushing for outright independence from Spain and they had many loyal followers. On July 5, 1811, the Congress voted for independence. A constitution was written and a government quickly set up. The constitution guaranteed basic freedoms such as no distinctions between races and freedom of the press. The name of the new republic was the United States of Venezuela and it was almost immediately beset by huge problems, such as debates over centralization of power and rebellious regions such as Valencia.
Although their power had been limited under the previous councils, Bolívar and Miranda were now the two most influential members of the new government. When the city of Valencia, a royalist stronghold, went into open revolt against the new government in Caracas, Miranda was chosen to lead an army to defeat the rebels. Although dismayed by the rag-tag army of 4,000 peasants pressed into service, Miranda marched on Valencia. The rebellious city was taken but Miranda paid a high price in casualties. The expedition also marked the end of the friendly relationship between Miranda and Bolivar, who quarreled publicly on several occasions.