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Introduction to the Venezuelan Declaration of Independence

Module by: David Messmer. E-mail the author

The Venezuelan Declaration of Independence was the product of both a complicate network of local politics and revolutionary forces encompassing at least three continents. Though patriotic forces in Venezuela had been opposing Spanish rule for decades, these early uprising were primarily civil wars (Marsland 99). It was not until revolutions broke out in North America and Europe that the political environment in Venezuela would allow for the Declaration of Independence.

There is one very important link, though, between the early days of insurrection against Spanish rule and the eventual signing of the formal Declaration of Independence: Francisco de Miranda. After receiving part of his education in Spain, Miranda began his career as a captain fighting for the Spanish military, eventually transferring to America where he helped the Spanish to harass the English during the United States Revolution. Eventually, though, he was found guilty of smuggling and, frustrated with his treatment at the hands of the Spanish military, left for the United States where he first began to consider the possibility of Venezuelan independence. During this time his “diary of acquaintances reads like a Who’s Who of post-Revolutionary America: Baron von Steuben, Anthon Wayne, Gouverneur Morris, astronomer David Rittenhouse, George Washington, Thomas Paine, Samuel Adams, and Lafayette” (Marsland 103). He followed this visit with a tour through Europe, where he found ample support for his plan for Venezuelan liberation from Spain, especially upon his arrival in England in 1790 where the Prime Minister believed that Venezuelan independence would “weaken Spain and open profitable markets for English goods” (Marsland 104). England and Spain settled their differences peacefully, however, and Miranda’s plans would have to wait.

Unfortunately for Miranda, in the years that followed, the turmoil of the French Revolution and the resulting war that was spreading throughout Europe further interfered with his plans for the liberation of Venezuela. Frustrated by five years of fruitless attempts to get English support he returned to the United States in 1805 where he once again met with lukewarm enthusiasm for his plan and no official or material support. Determined to go through with his plans, however, Miranda put together a small band of soldiers and, in 1806, led an attack on Venezuela, intending to free it of Spanish rule. This attempt failed – as did a second attack that benefited from modest British support – in large part because the people of Venezuela were not behind his cause. In fact, rather than celebrating his few victorious moments, many Venezuelans contributed to the Spanish forces that eventually drove him out. Miranda returned to England and Venezuela remained firmly under Spanish rule (Marsland).

At this point, however, the war in Europe, which had previously limited Miranda’s plans, now aided them. Charles IV of Spain was “an incompetent fool,” and the Spanish people eventually called for his brother, Ferdinand, to replace him in 1808 (Marsland 110). Napoleon Bonaparte convinced Charles IV to come to his camp at Bayonne. After the French took Madrid, Napoleon forced Ferdinand to return the crown to his father, who then turned the crown over to Napoleon, who in turn gave it to his own brother, Joseph. When news of these events reached Venezuela it created a dilemma for the captain general, Don Juan de las Casas: should he support Joseph or refuse to acknowledge the new king and continue to support Ferdinand? Meanwhile, the Spanish people fought against French rule and established a central executive, the Junta General, to act as their leader. When news of this turn of events reached Venezuela the question of allegiance grew still more clouded. Las Casas’s indecisiveness led to his being replaced by Vicente Emparán, who represented the people’s will to remain loyal to Ferdinand. However, when France overran Spain in 1810, those who supported Venezuelan independence argued that there no longer existed any Spanish authority to whom to show loyalty and eventually ousted Emparán and created a Junta of their own. Hoping to protect itself from possible Spanish retaliation, this Venezuelan Junta sent Colonel Simón Bolívar and Luis López Méndez to London in the hopes of gaining protection from the English. While England’s alliance with Spain in opposition to France would not allow them to support the Junta, this diplomatic mission did have one very important result: Bolívar made contact with Miranda, who still resided in England, and convinced him to return to Venezuela (Marsland).

Miranda’s return was a triumphant one and, together with Bolívar he was able to rally a great deal of support for independence among the people of Venezuela. The Junta, meanwhile, began to collapse under both exterior pressure from France and Spain and interior pressure from royalists and republicans. In March of 1811 the Junta dissolved and the first Venezuelan Congress, which was intended to be a more representative governing body, convened. One of the first issues that it considered was that of independence and, under the passionate leadership of Miranda and Bolívar, the independence movement eventually triumphed. Falling a day short of their goal to achieve independence on July 4th (to coincide with U.S. independence), on July 5th, 1811 Venezuela declared its independence from Spain.

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