Independence imposed many roles upon Simón Bolívar. He was a military planner and a field commander, a political philosopher and a maker of constitutions, a liberator of peoples and a founder of republics. He had to deal not only with royalist enemies but with foreign friends and anarchic followers. He also had to control the caudillos, to tame the guerrillas and their leaders within the revolutionary ranks. The wars of independence in northern South America incorporated two processes, the constitutionalism of Bolívar and the caudillism of the regions, and they were fought with two arms, regular forces and local guerrillas. These movements were part allies, part rivals. To compete and rule in such circumstances a soldier had to be a politician. Bolívar sought power as well as freedom; he wanted to rule as well as to liberate.1 But power did not come easily to him.

He began with obvious assets. His family, education, and status made him a natural leader in the society of the time. He was one of the richest men in Venezuela, the owner of four haciendas, two houses in Caracas, another in La Guaira, and the master of numerous slaves. His private property gave him a firm power base, until, of course, it was confiscated. His losses early in the revolution amounted to 80,000 pesos, the largest single confiscation made by the royalists. Bolívar’s total wealth probably amounted to at least 200,000 pesos, though at the end of his life he had little more than the unrealized assets of the Aroa copper mines.2

In the primitive warfare of the llanos and among the mass of the insurgents, these advantages counted for little. Bolívar belonged to another world, another culture. The incongruity of his position is illustrated in a story told by the English observer Richard Vowell. In 1817, after the loss of Calabozo, the patriot officer Manuel Cedeño reached San Fernando in disgrace, to be met by mutinous llaneros. José Antonio Páez, caudillo of the western llanos, “who knew how to make himself feared and respected by the soldiers,” ended the tumult with a few words and personally rescued Cedeño. To show who was in command, he had the ringleaders arrested, though they included officers from his personal following. Thus the movement was stifled owing to the “irresistible ascendancy” of Páez over the llaneros. Bolívar meanwhile had shut himself in his house with his aides and secretaries, and when night fell, he embarked discreetly on a boat for Angostura, conscious perhaps that without his own troops he was powerless among the llaneros, who only obeyed their personal chief.3

One of Bolívar’s greatest achievements was to overcome his innate disadvantages, to improve his qualifications for leadership, and to gain for himself the power necessary to fulfill his task. To do this, he had to dominate a series of lesser rivals for leadership. He was not an absolute enemy of the caudillos; in a sense he took them for granted as inevitable and even useful. Individually a regional caudillo was probably no more than a minor irritant. Collectively they were a major hazard to the cause and the career of the Liberator.


The caudillo was a regional chieftain, deriving his power from control of local resources, especially of haciendas, which gave him access to men and supplies. Classical caudillism took the form of armed patron-client bands, held together by personal ties of dominance and submission and by a common desire to obtain wealth by force of arms. The caudillo’s domain might grow from local to national dimensions. Here, too, supreme power was personal, not institutional; competition for offices and resources was violent and the achievements were rarely permanent. The caudillo is recognized in profile by historians and social scientists, though some of his features remain obscure.4 The structural interpretation is useful but static and lacks the realism of chronology and prosopography; nor does it allow sufficiently for distinct stages of development, when caudillism existed in embryo, then in incipient or partial form, before culminating in the major figures of caudillo history.

The colony was not propitious for caudillism. The Spanish empire was governed by an anonymous bureaucracy, and while personalism may have been important in patronage, it had little place in government or policy-making, both of which were highly institutionalized. On the margin of colonial society, however, caudillo prototypes made their appearance. In Venezuela land concentration in the llanos resulted in the formation of vast hatos (“ranches”) owned by powerful proprietors who came to assert private property rights. The hunting activity of the llaneros, hitherto regarded as common usage, was now defined as rustling and condemned as delinquency. In self-defense many llaneros grouped themselves into bands under chieftains, to live by violence and plunder; the frontiers of rural life came under the control of bandits, and some areas were in a permanent state of rebellion. While they were an affront to colonial law and order, however, bandit leaders did not operate beyond their locality, nor did they pose a political threat.

The caudillo was essentially a product of the wars of independence, when the colonial state was disrupted, institutions were destroyed, and social groups competed to fill the vacuum.5 There was now a progression from llanero, to vagrant, to bandit, to guerrilla fighter, as local proprietors or new leaders sought to recruit followers. While such bands might enlist under one political cause or another, the underlying factors were still rural conditions and personal leadership. The countryside was soon impoverished by destruction, and people were ruined by war taxes and plunder. As the economy reached breaking point, so men were forced into bands for subsistence under a chieftain who could lead them to booty. Thus, banditry was a product of rural distress and a cause of it, and, in the early years of the war, delinquency was stronger than ideology.

It is not uncommon to observe in these vast territories groups of bandits who, without any political motivation and with desire of pillage their only incentive, come together and follow the first caudillo who offers them booty taken from anyone with property. This is how Boves and other bandits of the same kind have been able to recruit hordes of these people, who live by vagrancy, robbery, and assassination.6

Pillage was characteristic of the caudillo system, a method of waging war used by both sides in default of regular revenue. There were variations of looting—confiscation of enemy property, taking of provisions, forced loans, donations, and fines.7 The small bands of guerrillas who harassed the royalist lines of communications lived by looting. The seizure of booty was also authorized or tolerated by the major chieftains, and by Bolívar himself. At the first battle of Carabobo (1814), it was reported, “the booty was immense,” and soldiers held triumphantly in their hands not only articles of war, but money, equipment, and personal property of royalist officers.8 Looting, therefore, while practiced in a crude form by caudillos, was not exclusive to them. In a disguised, indirect, or even direct form, it was the only way of paying an army or of acquiring resources for the war effort. In the Guayana campaign of 1817, the patriot army simply looted the Caroní Missions and traded the proceeds in the West Indies for war supplies. In justification Bolívar invoked the imperatives of war, which forced him to take terrible but vital measures. In effect, a revolutionary state without revenue had to impose an informal tax system. This was done in other campaigns, too, when exactions, forced loans, and fines were levied with an arbitrariness hardly different from that of the caudillos. And some of Bolívar’s own caudillos used methods just as cruel as those of any royalist. Juan Bautista Arismendi offered Juan Andrés Marrero the chance to buy the lives of himself and his six sons; after taking the ransom, Arismendi had them all killed.9

Plunder and resources were not the only objectives of the guerrillas. Bolívar was intensely aware of the deep racial divisions in Venezuela and of the reckless exploitation of race prejudice by both sides in the conflict. José Francisco Heredia, creole regent of the Audiencia of Caracas, spoke of the “mortal hatred” between whites and pardos in Valencia during the First Republic, and commented: “The guerrilla band that later joined the king’s side encouraged this rivalry, and it was commonly said by the European extremists that the pardos were loyalists and the white creoles were revolutionaries whom it was necessary to destroy.” This was the policy, he added, of José Tomás Boves and other bandit chiefs, nominally royalists but in fact “insurgents of another kind,” who waged war on all white creoles: “and so he became the idol of the pardos, who followed him in the hope of seeing the dominant caste destroyed.”10 When Boves occupied and plundered Valencia in June 1814, the Spanish authorities looked on helplessly; when he took Caracas, he refused to recognize the captain general or to have his llanero forces incorporated into the royal army.11 His was a personal authority, expressing violence rather than legitimacy, and loyal to only a very distant king. Bolívar was acutely conscious of these developments. He noticed that royalist caudillos incited slaves and pardos to plunder in order to increase their commitment, morale, and group cohesion.12

But race consciousness also existed among the insurgents. In the struggle for Maturín in May 1815, the royalist commander Domingo Monteverde was defeated and his life was saved only by the cover given him by his zambo servant, “for the insurgents would not fire on the hombres de color. ”13 The insurgent chieftain in this action was the pardo Manuel Piar, and Bolívar was to suffer from Piar an insubordination not dissimilar to that which the royalists experienced from Boves.


After the collapse of the First Republic in July 1812, Venezuela underwent a royalist reaction. This was challenged in the course of 1813 by two movements, an invasion under Bolívar from the west and the onset of guerrilla operations in the east. Who were the guerrillas?

The first guerrilla thrust had a social and regional base but also a clear political objective; to resist the oppressive regime of Monteverde and fight for a free Venezuela. When, on January 11, 1813, Santiago Mariño headed a small expedition, the famous “forty-five” from Trinidad to Güiria, he led forth his band from his hacienda like a true caudillo, to operate in territory where he had property, relations, and dependents. Mariño was no social bandit. Like Bolívar he came from the colonial elite and he sought to mobilize social forces, not to change them.14 At first he was a local rather than a regional caudillo, but he quickly increased his stature through military success and reputation. Yet he never acquired the national, much less the American, vision of Bolívar. He argued that it was necessary to conquer and hold the east as a precondition of liberating the west. Páez, on the other hand, maintained that the western front was the crucial battlefield; victory there would have enabled the royal army to defeat the eastern caudillos one by one, and thus “the fate of the republic was at stake in the llanos of Apure.”15 The strength of the caudillos lay in their tactical rather than strategic sense. Without Bolívar, the various regional fronts could not have joined into a national or continental liberation movement.

Moreover, this particular asset of the caudillos, a regional base for raising troops, was also a limitation. These troops, as Bolívar complained, were reluctant to leave their own province, and the caudillos were unwilling or unable to compel them. At the beginning of 1818, troops of Francisco Bermúdez refused to proceed to Guayana. In December 1818 even Mariño was powerless to persuade his men to follow him out of the province, and he arrived at Pao not at the head of a division as Bolívar was expecting, but with an escort of thirty men.16 Insubordination was a further constraint. In 1819 Mariño was styled General-in-Chief of the Army of the East, and “responsible to the Government for the conservation of all that part of the Republic,” but in fact he exercised no command at all over Bermúdez or other minor caudillos. Insubordination began directly below Bolívar. In 1820 Mariño refused to obey Bolívar’s summons to headquarters and retired in disgust to his hacienda in Güiria, where he had resources, security, and a guard of loyal retainers: formerly his troops, now his peons.17

Yet the guerrillas kept the cause of independence alive during the long years of counterrevolution. In the course of 1814-16, a number of bands emerged under leaders who were to become indispensable to Bolívar: Pedro Zaraza in the upper llanos, José Antonio Páez in the western llanos, Manuel Cedeño in Caicara, José Tadeo Monagas in Cumaná, Jesús Berreto and Andrés Rojas in Maturín. These groups rose from the ruins of the Second Republic. The surviving patriots fled to the plains, jungles, and forests of the east to escape royalist retribution. They then regrouped under a leader of their choice, partly for self-preservation, partly for the revolutionary cause.18 For a guerrilla to surrender or to be captured was to walk into execution. In this sense emancipation was the only option left to them. Groups converged and coalesced, until they found a supercaudillo. Armed with púas (“lances”), and taking their horses and cattle from the llanos of Barcelona and Cumaná, the guerrillas fought successfully against regular forces, attacking communications, ambushing detachments, harassing towns, and then disappearing. They pinned down royalist forces in a number of different places and forced the Spaniards to maintain immobile garrisons.19

The guerrillas not only fought the royalists but also competed with each other. Leader rivalry sometimes obstructed the war effort, as caudillos struggled with each other for that supremacy which only military success and the attraction of recruits could bring. No caudillo wanted to submit to another; each fought to remain independent, in a state of nature without a common power. Out of this internal war emerged the most powerful leaders: Monagas, Zaraza, Cedeño, Piar. This was in the east. Leadership in the western llanos demanded supreme physical talents, and it was this challenge which brought Páez to the fore:

To command these men and dominate the situation was needed a particular superiority and talent in using the lance with both hands, to fight on wild horses and to break them in during actual battle, to swim and to fight while swimming in swollen rivers, to lasso and kill wild beasts simply to get food, in short, to have the ability to dominate and overcome a thousand and more dangers which threaten in these conditions.20

Bolívar, too, possessed extraordinary natural talents and learned to compete with the caudillos on their own terms. He, who decreed war to the death against Spaniards, was no less ruthless than the caudillos. His record of active service was in no way inferior to theirs. His aide, General Daniel Florencio O’Leary, was struck by the contrast between his slight physique and his powers of endurance: “After a day’s march, enough to exhaust the most robust man, I have seen him work five or six hours, or dance as long.”21 Bolívar, however, was distinguished above all by the magic of his leadership. He conquered nature as well as men, overcoming the immense distances of America in marches which were as memorable as the battles. He conquered, too, his own origins, widening the social base of the revolution to appeal to slaves and gente de color.

Yet Bolívar was never a caudillo.22 He always sought to institutionalize the revolution and to lead it to a political conclusion. The solution that he favored was a large nation-state with a strong central government, totally dissimilar to the federal form of government and the decentralization of power preferred by the caudillos. Bolívar never possessed a true regional power base. The east had its own oligarchy, its own caudillos, who regarded themselves as allies rather than subordinates. The Apure was dominated by a number of great proprietors and then by Páez. Bolívar felt most at home in Caracas and the center-north. There he had friends, followers and officers who had fought under him in New Granada, in the campaña admirable, and in other actions in central Venezuela. Bolívar could give orders to Urdaneta, Ribas, and Campo as to trusted officers, assign them to one division or another, to one front or another. But from 1814 central Venezuela was occupied by the royal army, and Bolívar had to assemble his power by a mixture of military and political success. As he himself said, he was forced to he a soldier and a statesman, “simultaneously on the battlefield and at the head of government … both a chief of state and a general of the army.”23

Bolívar was a dictator when he wrote these words. Bolivarian dictatorship, however, was not caudillism. It was less personal and more institutional; it dealt in policies as well as patronage. After the campaign of 1813, Bolívar entered Caracas in triumph on August 6 and established his first dictatorship, served by known supporters and backed by the army. His intention was to concentrate authority in order to defend and extend the revolution. There was some resentment, however, and he convoked an assembly on January 2, 1814, to which he explained his dictatorship: “My desire to save you from anarchy and to destroy the enemies who were endeavoring to sustain the oppressors forced me to accept and retain the sovereign power …. I have come to bring you the rule of law. Military despotism cannot ensure the happiness of a people. A victorious soldier acquires no right to rule his country.”24 Subsequent Bolivarian dictatorships, in Peru and in Colombia, embodied the same principles; they were a response to emergency, they represented policies not interests, and they restored law as well as order. Meanwhile, in 1813, Bolívar was dictator of only half of Venezuela, the west. The east was won by Mariño, who also saw himself as a liberator, though he was not preoccupied with definitions of power.25

Bolívar was not alone in his dedication to constitutionalism. General Rafael Urdaneta, a Zulian, was a man of order and authority, but he never became a caudillo, never acquired partidarios or made compromisos binding him to a certain band. He was the complete professional soldier, later an official, executing always the orders of the central government.26 But the supreme example of the noncaudillo was Antonio José de Sucre. As a young man, Sucre in 1813 accompanied the expedition of Mariño and fought in a number of important actions; but unlike his colleagues Manuel Piar, José Francisco Bermúdez, and Manuel Valdés, he did not aspire to be an independent chieftain. He came from a wealthy Cumaná family and had received an education in Caracas. He was interested in the technology of warfare and became an expert in military engineering. “He reduced everything to a method … he was the scourge of disorder,” as Bolívar later wrote of him.27 He served as an officer in the Army of the East for four years, and came under the influence of Bolívar in 1817, accepting appointment to the Liberator’s staff in preference to the factions of the east.

Decisions of this kind were a question of mentality and values. Sucre had a soldier’s respect for obedience to authority. In placing his interests and career in Bolívar’s hands, he added, “I am resolved to obey you blindly and with pleasure.”28 Sucre did not love fighting for fighting’s sake, as did so many caudillos. He preferred people to join the patriot cause out of conviction, and by October 1820 he was satisfied that western Venezuela was convinced: “This triumph of opinion is more brilliant than that of force.”29 Sucre was aware of the alternatives: caudillism or professionalism. In 1817, when acting for Bolívar to “bring in” Mariño, he reported: “I have no doubt that General Mariño will come to heel, as he has no alternative, except to be a guerrilla in the mountains of Güiria.”30 His obedience to Bolívar never faltered. When Francisco Antonio Zea, vice-president of Venezuela, promoted him to the rank of brigadier general, without Bolívar’s cognizance, Sucre explained later “that he had never intended to accept the promotion without General Bolívar’s approval.”31 In Peru he was “the right arm of the Liberator and the mainstay of the army.”32 Sucre and Urdaneta were the leading lights of the Bolivarians, an elite of professional officers devoted to the Liberator in war and to his government in peace.


The years 1813-17 were perhaps the most challenging of Bolívar’s career. While he fought the enemy without, he also had to resist the caudillos within, yet he lacked the resources which these enjoyed. The caudillos conformed to prevailing conditions more closely than he did. In the absence of a national army, personal leadership was bound to be decisive, and without a national objective, the structure of insurgency was inevitably informal.

Mariño was the first caudillo to confront Bolívar. In early 1813 he had under him Bermúdez, Piar, Valdés, and other minor chiefs who had recruited troops after landing at Güiria, forming a force of more than 1,500. After the occupation of Güiria, he captured Maturín and, later in the year, Cumaná and Barcelona. So Mariño grew into a super-caudillo through his style, his victories, and his violence. He repaid cruelty with cruelty. In Cumaná he had forty-seven Spaniards and creoles shot in reprisal; in Barcelona he executed sixty-nine conspirators, because “the life of such men was incompatible with the existence of the State.”33 Naming himself “chief of the independent army,” he established not only an autonomous military command in the east but a political entity separate from Caracas and from the dictatorship of Bolívar. The Liberator, on the other hand, insisted on establishing a central authority for all Venezuela. While it made sense to have two military departments, it was essential to have one central government uniting east and west, Venezuela and New Granada;

If we establish two independent authorities, one in the east and the other in the west, we will create two different nations which, because of their inability to maintain themselves as such, or even more to take their place among other nations, will look ridiculous. Only a Venezuela united with New Granada could form a nation that would inspire in others the proper consideration due to her. How can we think of dividing her into two?34

Thus, Bolívar’s first projection of a greater Colombia, united for national strength and economic viability, was presented as an alternative to the anarchy of local caudillo rule.

Bolívar’s position, weakened by a rival dictatorship in the east, was destroyed by the intervention of the royalist caudillo Boves and the triumph of the counterrevolution. Mariño eventually brought his forces to join those of Bolívar and fought alongside him in February and March 1814. The joint army regrouped at Valencia and Bolívar yielded the command to Mariño, “as a sure sign of his high opinion of his person and services, and also in this way to ensure the adhesion of the eastern officers to the common cause of Venezuela. ”35 Neither the eastern caudillos nor their forces distinguished themselves in these engagements. Bolívar and Mariño had to retreat from central Venezuela to the east, not to a safe base but to caudillo-inspired anarchy. There, in the port of Carúpano, they were repudiated and arrested by their own “officers,” Ribas, Piar, and Bermúdez, and escaped only with difficulty.36

Anarchic and divisive though they were, the caudillos kept the revolution alive during Bolívar’s absence. As José de Austria observed: “While they did not advance, neither could they be totally destroyed.”37 Guerrilla warfare was the appropriate method, given the resources available, the nature of the war, and the strength of the enemy. After the disasters of 1814 and the victory for royalism even in eastern Venezuela, the caudillos slipped away to recover and to fight another day, sure of finding followers, as Mariño did in 1816 from “the slaves and bandits in the mountains of Güiria.”38 It was the counterinsurgency mounted by General Pablo Morillo that brought the caudillos out of their lairs, for it directly attacked the lives, property, and vital interests of themselves and other Venezuelan leaders, and made war the only hope of security, “caught as they were in the desperate alternative of dying or fighting.”39 And so the rural guerrillas were mobilized again, not as a social or political force, but as military units under strong leaders who offered them booty.

Meanwhile in Haiti, where he was planning a new invasion of Venezuela, Bolívar had to resolve the question of leadership. A group of major caudillos was persuaded to recognize his authority for the expedition and until a congress could be held. The vote of the assembly was reinforced in the initial phase of the expedition at Margarita, whose caudillo, Arismendi, was a supporter of Bolívar’s national authority. In a second assembly, held in the presence of Mariño, Piar, and other caudillos, the leadership of Bolívar was confirmed, and a unanimous vote was given against the division of Venezuela into east and west: “that the Republic of Venezuela shall be one and indivisible, that His Excellency, President and Captain General Simón Bolívar is elected and recognized as its Supreme Head, and His Excellency General Santiago Mariño as his second-in-command.”40 At the same time, Bolívar agreed to legitimize the guerrilla chiefs by giving them rank and status in his army; the senior caudillos were made generals and colonels, and the others were given appropriate rank.

These rituals had only a limited significance. One of the reasons why Bolívar did not dominate the caudillos was that he did not dominate the battlefield. After the collapse of the first expedition from Haiti and the catastrophe of Ocumare, he was actually weaker than the caudillos, some of whom had at least secured a foothold in the east. Mariño and Bermúdez were now determined to deal with Bolívar, whom they called a deserter and traitor and regarded as inexpert in the art of war. A proclamation was published in Güiria (August 23, 1816) deposing Bolívar and appointing Mariño as supreme chief, with Bermúdez second-in-command. The army split, and civil war threatened the ranks of insurgency. The caudillos wanted to take Bolívar into custody, and he barely escaped with his life from Güiria to Haiti. The humiliation he suffered in 1816 owed something to his strategic errors. At this point in the revolution it was impossible to win on the northern coast of Venezuela, as it was too well defended. But he had still not learned this lesson or accepted the need for developing another front.

In the second invasion from Haiti, Bolívar landed at Barcelona, and his initial plan was to assemble an army to attack, not Guayana, but the royalist forces blocking the way to Caracas. He thus made himself utterly dependent upon the caudillos, who were already operating separately in various parts of the east. He wrote to one caudillo after another, calling on them to assemble around him in a great proyecto de reunión. He wrote to Piar, who had already marched on Guayana, instructing him to bring in his forces: “Small divisions cannot achieve great objectives. The dispersion of our army, far from helping us, can destroy the Republic. ”41 He wrote to Mariño, Zaraza, Cedeño, and Monagas, ordering, requesting, appealing for unity and obedience. But the caudillos did not suddenly change their ways; they stayed out, pursuing their separate objectives. The great army was an illusion, and Bolívar abandoned his hope of occupying Caracas; he could not even hold Barcelona. He had to make his way to Guayana, still without an army of his own, still without a caudillo power base, the victim not only of inexperience but of guerrilla anarchy.

Bolívar now faced a rebellion of the caudillos. First Bermúdez and Valdés revolted against Mariño, then Mariño against Bolívar, and Piar against all authority. Mariño convoked a minicongress at Cariaco to establish a provisional government and make himself legitimate. On May 9, 1817, he issued a proclamation to the peoples of Venezuela, a sign of his desire to be a national leader, not simply a regional caudillo. But a caudillo could not suddenly become a constitutionalist. This was where Mariño lost his credibility. Bermúdez and Valdés had already left him for Bolívar. Now General Urdaneta, Colonel Sucre, and many other officers who had previously obeyed Mariño went to Guayana to place themselves under Bolívar’s orders. The tide began to turn. Military success in Guayana and his own political sense enabled Bolívar to improve his prospects against the caudillos. It was at this point, when Bolívar was gathering support, that Piar chose to rebel.

Piar was not a typical caudillo, for he did not possess an independent power base, regional or economic. He had to rely on his military abilities alone, rising—“by my sword and good luck”—to the rank of general in the forces of Mariño, a title he conferred upon himself.42 He was a pardo from Curasao and he made the pardos his constituency.43 Bolívar, too, wanted to recruit coloreds, to free the slaves and incorporate the pardos, in order to tilt the balance of military forces toward the republic, but he did not propose to mobilize them politically. Bolívar suffered much else from Piar, from his arrogance, ambition, and insubordination, yet he tried to repay insults with reason: “If we destroy ourselves through conflicts and anarchy, we will clear the republican ranks and they will rightly call us vagrants.”44 But Piar was uncontrollable. He claimed the Orinoco campaign as his own theater of war, Guayana and the Missions as his private domain. A contest for supremacy turned into outright rebellion. He appeared not to realize that the balance of power was turning against the caudillos, or perhaps this was what drove him. The victory over the royalists at Angostura confirmed Bolívar’s power and placed the initiative with him. He decided the moment had come to challenge factionalism and dissidence in the east, and in this mood he ordered Piar and his Cumaná band to be hunted down.45 Piar was captured, tried, and sentenced to death as a deserter, a rebel, and a traitor. Bolívar confirmed the sentence and had him publicly executed, “for proclaiming the odious principles of race war … for inciting civil war, and for encouraging anarchy.”46 Piar represented regionalism, personalism, and Black revolution. Bolívar stood for centralism, constitutionalism, and race harmony. He later commented:

The death of General Piar was a political necessity which saved the country, for otherwise he would have started a war of pardos against whites, leading to the extermination of the latter and the triumph of the Spaniards. General Mariño also deserved to die because of his dissidence, but he was not so dangerous and therefore policy could yield to humanity and even to an old friendship …. never was there a death more useful, more politic, and at the same time more deserved.47

The claim had a certain justification. Bolívar simultaneously warned and reassured the creole caudillos.


Bolívar now took his campaign for supremacy a stage further. With the authority and resources won from the victory in Guayana, he began to impose a unified army structure on the caudillos, to institutionalize the army, and to establish a clear chain of command. The decree of September 24, 1817, marked the beginning of his campaign against personalism and for professionalism. This created the General Staff “for the organization and direction of the armies,” a Staff for the whole army, and one for each division. The Staff was part of a career structure open to talent; it was also the source of command, instructions, and orders downward to commanders, officers, and troops.48

The caudillos became generals and regional commanders; their hordes became soldiers and subject to military discipline defined at the center. Reform extended to recruitment. Commanders were given quotas and encouraged to seek troops beyond their original constituencies. Bolívar fought against regionalism and immobility, and projected a Venezuelan army with a national identity:

The frequent desertion of soldiers from one division to another on the pretext of being natives of the province where their chosen division is operating, is a cause of disorder and insubordination in the army and encourages a spirit of regionalism which we have tried so hard to destroy. All Venezuelans ought to have the same interest in defending the territory of the Republic where they have been born as their brothers, for Venezuela is no more than one single family composed of many individuals bound together by indissoluble ties and by identical interests.49

He urged the caudillos to help each other, ordering them to transfer men and supplies wherever necessary, “according to the development of the war.” He did not succeed in integrating Venezuelan insurgency into a single army, and it remained a collection of local forces. But unity was his ideal. His object was to end dissidence, to harness regional resources, and to inspire a national effort. In the course of 1817-19, he organized three military groups, the Army of the East, the Army of the West, and the Army of the Center, under himself. Finally, he created a council of state as an interim measure until a constitution could be established after liberation. This consisted of the chief military and civil officers, and existed to deal with matters of state, defense, and justice. It was advisory only, and depended on the supreme chief for its meeting.50

Caudillos who collaborated were employed in specific assignments. After the execution of Piar, Mariño was isolated and his government collapsed. Bolívar could afford to await his voluntary submission. He sent Colonel Sucre on a mission of pacification to persuade Mariño’s allies and subordinates to acknowledge the authority of the supreme chief. His charges against Mariño were expressed in precise terms: while Piar was a “rebel,” Mariño was a “dissident,” a threat to authority and unity, and Bolívar made clear his determination “to break up the faction of which you are caudillo.”51 Bermúdez was appointed governor and military commandant of Cumaná, a province so impoverished by war that it was incapable of sustaining independent caudillism and had to be supplied from outside.52 Bolívar now approved of Bermúdez: “He has a great reputation in his country, is well liked, obedient, and a keen defender of the government.”53 Not everyone agreed.

Coercion of the caudillos was not complete. Bolívar’s policy of using caudillos to control caudillos had only limited success. While he regarded Bermúdez as an agent of unification, others knew him as a savage and vindictive rival, a medium of discord, not peace, the archcaudillo, who happened now to be on Bolívar’s side. Mariño rejected the mission of Bermúdez and swore that “no power on earth would remove him from his province.”54 Conflict between the two Caudillos simply held up the military effort in 1818 and enabled the royalists to dominate Cumaná. It was some time before Bolívar could pacify Mariño and persuade him to collaborate in an attack on the enemy; and late in 1818 he appointed him general-in-chief of the Army of the East, with jurisdiction in the llanos of Barcelona, while other eastern districts were assigned to Bermúdez and Cedeño. But the struggle with caudillism was not over. Having reconciled the easterners, Bolívar had still to win over the strongman of the west, José Antonio Páez.

Páez was the perfect caudillo, the model against which all others were measured. He was of, yet above, the llaneros; in, yet outside, the llanos. However modest his origins, he did not come from the margin of society. H e was a bianco, his father was a petty official, and he had fled into the llanos from Barinas, becoming a cavalry captain in the army of the First Republic. He underwent recognizable preparations for leadership, learning llanero life the hard way on a cattle estate, and he became more successful than others in plundering, fighting, and killing. His qualities of leadership attracted his first followers, and plunder retained them. Like most caudillos he specialized in guerrilla fighting rather than regular warfare, knowing the plains and rivers of the southwest and the tactics suitable for that region. He was the prototype of the man on horseback, lance at the ready, leading his bands in cattle raiding, in fighting rivals, in defeating Spaniards. The ideological commitment of his followers was slight, and booty was a greater interest. His troops, or some of them, had previously fought for the enemy, “composed in large part of those ferocious and valiant zambos, mulattos, and Blacks who had formed the army of Boves.”55 But Páez had his own methods with the llaneros. Many of the Venezuelan officers he regarded as barbarians and assassins. Unlike them, he did not kill prisoners. Royalist llaneros received fair treatment. Those who were interested were welcomed into the patriot forces; the rest were sent home to spread his reputation for tolerance and gain more adherents. This was the force which he fashioned into an army of cavalry. This was the force which Bolívar wanted for the army of independence.

Páez had already won a leadership struggle in 1816 before he faced Bolívar. Most Venezuelans regarded the phantom government of Dr. Fernando Serrano at Trinidad de Arichuna as irrelevant, and they had little confidence in Colonel Francisco de Paula Santander, the New Granadan officer whom Serrano had appointed commander-in-chief of the Army of the West. This was a case, as José de Austria pointed out, where a formal “constitutional” structure, isolated and powerless, had to yield to a more realistic authority, the caudillo; for the local military “did not recognize any superior authority other than that gained by the valor and daring with which they fought ….” What the llanero soldiers wanted and the situation demanded was “an absolute military chief” in command of operations, recruits, and resources. The so-called military revolt of Arichuna, therefore, was not a caudillo coup but a spontaneous movement among officers, llaneros, and priests to produce a leader who could deliver them from the enemy. “The instinct of self-preservation was the principal incentive. Colonel Santander was not the leader needed for that war: in other campaigns, in other military and civil duties, his knowledge and intelligence could be useful; but for the difficulties then prevailing he lacked the essential qualities.”56 According to Páez, he was “elected” to replace Santander, for the troops wanted “a supreme chief. ”57 There was a certain truth in the claim: this was how a caudillo was made, and these were his qualities, voted upon by a junta of senior military commanders in the Apure. It was a different route from that taken by Bolívar.

The guerrilla war which Páez then waged was a personal triumph; in the lands of the Arauca River and the plains of the Apure he was supreme. But his force was not effectively linked to the independence movement, and while the Spaniards were harassed, they were not destroyed. Bolívar knew that he needed Páez and his army for the revolution. The two leaders came to terms.

Páez claimed that he commanded in the Apure “with absolute independence and answerable to no human power.” Yet when Bolívar sent two officers from Guayana to ask that Páez recognize him as “supreme head of the republic,” the caudillo did not hesitate; he agreed without even consulting the officers who had elected him, and insisted to his reluctant troops that they do the same. So Páez submitted his authority to that of the Liberator, “taking into account the military talents of Bolívar, the prestige of his name and his reputation abroad, and realizing above all the advantage to be derived from a supreme and central authority which would direct the different caudillos operating in various parts …. ”58 When Páez first met Bolívar in the llanos at San Juan de Payara, he was struck by the contrast between his civilized manner and the wild surroundings, between his refined appearance and the barbarism of the llaneros: “There could be seen in one place the two indispensable elements to make war: the intellectual force which plans and organizes, and the material which brings them to effect, qualities which assist each other and which are ineffective without the other.”59 Páez was characteristically wrong in assuming that Bolívar was an intellectual only. Moreover, he still played with the idea of an independent authority, and when a group of officers and llaneros at San Fernando de Apure attempted to install him as general-in-chief, he accepted, and it needed firm action by Bolívar to nip this movement in the bud. In his autobiography, Páez told the story as an innocent bystander, but this was not the impression of O’Leary.60

This and other incidents did not go unnoticed at the time. The caudillos were not helpless creatures of events; political and military options were open to them. This was why contemporary historians tended to criticize them for insubordination. Páez rejected the criticism:

Sr. Restrepo, speaking of the guerrilla chiefs who operated in various parts of Venezuela, says that they behaved like great lords of feudal times, with absolute independence, and that only slowly and reluctantly, especially the present writer, did they submit to the authority of the supreme chief. This historian forgets that at the time to which he refers there was no central government, and force of circumstances obliged the military chieftains to exercise an independent authority, as they did until Bolívar returned from abroad and requested us to recognize his authority as supreme chief.61

Páez omits to say that there were still many examples of insubordination. In February 1818, he refused to follow Bolívar’s lead and take the offensive to the enemy, and instead continued to press the siege of San Fernando. There were good military reasons for his decision. San Fernando was important in itself and for an opening to New Granada, while to pursue Morillo northward into the mountains was to take the patriot cavalry into territory where the Spanish infantry was superior. The subsequent campaign was not to Bolívar’s advantage. But there were also political elements in the caudillo’s action, as O’Leary points out:

In this, too, Bolívar had to acquiesce, because the troops of the Apure were more like the contingent of a confederate state than a division of his army. They wanted to return to their homes …. Páez, accustomed to exercise a despotic will and the enemy of all subordination, could not reconcile himself to an authority which he had so recently recognized. And Bolívar, for his part, was too shrewd and tactful to exasperate the violent and impetuous Páez.62

Bolívar still understood the limits of his authority and his dependence on the resources of individual chieftains in his army. O’Leary compared it to the relation between monarchs and powerful feudal barons in medieval Europe. In preparing to invade New Granada, Bolívar was careful to avoid trouble from the caudillos, aware of the danger behind him as well as of the enemy ahead.

Bolívar led a trained army into New Granada, and the victory of Boyacá in August 1819 set the seal of success on his authority and his strategy. Meanwhile, in Venezuela, the caudillos were engaged in smaller operations, not always successfully and rarely in agreement among themselves. Páez ignored specific instructions from Bolívar to move toward Cúcuta and cut the enemy communications with Venezuela.63 Mariño failed to link up with Bermúdez. Urdaneta was obliged to take Arismendi prisoner for insubordination. And the caudillos now vented their hostility not directly on Bolívar but on the government in Angostura, especially the vice-president, Francisco Antonio Zea, who was a civilian, a Granadme, and a political weakling, qualities held in little respect by Venezuelan caudillos.64 They forced Zea to resign, Congress elected Arismendi in his place, and he in turn appointed Mariño general-in-chief, based at Maturín. Thus in the course of September 1819 the caudillos staged a comeback, expressing and exploiting Venezuelan nationalism in a way which was a warning for the future. But this victory was only temporary, for the news of Boyacá was already undermining the rebellion; Bolívar was now powerful enough to overlook it and to post Arismendi and Bermúdez to military commands in the east.65 His next task was to end the war in Venezuela and prepare for a postwar settlement.


The Carabobo campaign was important not only for the defeat of the Spaniards but also for the further integration of the caudillos into a national army. As divisional commanders, they led their troops out of their homelands to serve under a commander-in-chief whom they had so often repudiated in the past. To bring the republican army to its most effective position at the right time in the course of June 1821—this marked true progress in organization and discipline, the direct result of the military reforms of Bolívar. As the army advanced in search of its adversary, it consisted of three divisions: the first commanded by General Páez, the second under General Cedeño, and the third in reserve commanded by Colonel Plaza; General Mariño served on the General Staff of the Liberator himself. Bolívar described this army as “the greatest and finest ever to bear arms in Colombia on any battlefield.”66 The victory of June 24 crowned these great troop movements. Cedeño and Plaza fell in battle. Páez was promoted to general-in-chief on the field. And Mariño was left as commander-in-chief of the army, while Bolívar and Páez went on to enter Caracas. Carabobo, however, did not signify the death of the caudillos. While these warriors could be organized for war and marched into battle, peace would let them loose again.

In the aftermath of Carabobo, Bolívar’s satisfaction was tempered by his awareness of postwar political problems. He despaired of Venezuela: “This is chaos; it is impossible to do anything good here, because the good men have disappeared and the bad have multiplied.”67 If Venezuela were to organize itself peacefully, it was essential to satisfy and to coopt the caudillos. This he did in two ways: by giving them regional appointments and by granting them land.

On July 16, 1821, Bolívar issued a decree which in effect institutionalized caudillism. In the west he established two politico-military regions, one for Páez, the other for Mariño. The eastern provinces he assigned to Bermúdez. Overtly all three were equal, and the country so divided into departments entered into the republic of Colombia on the same footing as other provinces. But from the start, the government of Páez enjoyed hegemony, and from a regional caudillo Páez became a national hero, indisputable military and political leader of Venezuela. Established in the country’s socioeconomic center around Caracas, commander of what remained of a disciplined army, the soldiers of the llanos of Apure, Páez was well placed to impose his authority over the other military caudillos, attentive to the oligarchy who surrounded him and the masses who idolized him. Mariño, rooted out from his homeland in the east and deserted by his own caudillos—Bermúdez, Monagas, Valdés—had lost his base, his clients, his patronage. General Páez was thus promoted to a position from which in one form or another he was to dominate Venezuela for the next twenty-five years.

But had Bolívar any alternative? While he was away in Colombia and Peru, he had to leave Páez in charge and the caudillos in their homelands, as this seemed the only realistic way to govern Venezuela, by a system of power applied from strong personal domains. The professional military he kept with him for his campaigns outside Venezuela, for they were more mobile than the caudillos, more useful as officers, and less motivated by political ambitions. But after the war, their only base was the professional army, their career was the revolution, while the caudillo had come to represent basic economic and political interests that were virtually unchallengeable by the Bolivarians. Meanwhile, the civilian legislators had begun to resent the military, both caudillos and professionals, and to attack their claims upon resources. The House of Representatives in Bogotá sought to remove the military fuero and abolish the right of soldiers to vote in 1825. O’Leary thought they were going too far and too fast, for the soldiers had won the war and the republic still needed them. In Colombia, he argued, men were everything, institutions nothing:

The government was still sustained through the influence and power of the caudillos who had made independence: institutions by themselves had no force at all; the people were a machine which had ceased to function, being too ignorant to take action; what is known as public spirit did not exist. It was not politic, therefore, to provoke so powerful a class [the caudillos] in society.68

If the war of independence was a struggle for power, it was also a dispute over resources, and the caudillos fought for land as well as for liberty. Bolívar was the first to acknowledge this and to provide economic incentive as well as political access. His decree of September 3, 1817, ordered the confiscation by the state of all property and land of the enemy, Americans as well as Spaniards, to be sold in public auction to the highest bidder, or, failing that, to be rented out on behalf of the national treasury.69 The property was used not only as an immediate income for the patriot government, but also as a source of land grants to officers and soldiers of the republic according to their rank, promotion being regarded as a gauge of service. The decree of October 10, 1817, ordered grants ranging from 25,000 pesos for a general-in-chief to 500 for an ordinary soldier.70 The scheme was confined to those who had fought in the campaigns of 1816-19, and the intention, as Bolívar put it, was “to make of each soldier a property-owning citizen.”71 It was also necessary to find a substitute for a salary.

The caudillos were the first to benefit. One of the earliest grants, by special request of Bolívar to the National Land Commission, was that to General Cedeño, to enable him to establish a hacienda in the sabanas of Palmar.72 Even those out of favor were among the first recipients. The Congress of Angostura in December 1819 confirmed the award of cacao haciendas in Güiria and Yaguarapo to Mariño and Arismendi.73 These were properties confiscated from Spaniards. The government also granted certain old properties belonging to Spaniards to Urdaneta, Bermúdez, and Soublette, most of whom had entered the war of independence without any kind of property. From 1821, the caudillos were pressing their claims for specific haciendas and lands directly on the executive, who usually preferred to pass the requests to the land tribunals. The most desirable properties were the commercial plantations in the north, many of whose owners had, if only nominally, supported the cause of independence and now fiercely resisted any attack on their property, even by the caudillos.

Páez was the most successful of all the caudillos. Yet Páez had used land as a medium of mobilization very early in his campaign.

When General Páez occupied Apure in 1816 he found himself alone in enemy territory … he was therefore forced to offer his troops a free share in the properties belonging to the government of Apure. This was one of the most effective ways of retaining the support of the troops and attracting new recruits, as they all stood the same chance of gaining.74

This policy did not materialize, for Páez proved to be more interested in his own acquisitions than in those of his men.

Even before the end of the war in Venezuela, Páez was granted “by the General Congress the right to redistribute national properties as President of the Republic,” though it was confined to the army of Apure and the territory under his jurisdiction. These special prerogatives were delegated by Bolívar out of frustration over the failure of previous attempts to redistribute land among the military.75 Before distribution, however, Páez acquired the best properties for himself. His holdings were not restricted to the llanos, but extended into the center-north, the homeland of the traditional oligarchy. He began to appropriate land on a large scale in the valleys of Aragua in October 1821, when he applied for ownership of the Hacienda de la Trinidad, one of the largest in the area and previously the property of an emigrado, Antonio Fernández de León, whose family had founded the estate in the eighteenth century. He was awarded the property in November in exchange for the payment of wages in arrears. He also succeeded in his bid for the Yagua ranch.76 A few years later, in 1825, he made an overtly generous offer to the vice-president of Colombia to donate his land to the nation so that the troops could be granted the land they had been promised in lieu of wages. But this gesture was purely demagogic: it enabled him to act as a patrón and retain the loyalty of the troops, while reserving the right to buy back the debt vouchers, which were the first—and often the only—stage of a land grant.77 These were the tactics of many caudillos, who offered the troops sums of money (sometimes 50 or 60 pesos for vouchers worth 1,000) in exchange for these land certificates, a notorious abuse which extended throughout Venezuela and New Granada.

Acquisition of land and the formation of estates helped to keep the caudillos in a state of contentment in the years immediately after independence and prevented them from turning their menacing gaze upon the central oligarchy. A new elite of landowners, rewarded from sequestered property or from public land, joined the colonial proprietors and in some cases replaced them. According to Santander, under the law of July 25, 1823, some 4,800,000 acres had been distributed or offered to claimants in settlement of military pay, and more land was being sought by Congress for such purposes from the national total of some 640,000,000 acres.78 Meanwhile, the military, who had not received their due, complained bitterly over the operations of the land commissions. From east to west there were accusations of favoritism, inertia, and inefficiency. A complainant in Cumaná drew attention not only to family influence but also to “deference to class,” in favor of the few against the many.79

First among the few was Páez. He was shrewd enough to realize that control of local resources, indispensable for a local caudillo, was insufficient for access to national power. The cattle ranches of the llanos and the sugar estates of Cumaná could give leaders like Páez and Mariño bases for regional action, but in the ultimate analysis these economies were dependent upon Caracas and subordinate to its interests. This was the reason why Páez and other political pretenders sought land in the center-north and an alliance with the established elite of that region. Páez was successful in acquiring a new power base and in reassuring the landowners, merchants, and officeholders of Caracas that he stood for order and stability; they in turn tamed their chosen caudillo, dissuaded him from pursuing abolition of slavery, and converted him to new economic priorities. Thus, he came to identify with the agricultural and commercial interests of Caracas; he turned his back on the llanos and the other regional economies, and accepted the hegemony of the northern hacendados and the exporting sector.

This was in the future. Meanwhile, in the mid-1820s, Páez led the Venezuelan oligarchy in a separatist movement which would place their country under the control of the national elite, ruled from Caracas and not from Bogotá, and monopolizing its own resources. This was an alliance of landowners and military caudillos on behalf of a conservative and independent Venezuela. But a movement against Colombia was a movement against Bolívar and led to a new stage of caudillo history.


Bolívar was not preoccupied by caudillos; he saw them as an inevitable part of the postrevolutionary settlement, as they had been an essential feature of the war.

I believe that Venezuela could very well be governed by Páez, with a good secretary and a good adviser like General Briceño Méndez, and with the help of 4,000 men of the army which went to Peru …. I want Briceño Méndez to go to Caracas to marry my niece and become adviser to Páez … General Mariño would not do as intendant, but he can serve well as commanding general, though General Clemente could do better. General Páez, together with Briceño Méndez, will rule the region to perfection, as Páez is feared by all the factious elements and the others are secondary.80

Dissident caudillos he distrusted, and for this reason he did not like the idea of Mariño returning to political activity, least of all in the east; but where a caudillo was amenable, he regarded him as an asset for a country like Venezuela. Yet the problem was more complex. Páez as a medium of authority was useful; Páez as a national leader was dangerous.

Páez had few political ideas of his own and was prone to take advice; not, however, from Pedro Briceño Méndez or other Bolivarians, but from a faction in Caracas which Bolívar called “the demagogues.” These encouraged him to believe that he had not received the power and recognition he deserved. His exasperation with legislators and politicians focused especially on those in Bogotá, civilians whom he regarded as oppressors of the “poor military. ” In 1825 he urged Bolívar to take greater, even monarchical, powers and to make himself a Napoleon of South America. Bolívar rejected the idea, pointing out that Colombia was not France and he was not Napoleon.81

In April 1826, Páez was relieved of his command and summoned to Bogotá for impeachment by Congress on charges of illegal and arbitrary conduct in recruiting civilians for the militia in Caracas. The object, as Santander explained, was “to make the first chiefs of the republic understand that their services and heroism are not a license to abuse the citizens.”82 But Páez resisted. Backed by the llaneros, and prompted perhaps by the Venezuelan military and the federalists around him, he raised the banner of revolt on April 30, first in Valencia, then in the Department of Venezuela. There was much support for him, though not universal support, for a sense of national identity was not sufficiently developed to appeal to everyone. His action was divisive. The other caudillos reacted variously. Mariño aligned himself with Páez; Bermúdez rejected him.

In Zulia, meanwhile, General Urdaneta awaited orders from Bogotá and remained a loyal Bolivarian. Like many of the military, however, he derived satisfaction from Páez’s opposition to Congress, as it reinforced their pressure on Bolívar to establish a stronger government. Bolívar was now the focus of the personalism that he so abhorred. The British consul in Maracaibo reported, after an interview with Urdaneta, that the military “remain constant in their attachment and obedience to their Chiefs, rather than to the Constitution and to Congress, and hope much from the return of the President … the civil power and republican principles have been making too rapid, or rather too rash, strides to destroy the military aristocracy ….” According to the same source, the military were disillusioned with a government “monopolized by General Santan der and by a faction of shopkeepers at Bogotá …. My impression is that there are very few military men in the country that would not cheerfully cry out tomorrow, Long live King Bolívar …83 Whatever the accuracy of this impression, it confirmed other indications that military opinion placed all its hopes in Bolívar.

Bolívar s reaction to the rebellion of Páez was ambivalent. He did not approve of military rebellion against civil power. Yet in this particular case he had more sympathy with Páez than with Santander and the legislators, whom he saw as destroying their liberators and causing resentment among the military. He also knew that they were being unrealistic in trying to deprive a caudillo of his military command. He did not wish to become personally involved, for, if he failed, he risked his own authority. It was in this mood that he wrote his dramatic analysis of the racial origins and the moral history of Americans and expressed his preference for an “able despotism. ” Given the socioracial formation of America, he asked, “Can we place laws above heroes and principles above men?”84 Bolívar here recognized the force of personalism and the power of the strongman, and gave it a structural explanation. It was in this context, too, that he wrote to Páez, admitting the danger of demoralizing the army and provoking provinces into taking power unto themselves. He denounced democrats and fanatics and asked, “Who shall restrain the oppressed classes? Slavery will break its yoke, each shade of complexion will seek mastery.”85 And the answer? In due course, it was his Bolivian constitution with a life-term president empowered to appoint his successor. Meanwhile, the government had to maintain law and order “by means of the press, the pulpit, and the bayonet.”86 So Bolívar stood for the continuation of Colombia under his dictatorship, exercised through extraordinary powers which the constitution allowed him, and the reconciliation of Venezuela through necessary reforms.

The conflict between centralism and federalism, therefore, contained a racial problem, or so Bolívar believed. He was aware that there were strong objections to the choice of Bogotá as capital, not least the fact of its remoteness. But he argued that there was no alternative, “for though Caracas appeared to be the more natural spot, from being more populous and influential, yet the province was chiefly composed of people of color who were jealous of and opposed to the white inhabitants, and it was desirable consequently for the general tranquility to diminish rather than augment the influence of Caracas.”87 From the same facts the Venezuelan ruling class drew precisely the opposite conclusion. They wanted proximate power, even home rule, for Venezuela, “a very energetic and concentrated system in consequence of its containing a great diversity of color.”88 Racial tension and pardo ambition required close supervision and control, and the elite could not but support Páez, because, like Juan Manuel de Rosas in Buenos Aires, he was virtually the only leader who could control the popular classes.

Bolívar moved into Venezuela in late 1826 to confront the rebellion of Páez. He warned the caudillo of his previous encounters with personalism.

General Castillo opposed me and lost; General Piar opposed me and lost; General Mariño opposed me and lost; General Riva-Agüero opposed me and lost; and General Torre Tagle opposed me and lost. It would seem that Providence condemns my personal enemies, whether American or Spanish, to perdition. But see how far Generals Sucre, Santander, and Santa Cruz have gone.89

He also made it clear that he went as president and not in a personal capacity, pointing out that his was the only legitimate sovereignty in Venezuela, whereas Páez’s command came from the municipalities and was born in violence. Although he mobilized his forces, he did not want further violence. He had come to save Páez “from the crime of civil war.”90 Conciliation was also favored by the majority opinion in both countries. There was little alternative. Bolívar was aware of the danger of trying to use force against Páez, “since almost all the principal military commands throughout Colombia are filled by natives of Caracas.”91 So he compromised. On January 1, 1827, he received Páez’s submission, but at a price, namely, total amnesty for all the rebels, guarantees of security in their offices and property, and promises of constitutional reform.

Bolívar governed Venezuela in person from January to June 1827. He incurred the most scathing criticism of Santander and his supporters for leniency toward Páez and for unconstitutional tendencies. He confirmed Páez in his command with the title Superior Chief of Venezuela, a title which did not exist in the constitution and which Bolívar produced to recognize the facts of the case and legitimize a caudillo. Páez would never obey Bogotá, but he might obey Bolívar. Yet Páez’s political role was determined not only by Bolívar. He was recognized as a valuable leader by the Caracas landowners, merchants, and others of the coalition that he kept together on a platform of peace and security and on the awareness of a mutual need.


Bolívar left Venezuela to the rule of Páez and returned to Bogotá in September to assume command of the administration. Amidst the growing anarchy of 1828, when the independence of the great magnates and the restlessness of the masses threatened to destroy the young republic, he spoke compulsively of the need for “strong government.” “I foresee the certain destruction of Colombia unless the government is given an enormous power, capable of stifling the anarchy which will raise a thousand seditious heads.”92 He believed that the constitution did not conform to the social structure: “We have made the executive subordinate to the legislative, which has been given a far greater share in administration than the nation’s true interests require.”93 He also believed that the legislative had excessive power over the military; it had given the civil courts absolute control in military cases, thus destroying discipline and undermining the confidence of the army. But he had little hope in the Congress of Ocaña and was strongly critical of its factionalism and hostility to Bolivarian policies. He was also outraged when the convention endorsed the rebellion of the pardo General José Padilla, who sought to rally Cartagena against Bolívar in favor of Santander and the Constitution of Cúcuta, a rebellion based on the pardo population of the coast. His own view was that Padilla should be tried according to the law as an example to others, and in due course he was.94

The rebellion of Padilla had the “effect of rallying all the people of property and influence round the person of General Bolívar, as the only one capable of now restoring tranquility in Colombia.”95 As the Convention of Ocaña broke up in deadlock, Bolívar took the next logical step: he assumed dictatorship in June 1828, with apparently wide support; for he alone commanded respect, and Colombia needed what O’Leary called “the magic of his prestige” to restore government and stability.96 Yet even when he exercised absolute power in 1828-30, Bolívar did not rule like a caudillo or a despot; his dictatorship responded to no particular social or regional interest, and his respect for the rule of law did not desert him. In 1829 he rejected a project to establish a monarchy in Colombia, presented to him without previous consultation.97 He did not substantially extend his extraordinary powers. There was a decree on conspiracy (February 20, 1828) already in existence, but it was not effectively applied, and he himself was the victim of an assassination attempt on September 25, 1828. This was not a caudillo-type conspiracy, much less a mass revolt, but an attempted coup designed to overthrow Bolívar. The moving spirit behind it was Santander, and the agents were Granadme army officers. Condemned to death by military tribunal, Santander was pardoned by Bolívar on the advice of his ministers, advice he bitterly resented. Piar, Padilla, and others had died for the crime of rebellion, so why should Santander escape? Bolívar dreaded above all the resentment of the pardos. “Those of the same class as Piar and Padilla will say, and justifiably, that I have shown weakness only in favor of this infamous white, whose services do not compare with those of these famous patriots.”98

The dictatorship of Bolívar had support from the Bolivarians and the caudillos alike. In 1828 Sucre advised him that the people were disillusioned with written guarantees and theoretical liberty, and only wanted security of their persons and property, protected by a strong government. A year later Sucre added:

I will always be sorry that in order to obtain this internal peace and stability you have not made use of your dictatorial power to give Colombia a constitution, which would have been sustained by the army, the cause of so many revolts against the laws. What the people want is peace and guarantees; as for the rest, I do not believe that they dispute for principles or political theories, which have caused so much damage to their right of property and security.99

Páez recognized the dictatorship promptly and considered it the best solution against the factionalism of the military and the mischief of the liberals. Dictator and caudillo both wanted the same thing, strong government and stability. Páez, it is true, also wanted the independence of Venezuela, but peacefully and without another revolution, because, as Soublette reported, “he does not have the will to start another revolution, nor does he dare to break his often-repeated oaths of allegiance to you.”100 Bolívar seemed to accept that Venezuela, with its military fiefdoms so unlike the rest of Colombia, might have to go its own way. He recognized that the center was too remote from the outlying districts, and government authority was dissipated by distance. “There is no prefect, no governor, who does not invest himself with supreme authority, principally as a matter of absolute necessity. It might be said that each department is a government distinct from the national, modified by local conditions or circumstances peculiar to the area, or even personal in nature.”101 These were the conditions which bred caudillos. But what was their legitimacy?

Are the military always to rule sword in hand? Will not the civilian population complain of the despotism of the army? I admit that the existing Republics cannot be governed except by the sword, and yet at the same time I cannot concede that the military spirit is incompatible with civilian rule.102

Bolívar had now reached the peak of personal power. In spite of his preference for a political over a military solution, in spite of his long search for constitutional forms, he fell back in the end on personal authority, ruling through a dictatorship and coopting the caudillos into a system which appealed to their own instincts on government. His dilemma remained unresolved. Every political measure, the Bolivian constitution, the life-term presidency, the liberal regime in Colombia, received only partial or temporary support, and that because of the prestige of the Liberator. Nothing else endured. Such social mobilization as had taken place during the war was now ended. Even political participation by the creole elite was limited, except insofar as regional caudillos ruled in collaboration with local interests. The irreducible fact remained, that the source of the dictator’s legitimacy was his own personal qualities. Bolívar ruled alone, the only stable thing in a world in turmoil.

At this moment, his judgment impaired perhaps by his very isolation, he presented the caudillos with a needless advantage. Unreconciled to a purely personalist solution, he decided to consult the people. On October 16, 1829, the Ministry of the Interior issued Bolívar’s celebrated circular letter (August 31, 1829) authorizing, indeed ordering, that public meetings be held where the citizens could give their opinion on a new form of government and the future organization of Colombia.103 This was for Congress to determine, but the elected deputies were to attend Congress not as free agents but as delegates mandated by written instructions. So Bolívar sought the will of the people and undertook to be bound by it, for good or for ill.104 But were the people free to express their will? Would not the caudillos control or intimidate the assemblies? Bolívar’s closest friends and advisers had grave reservations about this procedure. Sucre advised him to reduce it to the simple right of petition; otherwise, the right to give binding instructions “will revive local pretensions.”105

Indeed, the separatists immediately exploited these meetings to secure the opinions they wanted. Representation could not in itself frustrate caudillism. In Caracas the meeting of the people on November 25, 1829, was preceded on the night before by a meeting of 400 leading citizens in the house of the caudillo Arismendi, and with other generals present, who pronounced for the independence of Venezuela and against Bolívar. Another example of pressure was given in a complaint from the town of Escuque to General Páez against the procedures adopted by the military commander of the district of Trujillo, Colonel Cegarra.

Even the popular assemblies have been the occasion of his insolence, since he has insisted that the citizens sign not what has been said and agreed in their meetings, but various papers which he himself has written in his own home, threatening with violence those who refused to obey. Is this freedom, Sir? Can a people speak freely when at the very time of their assembly they see a squadron of cavalry and a company of fusiliers forming up in the main square? If the papers which Sr. Cegarra wanted us to sign had contained fair and reasoned complaints, then our approval might have been sought at an opportune moment. But to require us to subscribe to a lot of insults, abuse, and insolence against General Bolívar does not seem proper, for we have always believed that we could reject his authority yet treat him with respect. 106

Most of the towns and districts of Venezuela pronounced for independence from Colombia, and in favor of Páez against Bolívar, whom they called a tyrant and worse. The majority of the caudillos wanted independence. “The untrammeled expression of popular desires” so ardently sought by Bolívar turned into a torrent of abuse and negation, and the Constitutional Congress of Colombia solved nothing.

In March 1830 Bolívar formally resigned his military and political offices, knowing that Venezuela and the caudillos had repudiated him. Bermúdez issued a strident proclamation calling Venezuela to arms against the “despot,” the promoter of monarchy, the enemy of the republic.107 Mariño, who claimed to know “the virtues, the views, the particular interests of every inhabitant of Cumaná,” was outraged when Bolívar refused to employ him in the east.108 Páez wanted an independent Venezuela, and independence meant opposing Bolívar. Caudillism now advanced because it coincided with Venezuelan nationalism, and this was an expression of interests as well as of identity. The caudillos had begun as local leaders with access to limited resources. War gave them the opportunity to improve their personal fortunes and expand their bases of power. Peace brought them even greater rewards, and these they were determined to keep. The caudillos abandoned Colombia because they were Venezuelans and because they were resolved to retain Venezuelan resources for themselves and their clients. Caudillism and nationalism reinforced each other.

The Constituent Congress of Venezuela assembled in Valencia on May 6, 1830. From his headquarters at San Carlos, Páez sent a message: “My sword, my lance and all my military triumphs are subject to the decisions of the law, in respect and obedience. ”109 It was a double-edged remark, reminding the legislators that, with his llaneros behind him and the oligarchy of wealth and office at his side, he was the supreme power in the land. This Congress founded the sovereign and independent republic of Venezuela, in which Páez retained the dual authority of president and army commander. As for Bolívar, he was deeply disillusioned: “The tyrants of my country have taken it from me and I am banished; now I have no homeland for which to sacrifice myself.”110

Caudillism was not a preoccupation of Bolívar’s political thought. The failure of the First Republic he attributed to federalism and weak government. The collapse of the Second Republic he blamed on disunity and inexperience. He then had to work with the caudillos to revive the revolution. After 1819 he denounced lawyers, legislators, and liberals. In 1826 he identified “two monstrous enemies” in the speech presenting his draft constitution to the Bolivian Congress. “Tyranny and anarchy constitute an immense sea of oppression encircling a tiny island of freedom.”111 Colombians, he lamented, were “seduced by freedom,” each person wanting absolute power for himself and refusing any subordination. This led to civilian factions, military risings, and provincial rebellions. To counter anarchy he advocated a strong executive power and a life-term president. Caudillos were good or bad according to whether they were instruments of government or anarchy. In describing the political world around him, Bolívar did not isolate caudillism as a particular phenomenon. This was left to subsequent historians.

Bolívar neither promoted caudillism nor prevented it. While he abhorred personalism and was sorely tried by “the old caudillos,” as he called the eastern chieftains, he seems to have accepted their existence as a fact of life and sought to institutionalize their system, first within the army of liberation, then in the political settlement which followed. In the end, he failed to coopt the caudillos into a Colombian constitution, and their rule outlasted his own.


Gerhard Masur, Simon Bolivar (Albuquerque, 1948), p. 184.


Vicente Lecuna, Catálogo de errores y calumnias en la historia de Bolívar, 3 vols. (New York, 1956-58), I, 157-159; Stephen K. Stoan, Pablo Morillo and Venezuela, 1815-1820 (Columbus, 1974), p. 163; Paul Verna, Las minas del Libertador (Caracas, 1977), pp. 179-181.


Richard Vowell, Campañas y cruceros (Caracas, 1973), pp. 65-66.


Eric R. Wolf and Edward C. Hansen, “Caudillo Politics: A Structural Analysis,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 9 (1966-67), 168-179.


Robert L. Gilmore, Caudillism and Militarism in Venezuela, 1810-1910 (Athens, Ohio, 1964), pp. 47, 69-70, 107.


“Reflexiones sobre el estado actual de los llanos,” Dec. 6, 1813, cited in Germán Carrera Damas, Boves, aspectos socio-económicos de su acción histórica (Caracas, 1968), p. 158.


Carrera Damas, Boves, pp. 56, 73.


Gazeta de Caracas, No. 73, June 6, 1814.


Juan Vicente González, La doctrina conservadora, Juan Vicente González, El pensamiento político venezolano del siglo xix, 2 vols. (Caracas, 1961), I, 179.


José Francisco Heredia, Memorias del Regente Heredia (Madrid, n.d.), pp. 41-51, 239.


José de Austria, Bosquejo de la historia militar de Venezuela, 2 vols. (Madrid, 1960), II, 256.


Bolívar to Gaceta Real de Jamaica, Sept. 1815, in Simón Bolívar, Obras completas, ed. by Vicente Lecuna and Esther Barret de Nazarís, 2d ed., 3 vols. (Havana, 1950), I, 180.


Heredia, Memorias, p. 172.


Caracciolo Parra-Pérez, Mariño y la independencia de Venezuela, 5 vols. (Madrid, 1954-57), I, 134-138. The same is true of many other caudillos, such as Monagas, Valdés, Rojas, and Zaraza.


José Antonio Páez, Autobiografía del General José Antonio Páez, 2 vols. (Caracas, 1973), I, 109.


Parra-Pérez, Mariño, III, 40.


Ibid., III, 242.


Daniel Florencio O’Leary, Memorias del General Daniel Florencio O’Leary. Narración, 3 vols. (Caracas, 1952), I, 350.


Fernando Rivas Vicuña, Las guerras de Bolívar, 7 vols. (Bogotá, 1934-38; Santiago, 1940), II, 85-95.


Austria, Historia militar de Venezuela, II, 454-456.


O’Leary, Narración, I, 492.


For other interpretations, see Masur, Simon Bolivar, p. 253, and Jorge I. Domínguez, Insurrection or Loyalty: The Breakdown of the Spanish American Empire (Cambridge, Mass., 1980), pp. 197-198, 226-227.


Bolívar to Richard Welleslev, Jan. 14, 1814, Simón Bolívar, Escritos del Libertador (Caracas, 1964-), VI, 63.


Speech to the Caracas assembly, Jan. 2, 1814, Escritos, VI, 8-9.


Parra-Pérez, Mariño, I, 325-326.


See Rafael Urdaneta, Memorias del General Rafael Urdaneta (Madrid, n.d.).


“Resumen sucinto de la vida del General Sucre,” 1825, Archivo de Sucre (Caracas, 1973-), I, xli.


Sucre to Bolívar, Oct. 17, 1817, ibid., I, 12.


Sucre to Santander, Oct. 30, 1820, ibid., I, 186.


Sucre to Bolívar, Oct. 17, 1817, ibid., I, 12.


O’Leary, Narración, II, 68.


Ibid., II, 252.


Parra-Pérez, Mariño, I, 245.


Bolívar to Mariño, Dec. 16, 1813, Simón Bolívar, Cartas del Libertador, ed. by Vicente Lecuna, 12 vols. (Caracas, 1929-59), I, 88.


Austria, Historia militar de Venezuela, II, 222, 226.


Parra-Pérez, Mariño, II, 16.


Austria, Historia militar de Venezuela, II, 388.


Moxó to Morillo, Aug. 10, 1816, Parra-Pérez, Mariño, II, 70.


Austria, Historia militar de Venezuela, II, 385.


“Acta de Reconocimiento de Bolívar como Jefe Supremo,” May 6, 1816, Escritos, IX, 123-126.


Bolívar to Piar, Jan. 10, 1817, ibid., X, 46.


Parra-Pérez, Mariño, II, 368.


José Domingo Díaz, Recuerdos sobre la rebelión de Caracas (Madrid, 1961), p. 336.


Bolívar to Piar, June 19, 1817, Escritos, X, 264.


Bolívar to Cedeño, Sept. 24, 1817, ibid., XI, 91.


Bolívar, Manifesto to the peoples of Venezuela, Aug. 5, 1817, ibid., X, 337.


L. Perú de Lacroix, Diario de Bucuraminga, ed. by N. E. Navarro (Caracas, 1949), p. 108.


Decree, Sept. 24, 1817, Escritos, XI, 94-95.


Bolívar to Bermúdez, Nov. 7, 1817, Daniel Florencio O’Leary, Memorias, 33 vols. (Caracas, 1879-87), XV, 449-450; Rivas Vicuña, Las guerras de Bolívar, III, 63-64.


Decree, Oct. 30, 1817, Escritos, XI, 318-320.


Bolívar to Mariño, Sept. 17, 1817, ibid., XI, 27.


Bolívar to Zaraza, Oct. 3, 1817, ibid., XI, 157-158.


Bolívar to Monagas, Oct. 30, 1817, ibid., XI, 160.


Parra-Pérez, Mariño, II, 497–498.


Díaz, Recuerdos, p. 324.


Austria, Historia militar de Venezuela, II, 454-455.


Páez, Autobiografía, I, 83.


Ibid., I, 124.


Ibid., I, 128.


Ibid., I, 153-154; O’Leary, Narración, I, 489-491; R. A. Humphreys, ed., The “Detached Recollections" of General D. F. O’Leary (London, 1969), pp. 19-20.


Páez, Autobiografía, I, 155.


O’Leary, Narración, I, 461.


Ibid., I, 552-555.


Bolívar to Santander, July 22, 1820, Obras completas, I, 479.


Rivas Vicuña, Las guerras de Bolívar, IV, 152-155.


O’Leary, Narración, II, 90.


Bolívar to Santander, July 10, 1821, Obras completas, I, 572.


O’Leary, Narración, II, 557.


Decree, Sept. 3, 1817, Escritos, XI, 75-77; Universidad Central de Venezuela, Materiales para el estudio de la cuestión agraria en Venezuela. Vol. 1. 1800-1830 (Caracas, 1964), pp. 201-202.


Decree, Oct. 10, 1817, Escritos, XI, 219–221; La cuestión agraria en Venezuela, pp. 204-205.


Bolívar to Zaraza, Oct. 11, 1817, Escritos, XI, 227.


Bolívar to Land Commission, Dec. 3, 1817, La cuestión agraria en Venezuela, p. 211.


Parra-Pérez, Mariño, III, 225.


Briceño Mendez to Gual, July 20, 1821, O’Leary, Memorias, XVIII, 399–400.


Decree, Jan. 18, 1821, La cuestión agraria en Venezuela, pp. 282-283.


Soublette to Minister of Finance, Oct. 5, 1821, La cuestión agraria en Venezuela, pp. 311-312, 316-317; Manuel Pérez Vila, “El gobierno deliberativo. Hacendados, comerciantes y artesanos frente a la crisis 1830-1848” in Fundación John Boulton, Política y economía en Venezuela 1810-1976 (Caracas, 1976), pp. 44–45.


Páez to Santander, Feb.–Mar. 1825, La cuestión agraria en Venezuela, pp. 421-422.


Santander to Pedro Briceño Méndez, Jan. 6, 1826, Santander to Montilla, Jan. 7, 1826, in Roberto Cortázar, ed., Cartas y mensajes del General Francisco de Paula Santander, 1812-1840, 10 vols. (Bogotá, 1953-56), VI, 40-44; Páez, Autobiografía, II, 297; Laureano Vallenilla Lanz, Cesarismo democrático (Caracas, 1952), pp. 106-107; Federico Brito Figueroa, Historia económica y social de Venezuela, 2 vols. (Caracas, 1966), I, 207-220; Miguel Izard, El miedo a la revolución. La lucha por la libertad en Venezuela (1777-1830) (Madrid, 1979), pp. 158-163.


Alerta (Cumaná), Feb. 10, 1826, La cuestión agraria en Venezuela, p. 476.


Bolívar to Santander, Oct. 13, 1825, Obras completas, II, 234.


Bolívar to Páez, Mar. 6, 1826, Cartas, V, 240.


Santander to Bolívar, May 6, 1826, Cartas y mensajes, VI, 316.


Sutherland to Canning, Maracaibo, Sept. 1, 1826, Sutherland to H. M. Chargé d’affaires, Oct. 2, 1826, Public Record Office, London, Foreign Office (hereinafter cited as PRO, FO) 18/33.


Bolívar to Santander, July 8, 1826, Cartas, VI, 10-12.


Bolívar to Páez, Aug. 4, 1826, ibid., VI, 32.


Bolívar to Páez, Aug. 8, 1826, ibid., VI, 49-52.


Ricketts to Canning, Lima, Feb. 18, 1826, C. K. Webster, ed., Britain and the Independence of Latin America, 1812-1830. Select Documents from the Foreign Office Archives, 2 vols. (London, 1938), I, 530.


Ker Porter to Canning, Apr. 9, 1827, PRO, FO 18/47.


Bolívar to Páez, Dec. 11, 1826, Cartas, VI, 119-120.


Bolívar to Páez, Dec. 23, 1826, ibid., VI, 133-134.


Watts to Bidwell, Aug. 5, 1826, PRO, FO 18/31.


Bolívar to Páez, Jan. 29, 1828, Cartas, VII, 138.


Bolívar, message to Congress of Ocaña, Feb. 29, 1828, Obras completas, III, 789-796.


Bolívar to Páez, Apr. 12, 1828, Cartas, VII, 215-217.


Campbell to Dudley, Apr. 13, 1828, PRO, FO 18/53.


O’Leary, Narratión, II, 601.


Joaquín Posada Gutiérrez, Memorias histórico-políticas, 4 vols. (Bogotá, 1929), I, 283-284, 310-325.


Bolívar to Briceño Méndez, Nov. 16, 1828, Cartas, VIII, 117-118.


Sucre to Bolívar, Oct. 7, 1829, O’Leary, Memorias, I, 557.


Soublette to Bolívar, Aug. 28, 1828, Jan. 12, 1829, Jan. 21, 1829, Parra-Pérez, Mariño, IV, 474-475.


Bolívar to O’Leary, Sept. 13, 1829, Cartas, IX, 125.




José Gil Fortoul, Historia constitucional de Venezuela, 2d ed., 3 vols. (Caracas, 1930), I, 650-663.


Bolívar to Páez, Mar. 25, 1829, Obras completas, III, 157-158.


Sucre to Bolívar, Sept. 17, 1829, O’Leary, Memorias, I, 552.


Francisco A. Labastida to Páez, Feb. 23, 1830, Secretaría del Interior y Justicia, Tomo V, Boletín del Archivo Nacional (Caracas), 10, 37 (1929), 49-50.


Bermúdez, Proclamation, Cumaná, Jan. 16, 1830, Parra-Pérez, Mariño, V, 46.


Mariño to Quintero, Sept. 2, 1829, Parra-Pérez, Mariño, IV, 478.


Ibid., V, 180.


Bolívar to Vergara, Sept. 25, 1830, Obras completas, III, 465.


Bolívar, Message to the Congress of Bolivia, May 25, 1826, ibid., III, 763.

Author notes


The author is Director of the Institute of Latin American Studies and Professor of Latin American History in the University of London.