The republic of Venezuela celebrates its independence from Spain on two different dates: April 19, when an initial declaration of semi-independence from Spain was signed in 1810, and July 5, when a more definitive break was signed in 1811. April 19 is known as “Firma Acta de la Independencia” or “Signing of the Act of Independence.”
Napoleon Invades Spain:
The first years of the nineteenth century were turbulent ones in Europe, particularly in Spain. In 1808, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Spain and put his brother Joseph on the throne, throwing Spain and its colonies into chaos. Many Spanish colonies, still loyal to the deposed King Ferdinand, did not know how to react to the new ruler. Some cities and regions opted for a limited independence: they would take care of their own affairs until such time as Ferdinand was restored.
Venezuela: Ready for Independence:
Venezuela was ripe for Independence long before other South American regions. Venezuelan Patriot Francisco de Miranda, a former general in the French Revolution, led a failed attempt to start a revolution in Venezuela in 1806, but many approved of his actions. Young firebrand leaders like Simón Bolívar and José Félix Ribas were actively speaking of making a clean break from Spain. The example of the American Revolution was fresh in the minds of these young patriots, who wanted freedom and their own republic.
Napoleonic Spain and the Colonies:
In January of 1809, a representative of the Joseph Bonaparte government arrived in Caracas and demanded that taxes continue to be paid and that the colony recognize Joseph as their monarch. Caracas, predictably, exploded: people took to the streets declaring loyalty to Ferdinand. A ruling junta was proclaimed and Juan de Las Casas, the Captain-General of Venezuela, was deposed. When news reached Caracas that a loyalist Spanish government had been set up in Seville in defiance of Napoleon, things cooled down for a while and Las Casas was able to re-establish control.
April 19, 1810:
On April 17, 1810, however, news reached Caracas that the government loyal to Ferdinand had been crushed by Napoleon. The city erupted into chaos once more. Patriots who favored full independence and royalists loyal to Ferdinand could agree on one thing: they would not tolerate French rule. On April 19, Creole patriots confronted the new Captain-General Vicente Emparán and demanded self-rule. Emparán was stripped of authority and sent back to Spain. José Félix Ribas, a wealthy young patriot, rode through Caracas, exhorting Creole leaders to come to the meeting taking place in the council chambers.
The elite of Caracas agreed on a provisional independence from Spain: they were rebelling against Joseph Bonaparte, not the Spanish crown, and would mind their own affairs until Ferdinand VII was restored. Still, they made some quick decisions: they outlawed slavery, exempted Indians from paying tribute, reduced or removed trade barriers, and decided to send envoys to the United States and Britain. Wealthy young nobleman Simón Bolívar financed the mission to London.
Legacy of the April 19 Movement:
The result of the Act of Independence was immediate. All over Venezuela, cities and towns decided either to follow Caracas’ lead or not: many cities chose to remain under Spanish rule. This led to fighting and a de facto Civil War in Venezuela. A Congress was called in early 1811 to solve the bitter fighting among Venezuelans.
Although it was nominally loyal to Ferdinand – the official name of the ruling junta was “Junta of conservation of the rights of Ferdinand VII” – the government of Caracas was, in fact, quite independent. It refused to recognize the Spanish shadow government that was loyal to Ferdinand, and many Spanish officers, bureaucrats, and judges were sent back to Spain along with Emparán.
Meanwhile, exiled patriot leader Francisco de Miranda returned, and young radicals such as Simón Bolívar, who favored unconditional independence, gained influence. On July 5, 1811, the ruling junta voted in favor of complete Independence from Spain – their self rule was no longer dependent on the state of the Spanish king. Thus was born the First Venezuelan Republic, doomed to die in 1812 after a disastrous earthquake and relentless military pressure from royalist forces.
The April 19 pronouncement was not the first of its kind in Latin America: the city of Quito had made a similar pronouncement in August of 1809. Still, the independence of Caracas had much longer lasting effects than that of Quito, which was quickly put down. It allowed the return of the charismatic Francisco de Miranda, vaulted Simón Bolívar, José Félix Ribas and other patriot leaders to fame, and set the stage for the true independence that followed. It also inadvertently caused the death of Simón Bolívar’s brother Juan Vicente, who died in a shipwreck while returning from a diplomatic mission to the USA in 1811.
Harvey, Robert. Liberators: Latin America’s Struggle for Independence Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 2000.
Lynch, John. The Spanish American Revolutions 1808-1826 New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.
Lynch, John. Simon Bolivar: A Life. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006.