BioFile - José Antonio Páez
A native of Venezuela, José Antonio Páez (1790-1878) was
born into a family of some status, though by no means great wealth. He received a decent education, and as young
man was employed by some of his richer relatives in various tasks suitable to
member of the middle class. When he was
17, Páez was entrusted with some money, which he had to deliver to a rather
distant town. While en route, he was
ambushed by four robbers, but managed to kill one, and drive off the
others. The young man panicked. Fearing that he might be charged with
murder, he fled to the llanos – the plains – of Barinas Province, a wild
frontier area. There he worked as a
cowboy, and soon entered the cattle business himself (perhaps he made good use
of that cash with which he had been entrusted?). It was a hard life, but Páez soon became almost the archetypical llanero
– plainsman. Inured to all
hardships and a seasoned horseman, he was adept with the pistol, sword, and
lance, skills needed to defend the herds against bandits and Indians. Eyewitnesses reported that he could cut a
bull out of a herd and drop it with a single lance thrust, or, leaping from his
mount, wrestle it to the ground.
In 1812 Venezuela declared its independence from Spain. Páez supported the patriot cause. By 1813 Simon Bolivar’s Army of Liberation
had ensconced itself in Venezuela, coming over from New Granada (i.e., Colombia). The Spanish commander in Barinas conscripted
Páez, making him a captain and ordering him to recruit a troop cavalry from
among the llaneros, the cowboys of the Venezuelan plains. Unwilling to serve against his country, Páez
fled and was shortly commanding a company of llaneros in the service of
the revolution. The war did not go well
for the patriots. Strong Spanish
reinforcements arrived, and Bolivar was driven out of the country. But Páez refused to retreat. With some 500 llaneros, he routed an
Spanish column at Mata de la Miel on February 16, 1816, inflicting over 400
killed and taking 500 prisoners. This
earned him a promotion to lieutenant colonel.
A few months later, responding to criticism from senior
officers concerning mismanagement of the war effort, Venezuela’s revolutionary
commander-in-chief, Francisco Santander, resigned. In a surprise development, the assembled senior leaders of the
revolutionary movement elected Páez, then only about 26, both supreme political
leader and military chief of the revolution, with the rank of brigadier
general. These titles were rather more
impressive than the forces with which Páez was entrusted, just 700 troops,
mostly llaneros, poorly-armed, poorly-clothed, and poorly-fed. Many of the llaneros were equipped with
simple bamboo poles or palm-trunks rather than proper lances. Worse, the “army” was encumbered by a great
number of refugees.
Having few options, Páez decided to attack. After making arrangements for the security
of the large number of refugees, he undertook a series of raids against the
Spanish. A number of small victories
resulted, which brought recruits to his forces. Then, on January 28, 1817, at Mucuritas, Páez, his army by then numbering
about 1,100, met and defeated over 4,500 Spanish troops, scattering their
cavalry on the first charge, and then disrupting their infantry by a
combination of grass fires and lancer charges.
This almost totally reversed patriot fortunes in Venezuela. Shortly, Bolivar’s army returned to the
fray, and Páez put himself under the authority of Bolivar. Bolivar proclaimed Páez supreme chief of
Venezuela, and promoted him to major general.
The war for Venezuelan independence was long and hard. Páez played an important role, often in
spectacular ways. Once, while on a
reconnaissance along the Orinoco, Bolivar spotted some Spanish gunboats that
had proven troublesome. He made a
casual remark to the effect that it was too bad the gunboats didn’t belong to
the patriots, for they could prove useful in carrying the struggle across the
great river. Hearing this, Páez agreed
that it would be a very good idea.
Almost immediately Páez and some of his most intrepid men plunged into
the river – allegedly with swords tightly held in their teeth – and began to
swim towards the gunboats. The
Spaniards, not suspecting an attack in so unorthodox a fashion, were quickly
overwhelmed, with little loss to the Venezuelans.
Over the next few years Páez played an important role in the
war for independence, defeating the Spanish repeatedly, most notably at
Carabobo (June 24, 1821), after which Bolivar promoted him to general-in-chief
of Venezuela, and later at Puerto Cabello (November 7, 1823), the fall of which
effectively secured the independence of Gran Colombia, as the federation of Colombia,
Venezuela, and Ecuador was called. In
the new post-war government, Páez was named commander-general of Venezuela.
The early years of independence were acrimonious, and Páez
was right in the middle of it.
Ultimately, the Federation of Gran Colombia came to pieces in 1829, when
Venezuela seceded. A constituent
assembly was called to form a provisional government and write a
constitution. In 1830 Páez was
appointed provisional president, and was later confirmed in the office. Páez left office in 1835, honored by a
presentation sword from the Venezuelan Congress, and the tide "Illustrious
Citizen." Despite some military
unrest – some former war heroes being dissatisfied with peace – his administration
had been firm, but constitutional, and the country prospered. This pattern prevailed over the next few
years, and continued when Páez was again elected President in 1839. He left office in 1843, and soon after a
military coup installed an authoritarian government dominated by the Monagas
family. In 1848 Páez attempted to lead
a revolution against the dictatorship, but was defeated in August of 1849, and
imprisoned until the Spring of 1850. He
went into exile in New York, where he remained until the Monagas family was
ousted from power in 1858 by a what we would today call a “rainbow” coalition
of all parties.
Páez returned to Venezuela at the invitation of the new
provisional government. But the
coalition soon fell apart, initiating a dozen years of coups and
counter-coups. Páez soon left the country
again, as Minister to the United States.
In 1861 he was returned to the presidency, but, unable to quash yet
another military adventurer, in May of 1863 he resigned in the hope of avoiding
further bloodshed. It was to no avail,
for the country would endure decades of barracks rule, including a come back by
the Monagas family.
Páez spent his last years in various Latin American
countries, where he was generally welcome as a hero of the wars for
independence, and then settled in New York, where he wrote his memoirs, Autobiografia
del General José Antonio Páez
(New York: Hallet & Breen,, 1867).
José Antonio Páez died in New York in 1878 and was buried there. A decade later he was reinterred in
Venezuela with full military honors.