We Venezuelans are taught at school that April 19th is a national holiday because that’s when we overthrew the Spanish yoke and our Independence was declared. In Spanish, the words for story and history are the same —historia. Perhaps that’s why the concepts get mixed up, too. We know that the Spanish Governor of what, back in 1810, was the Captaincy General of Venezuela lost his post when “the people”, under the influence of the quiquirigüiqui golpista of a high profile priest, let it be know that they didn’t accept his authority.

Nothing that happened that day had anything to do with independence — unless you’re talking about Spain’s independence from France.

The real story, of course, is more complex than that — and so is the History. Spain had been invaded by Napoleon’s army two years earlier. The occupiers had deposed the Spanish king, Ferdinand VII, and replaced him with Napoleon’s own brother, Joseph Bonaparte, plunging Spain into a civilization-shaking crisis.

Back in Caracas, a bunch of white, catholic, rich oligarchs formed a group known as the “defenders of the rights of Ferdinand VII”. They called an assembly in the main square and, in a very civilized sort of riot, told the Captain General, Vicente Emparan, that they couldn’t accept him as the legitimate Colonial authority because he was, in fact, the agent of a foreign government, the French invaders.

Emparan realized he wouldn’t be able to govern those guys, and so he quit.

Notice that nothing that happened that day had anything to do with independence — unless you’re talking about Spain’s independence from France. The insurrectos had no intention to create a Republic, heaven forbid. They were making clear that they would not accept Joseph Bonaparte as their sovereign, and doubling down on their loyalty to their deposed king.

It was a monarchic gesture by Caracas’s mantuano elite. It was only in retrospect that April 19th would come to be seen as the first step along the road to independence. Emparan’s ouster set off a chain of events that would end in war — three of them, in fact — and when the successive bloodbaths subsided, Venezuela would emerge independent.

To the masters, the astonishing image of Emparan quitting from a balcony must have looked entirely different from how they looked to their slaves.

The old lament about how we don’t really know anything about our own history is a tired cliché. Worse, it gets it backward too. It’s the Mantuanos that led this most genteel insurrection who lacked insight into the history they were making. There’s no hint that the people who participated in April 19th, 1810 were trying to start a war. But a war is what they got. 

Nor is there any reason to think those events had one reading, even back then. To the masters, the astonishing image of Emparan quitting from a balcony must have looked entirely different from how they looked to their slaves.

Back in 1810, nobody knew how that day would be remembered. In 1830, when the Republic of Venezuela was born, that April 19th must not have been the subject of many conversations: the survivors of 20 years of mass killing were too busy trying to figure out how to build a country out of the smoking ruins. The official story about the “declaration of independence” on April 19th, 1810, that my generation heard from underpaid teachers in the 1980s, would be written only many decades later.

On that day, 207 years ago, the actors saw how deep the abyss between a strategy and an outcome can be  —in the difference between what they expected and what actually happened. Maybe Emparan couldn’t have imagined, on that Easter, that he was going to lose the command of an entire colony; maybe the organisers of the cabildo didn’t expect to prevail, and least of all, that ‘winning’ would mean war. Neither what happened that day nor what that day made possible could have been predicted. We can try to give a push to History, but we don’t really know if it’s going to stay still, to move a little, or to jump off a cliff and leave us screaming in mid air.

This, at any rate, was what came to mind ahead of this April 19th, as Venezuelans get set to march once more against the chavista autocracy.

Venezuelans will be doing something that feels historic, but the expectation that we can agree on its meaning either now or in the future seems misplaced. Some are thinking nothing will happen, some might be expecting the by-now-normal beatings and kidnappings, others might think this could be the tipping point, and another group might be totally unaware of the march. Thousands are even raging on the social media about Nitu’s version that the march will be canceled in exchange for regional elections.

Like the caraqueños of 1810, none of us can foresee whether this April 19th will be historic, much less how it might be assimilated into Official History over time.

Will there be more people marching, and therefore, will it be harder for PNB and GNB to stop them before they can reach the Defensoría del Pueblo? Will the colectivos attack? Will the Army take over if the National Guard is unable to handle a widespread protest? Will this last scenario break the military chain of command? Will we see bullets instead of tear gas? What would happen if Capriles is arrested, or if regional elections are announced, before the march? What will be the role of Henri Falcón, Tarek William Saab, or Tareck El Aissami in all this?

Like the caraqueños of 1810, none of us can foresee whether this April 19th will be historic, much less how it might be assimilated into Official History over time. We can’t forge a consensus on the present; we won’t have one about the past. Ever. Venezuelans don’t know what the events of 207 years ago meant. That’s normal. On April 19th, 2224, Venezuelans won’t agree on what today’s events mean, either. That’s normal too.

What we do know today is that this is not 2016 or 2014. Never before has chavismo been so unpopular and so fragmented. Never before has the ruling elite been so ruthless.

Never before, not even in April 2002, has a big march looked so capable of starting a chain of events that could mean the end of an era and the beginning of another.

History, with a capital H, could be preparing another big jump.

20 COMMENTS

  1. Heh, quiquirigüiqui…. been years since I heard that word.

    I think you overcompensate a lot with the tale of 1810 – some of those rich mantuanos were in fact very much interested in revolution already, as well read and young educated white people everywhere, catching the fever of the new ideas – but yea, normally it is told in a way that frames it as “and here it is the whole Nation choosing Independence” when it was just a step in a compromise with several factions in the civil war that was the Independence war.

    One of the first business of building a nation is to build its mythology, and Venezuela is no different in that; is just that most of the myth-making is on historical record and could easily be shown to be that… if it was in anybody interest to do so. But of course it isnt, thats the whole point: the creation of a shared mythology that defines a nation where there was none before.

    Chavismo has tried to do something similar, of course in their crude and ignorant ways, a “mitologia chimba” of the evil of the Fourth Republic and the Rise of The People and all that.

  2. Rafael — fascinating essay. Among participants in 1810, was there any conscious connection to April 19 1775, the day the US revolution started with the battle of Lexington and Concord?

    • Thanks, Steven. I know that some among those mantuanos were inspired for the American Revolution. But the knowledge of what was happening in the world, even so many years before as 1775, should have been very poor and slow, due to the modest activity of La Guayra and Spain’s censorship. It was people well traveled like Francisco de Miranda who could gather more info about the time.

    • Eh, no. I mean, I very much doubt they were trying to stage any symbolic relationship with the date. More important than whatever US battle for them was the fact that it was Holy Thursday during Easter and they cornered Emparan going to church, with enough people in the same situation as to be able to get a mass of citizens quickly.

    • Also, another historical simplification is the tale that Emparan was acting on orders of the French usurper. I mean, that is what was said at the time, and there was some reasons for saying it, but reality was more complex; he got the job of Captain General from the Bonaparte government, yes… and then he crossed over to the independent side of Spain and asked the Supreme Central Junta that, in theory, was “defending the rights of Ferdinand VII” what they wanted him to do.

      And they told him to go to Venezuela and act as Captain General for them.

      So, in the name of the defense of the rights of Ferdinand VII, the town council of Caracas deposed a Captain General that was confirmed by the Spanish resistence government on the post that the French usurper goverment gave him. Another simple tale is in reality a more complex interplay of forces.

      Poor Emparan seems to have been a competent administrator, with a good record of success in the East of Venezuela when he was governor there, and described by Humbold as a learned gentleman with great interest in the sciences. And well, he did ask what people wanted and accepted their rejection, so thats something.

      So, not like the current bunch, at all. Or most of the leaders in the history of both Latin America and Spain.

  3. Well written historically accurate piece ……some historians think that the Mantuanos were divided into three groups , the traditional mantuanos who feared the radical french ideas that recognition of a french King would bring and were sincerely incensed at the deposition of the legitimate Borbonic dinasty, the mantuanos who saw this as an opportunity of becoming more independent from the spanish, crown appointed officials with which they fought all the times and might even allow them to take their place as rulers of the country and thirdly the younger romantically inspired Mantuanos who wanted to ultimately create an independent Republic dedicated to the ideals of the french revolution or the recently founded US .
    It is said that ultimately the first group of mantuanos were being tricked by the second group of mantuanos into to help them achieve their goals for a mantuano led aristocratic republic and that the third group was tricking the other two mantuano groups into the creation of an independent republic representing the new enlighment and romantic ideas of the age. As we all know the third group won the day only to lose it to the onslaught of the barbarous mob arousing caudillos who ran away with the prize in the process destroying the country and converting it into a devastated field of battle. In the end the mantuanos were decimated and massacred losing virtually all their power and influence and leaving the new born country to the rule of caudillos and chaos.

    In history no one knows once a trend of events is begun how it will all end , everyone thinks that things are decided at one dramatic throw of the dice and its never that way , the most unexpected outcomes ocurr , maybe not inmmediately but some time after following from a trend of events that begun inspired by ideas and expectations that resulted in something totally surprising !!

    Todays millions of Venezuelans will engage in a trhow of the dice , they may not inmmediately see the results of such throw , but in time it will have its consequences….lets hope they are those we expect…!!

  4. Rafael, I have been reading you since I was a teenager, when Todo en Domingo arrived home with El Nacional. Always happy to see one of your pieces in here. Please keep on writing.

    Un abrazo.

  5. History becomes what is recorded and presented. Your post, coupled with the comments underneath, was a very interesting read for me.

  6. Me van a perdonar que comente en español. Pero también la reacción española hizo que el gesto de Caracas (y otros semejantes a lo largo y ancho de las colonias americanas) terminara por impulsar la independencia. Había Juntas Conservadoras de los Derechos de Fernando VII por toda la península, pero la Junta Central no reconoció las juntas que se habían creado en América con igualdad de derechos que las primeras, lo cual influyó también en la menguada presencia de delegados americanos en las Cortes de Cádiz. Muchas veces pensamos en nuestro proceso independentista sin plena conciencia del debate entre liberales y monárquicos que sacudía a España en esa época, además de la guerra de independencia contra Francia. Maravilloso artículo. Saludos, Rafael!

  7. Things are more complex indeed.
    I would recommend reading the chronicles José Domingo Díaz wrote about those years. He was a pro unity Venezuelan who eventually went into exile in Spain. His details about April are quite interesting, to say the least, even if his writing style is annoying.

    As the author of this post wrote, Emparan was quite a good administrator and Humboldt wrote a bit about that. Equally interesting is what Humboldt wrote about some people like Manuel Peñalver. I translated some of it from German into Spanish and wrote it in Wikipedia but there seems to be a bloke who really wants to keep the story as it is. Peñalver was, like probably most oligarchs, highly reactionary with only a barnish of liberal ideas….poder para ellos. As is well known, holy Bolivar was actually a rather racist bloke who only got into freeing the black and all as last resort after the Spanish started to free slaves and when he only got the support of Haiti Even in a letter to Santander in 1820 he wrote that, after all, getting all those black joing the ‘liberation’ armies would contribute to reduce their numbers.

    We need to put Venezuela’s position also within the context of other Spanish American countries back then. Actually, one of the things the mantuanos started to rebel against were the principles established in the Spanish constitution of 1812. Most of those mantuanos did share with the king conservative views, they were even more reactionary in a few cases and they had shown that for decades trying to block the advancement of pardos etc. At the end they did not see the need for the king anyway.

    The lead of guys like Piar and Páez was a very important one and the ability of some to get control over them through Bolivar was rather effective. Their movement finally got the winning hand when they manage to bring mercenaries from Europe who had become jobless after Napoleon got finally beaten in 1815.

    At the end of the day Bolívar sold off a lot of Venezuela to the English and the Venezuelan military, who went to replace a lot of the mantuano power.

    Getting back to Domingo Díaz: he was also reactionary in his own manner.
    Miranda was very much an exception in the Spanish American context and that after some evolution.

  8. A propos of the April 19 anniversary and how men cannot foretell the future the following is something that David Hume wrote in 1754 about how in the age of James II ….”speculative reasoners ….raised many objections to the planting of those remote colonies: and foretold that after draining their mother country of inhabitants they would soon shake off their yoke and erect an independent government in America: But time has shown that the views entertained by those that encouraged such generous undertakings were most just and solid . A mild government and great naval force have preserved and may long preserve the dominion of England over her colonies .”

  9. Very good article, Rafael. One question: Would you consider then the connection with the “precursores” and afterthought to make a clean, patriotic narrative? In some, I can agree, after all, what drove José Leonardo Chirinos y not the same that drove those who made April 19th. On the other, you have the Mantuano Conspiracy and Gual & España, that prove at least some of Caracas elite had an interest to revolt the Spanish Crown.

    • Thanks, Max. I agree with you: to say that Chirino or Gual y España were the same kind of people than Miranda or Feliciano Palacios would be absurd. That’s the problem with that simplifying label of “precursores”. It would be like saying that José de San Martín and José Gabriel Condorcanqui were the same. Saludos

  10. Emparan was brought in from Cumana to replace the then ruling Capitan General in Caracas who was suspected of being too pro french. After the Junta in Defense of the Rights of Fernado VII was set up in Caracas there were several provinces that refused to recognize its auhority (Maracaibo was one of them) .

    The Regente Heredia was brought in from Havana to try and work for a conciliation between the two set of provinces but he had trouble getting from Maracaibo to Caracas as he would not be given leave to vissit the latter…….., meantime Caracas went on to declare independence which brought in Monteverde from Puerto Rico with a small group fo 200 soldiers , Monteverde ignored the established crown authorities and took all the trappings of a traditional military caudillo raising forces to fight the newly independent Caracas govt…..

    Monteverde acted in a totally arbitrary way , like a small military , and avidly courted the support of the Pardos and slaves, traditional enemies of the Mantuano cliques , he was the first before Boves to start raising the flag of anti white Mantuano discord !!

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