1902: When Only U.S. Intervention Separated Venezuela from a European Invasion

116 years ago this week, European gunboats blockaded La Guaira and Puerto Cabello, and the Monroe Doctrine was the only thing separating Venezuela from recolonization.

Photo: Digital Question, retrieved.

Germany and England watch alarmed as Venezuela draws closer to defaulting on its debt. The drop on coffee prices, as well as other calamities, made it impossible for the Caribbean nation to pay its debts. The loan contracted with Berlin’s Disconto Gesellschaft in 1896, to honor the contract signed by Guzmán Blanco with railway construction companies, had a particularly heavy load on the national budget. The initial German-British demand was later joined by Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Mexico, all looking for their own overdue payments.

On December 9, 1902, the German and English navies blocked the La Guaira port; four days later, Puerto Cabello is bombed; on December 17, they take positions before the San Carlos Fortress in the bar of the Maracaibo Lake; an Italian ship anchors at the mouth of the Orinoco river.

Cipriano Castro’s reaction was immediate. He asked historian Eloy González to write a statement condemning the blockade, including the famous “The insolent boot of the Foreigner has desecrated the Homeland’s sacred soil!” The blockade had galvanized the various national forces around Castro, even those opposing him.

The blockade had galvanized the various national forces around Castro, even those opposing him.

It would be, however, another influence the one to solve it all: the United States of North America, presided by Theodore Roosevelt, saw the episode as a perfect example of Public International Law, and called on the Monroe Doctrine, conceived by James Monroe, according to which, “America for Americans” also meant that Europe for Europeans. In other words: if any European power attempted to invade American territory, the United States would face it. On the other hand, the United States would never try to invade any European territory or a territory near Europe’s sphere of influence.

Castro accepted (or called for) the intervention of the United States. On February 13, 1903, the Protocol of Washington was signed by Herbert W. Bower, literally establishing that Venezuela was forced to: “Yield with this purpose in favor of the British government, starting on March 1, 1903, thirty percent of monthly payment of customs revenue from La Guaira and Puerto Cabello, which can’t be used for other purposes.” Once the document was signed, the European ships left our coasts and the blockade ended.

Recent research reveals that Germany had planned for a more extended conflict, including troops on the ground and a sort of permanent domain. However, the matter was international and Roosevelt, who seemed aware of these plans, couldn’t allow European powers to invade the American continent.

The blockade strengthened Castro’s grip on power and even allowed him to incorporate “El Mocho” Hernández, an unpredictable and belligerent soldier and politician, into his government. The events cleared the way for Castro, who reformed the Constitution, taking advantage of the new winds.

We can’t forget that the debt came from contracts signed by Guzmán Blanco with railway companies. Whether the railways should’ve been built or not, in the knowledge that fares would generate massive loans, is a matter open to debate. That’s why the German and the English blocked the ports: either you pay or we invade. Times were different then. The United States’ Monroe Doctrine saved us.