The Disobedience Operation that Ended Great Colombia

Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela were supposed to form a big, powerful country. That was the original project of Miranda and Bolívar, but it never had real possibilities. On April 30th, 1826, the dream would be over.

great colombia

As soon as the Republic of Colombia was created on December 17th, 1819, comprising the territories of the countries that are now Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, an important sector of the Venezuelan society grew dissatisfied.

When the Constituent Congress of Cucuta created the Constitution, in 1821, the Municipality of Caracas said that the document “had not been approved by the same representatives that wrote it, who couldn’t impose on the Venezuelan people the duty of complying with it when they had no part in creating it, nor believed that some of the provisions in that code could be applied to Venezuela.”

The Assembly of Caracas was referring to the fact that the city was under Spanish rule by the time the Constituent Congress of Cucuta was held. On January 3rd, 1822, the topic resurfaced and the press took it up. Bolívar’s Great Colombia project was already facing institutional resistance, which would grow in time: the local powers boycotted the orders coming from distant Bogota.

In the following months, the disagreements between Vice-President Francisco de Paula Santander and the Chief of the Department of Venezuela, general José Antonio Páez, kept increasing. Santander came from New Granada, present-day Colombia; Páez, from the Venezuelan flatlands. Their countrymen rallied around them.

On May 14th, 1826, general Páez swore to enforce and comply with the law.

To illustrate the gap between Páez’s effective power and the symbolic authority of the representatives appointed by the Great Colombia government, an event took place near Caracas in December 1824, when an armed group tried to steal weapons from an arsenal in Petare. Páez immediately intervened and dispersed them and ordered military trials for some prisoners, which Governor Escalona found inappropriate, as Páez never notified him or the Superior Court of Justice. Escalona complained to the government of Bogota and an order was issued for the military power to hand the rebels over to the civilian power, but Páez had already pardoned them when the order reached him.Santander wrote many letters complaining to his boss, President Bolívar, about what Caracas was doing, as if they were merely a faction. Venezuela’s governance wasn’t easy. Bolívar had appointed general Carlos Soublette as Governor of the Department of Venezuela, but the Military Chief and supreme leader was general Páez. Soublette was replaced as political leader by general Francisco Rodríguez del Toro, but he also faced difficulties to assert his authority and was replaced in turn by general Juan Escalona, who had little respect from Páez, the champion of the Battle of Carabobo, paramount for the country’s independence, and the undisputed strongman around which the nation gravitated towards.

Other expressions of resistance emerged later. In December 1825, following an order from Bogota, Páez ordered a military conscription process, but very few men attended and an angry Paéz publicly scolded them. Governor Escalona used this to request an investigation and its respective sanctions, Páez’s authority was suspended and he was ordered to appear before the Legislative Branch, in Bogota, something he didn’t do.

On April 30th, 1826, and arguing that the people were angry about Páez’s suspension, and that the situation was about to create a national crisis, the municipality of the Venezuelan city of Valencia agreed to reinstate Páez. Three days later, he accepted command, disregarding the Executive Branch in Bogota and starting a process of separation between Venezuela and the bolivarian project of Colombia.

In fact, many feared that a civil war could soon break out.

On May 14th, 1826, general Páez swore to enforce and comply with the law, as well as “not to obey new orders from the Government of Bogota.” On May 29th, during a ceremony in the Municipality of Caracas, the new authorities of the Department of Venezuela swore their oaths of office before Páez, now Civilian and Military Chief. General Santiago Mariño was second Military Chief; Dr. Cristóbal Mendoza was Governor; Dr. Suárez Aguado was Vicar-General, and Dr. Francisco Javier Yanes was head of the Superior Court of Justice.

A Popular Assembly held on November 5th, 1826, at the San Francisco Church in Caracas, requested the installation of “the Federal Popular Representative system, as established in the United States of North America, as long as it is compatible with the customs, climates and particular circumstances of the nations that are part of the Republic of Colombia.” The Assembly’s members requested that the final document be sent to Simón Bolívar and invited him to mediate in the request, while Páez held another popular assembly on November 7th, taking a much more radical stance against the government of Bogota. On November 10th, another popular assembly in Valencia decided to create electoral colleges to call for elections, which Páez decreed on December 10th, also calling for the installation of a Constituent Assembly on January 10th, 1827.

Páez’s extreme positions met some resistance. In fact, many feared that a civil war could soon break out, but when Bolívar announced his arrival, tempers cooled down.

Bolívar arrived in Caracas accompanied by Páez on that January 10th, when the Constituent Congress was meant to be installed. He was in the city until July 4th, 1827, organizing important matters of state management. He didn’t know this would be the last time he’d be in his hometown. Upon his departure, he left Páez as Chief and Supreme Commander of the Departments of Venezuela, Maturin and Orinoco, thus recognizing his leadership. It was either that or allow Venezuela to descend into civil war or, even worse, attempt to impose his own authority over Páez’s. Bolívar had no other choice but to accept that Páez was the real authority in Venezuela, and not the Congress of the Republic of Colombia, whose orders were issued from Bogota.

A lethal wound to his great ambition.