The Federalist Congress That Bolívar Ignored to Retain His Power

On May 8th, 1817, two legendary leaders of the Independence tried to restore the federal model of the first republican Constitution. But El Libertador used his might to let the project die: he didn’t want to share power.

Photo: Miradas Magazine retrieved

After three years in jail, in Cadiz, Chilean priest José Cortés de Madariaga was released along with other political prisoners of Venezuelan independence, like Juan Germán Roscio, Francisco Isnardi, Juan Pablo Ayala and Juan Paz del Castillo and returned to Venezuela. Madariaga was a central character in the events of April 19th, 1810, when he led the Assembly to reject the rule of captain general Vicente Emparan, thus starting the independence process. They were all imprisoned when general Domingo de Monteverde recovered the Venezuelan territory for the Spanish Crown in 1812.

Father Madariaga suggested to general Santiago Mariño to return to the federal system of the Constitution of 1811. Mariño, a landowner in Eastern Venezuela, was partial to any constitutional system that could improve his situation in detriment of Bolívar’s, who defended centralism because it meant that the new republic would have him at its core.

Bolívar couldn’t hide the fact that his command wasn’t unanimous.

Mariño and Madariaga decided to organize a Congress (between May 8th and 9th, 1817) in the Northeastern town of Cariaco, close to Cumana, and they appointed authorities on the basis of the institutions that were established in the Constitution of 1811. A triumvirate was formed, composed of Fernando Rodríguez del Toro, Francisco Javier Mayz and Simón Bolívar, who wasn’t consulted in his involvement. Mariño was appointed Supreme Commander of the Army and Luis Brión was Commander of the Navy. The Assembly was attended by Francisco Antonio Zea, Diego Bautista Urbaneja, Luis Brión, Manuel Isava, Diego Vallenilla, Francisco Xavier and Diego Alcalá, Manuel Maneiro, Francisco de Paula Navas and, of course, José Cortés Madariaga.

In a letter written in August 6th, 1817, from Angostura, Bolívar told his old friend Martín Tovar Ponte that “Guayana is finally free and independent” and what it meant for the future of his projects. Regarding Cariaco, he said: “The priest restored the government that you’re wishing for and it didn’t last long. He found disobedience in Margarita; he was almost set on fire in Carupano; on board he was almost put in a cannon to be lashed; he came here but no one has seen him because his allies dispersed, not out of fear but to avoid the shame of mockery. I’ve exercised moderation and haven’t written a single word or said nothing about the so-called federal government and yet, it couldn’t stand against public opinion. This country isn’t ruled by those who want to, but by those who can.”As soon as he got news of the Congress and the federal project, Bolívar, now established in Guayana, totally disregarded it with his silence; he controlled a vast extension of the territory and had the support of the majority of those who didn’t join Mariño in his plan, so he bided his time so that the Congress of Cariaco’s decisions were forgotten.

However, Bolívar couldn’t hide the fact that his command wasn’t unanimous. Mariño had told him many times, and then came a priest to repeat it. And so, federalism was resurfacing to oppose Bolívar’s plan, even though the royalists had crushed it in 1812. It’s been said that Bolívar’s centralism came from the fact that he was from Caracas, while other landowners supported federalism because they wanted to defend the influence of their provinces; there’s some truth in that, but Tovar, who was also a member of Caracas’ ruling class, supported federalism as well.

And so, federalism was resurfacing to oppose Bolívar’s plan, even though the royalists had crushed it in 1812.

The dichotomy between centralism and decentralization remains to this day, sadly. There’s no way that an authoritarian spirit is persuaded by federalism or any form of decentralization of power, and it’s also well known that it’s more probable to win a war with unity than with dispersion; the strategy has better chances of victory if centralized and coordinated.

But that means that all power must reside in one man, which is what Bolívar always thought…