The Independence of Maracaibo

Zulianos celebrate a regional holiday that’s a complicated milestone: the region’s separation from Spain and union to the Republic of Colombia. The history of what happened explains why this is so tricky

Zulia'a flag rocks

On January 28th Maracaibo celebrates the Declaration of Independence from the Spanish Empire and its union with the Republic of Colombia (1821). A complex event with many interpretations that kicked off Maracaibo and Zulia’s 200-year-old history on the republican path, and is key to understanding the political transformations and structural vices of old as well as the current crisis that impacts the city in all aspects of life.

But the independence of Maracaibo as an event is usually neglected or minimized. It is so because of the centralist Venezuelan historiography, which sees it as a late event that did not determine the fate of the war and underserving of the same recognition as the declaration of independence of Venezuela, ten years earlier. What is worse, it is astonishingly ignored or unknown by the vast majority of the inhabitants of the territory subject to that declaration of independence: the current Zulians.

This is in part due to the date being camouflaged with the name of “día de la zulianidad” (‘Zulianity’ Day) by an early 2000s regional government decree, which changed its historic significance for an abstract, subjective, and diffuse concept such as zulianidad. The celebration of this kind of notion, although important to some if not most Zulian people, should be left to every person to decide and shouldn’t be imposed by a government that claims to be plural and open.

To rescue this date, it would be necessary to tell the facts as they happened and critically see Maracaibo’s independence as another event, although a very relevant one, in the long formative process of the Zulian identity.

Maracaibo’s Declaration of Independence

Map of the Maracaibo “lagoon,” 1777—later called lake, of course

On January 28th, 1821, Maracaibo’s City Council, as the democratic and constitutional representative of its people and with the Province Governor’s support, declared its independence from Spain. The indisputable fact from which anything relating to that date should start is the Declaration of Independence itself: nothing more than a memorandum from the City Council’s meeting held that day, signed only by its elected members.

Despite its apparent simplicity, that short text formally severed all legal and political links that bonded Maracaibo to both Spain as a country and the Captaincy General of Venezuela as an administrative body of the Empire. It also declared Maracaibo as a democratic republic that should join the other peoples that, in order to defend their freedom from Spain, formed the Republic of Colombia. The City Council made that decision based on the sovereignty of the people of Maracaibo, which it represented as an elected assembly under the rules of Spain’s Liberal Constitution. Paradoxically, the Declaration was an act of insurrection made by officials that acted in the framework of Spain’s constitutional rules, using a preexisting political order to radically break that same order: a true self-destruction tool.

It’s pertinent to ask what motivated that declaration. Why did it happen eleven years after the beginnings of the revolution in Venezuela and Nueva Granada, and, above all, what was the strategy used by the republican insurgents to ensure Maracaibo’s independence and its adherence to Bolívar’s Colombian project?

Maracaibo waited one decade more than the rest of the Provinces of the Captaincy General of Venezuela to unilaterally declare its independence from Spain, a decade in which the rest of the Venezuelan territory was bleeding itself in an extermination war. The reason for this delay, contrary to what many believe, is neither a plain repudiation of any political project coming from Caracas nor is it blind loyalty to the Spanish monarchy. 

The initial rejection of the political system stemming from Caracas was not a mere whim of Maracaibo’s authorities.

They sought to capitalize on the instability and the institutional disarray that were wreaking havoc in the rest of the Captaincy General, as it created a favorable situation for Maracaibo to try and gain its complete autonomy from any other of its American peers and begin to answer directly to the Spanish Crown as a self-governing entity. This autonomist endeavor, taken into action by José Domingo Rus, Maracaibo’s representative to the Cortes Generales de Cádiz (the legislative body of Spain and its American territories) ultimately failed.

Moreover, the rejection to get on board the republican struggle didn’t reflect rigid loyalty to a distant monarch, but instead familiarity and conformity with the only status quo that the people of Maracaibo and their ancestors had known for centuries. Besides, Maracaibo’s authorities were clearly satisfied with the liberal reforms that had occurred in Spain in the years prior with the approval of a Constitution in 1812 that, after a brief return to absolutism, was put back into effect in 1820. The so-called Cádiz Constitution elevated all Spanish overseas Provinces and their inhabitants—Maracaibo included—to the same status as those on the Iberian Peninsula, granting them the same rights and privileges.

Another decisive element of Maracaibo’s delay was the prudence and precaution of the Province’s elite (political, military and church authorities, local aristocrats, merchants and landowners), who showed a great deal of self-preservation of their prerogatives and power quotas. Supporting a cause that hadn’t achieved its goals and didn’t guarantee their standing would’ve put the Province’s elite in a dangerous position of great uncertainty that they logically tried to avoid at all costs.

Urdaneta: Strategist, Diplomat, and Chief Spy

This wariness was something that the Colombian side eventually learned to understand and tackle intelligently. By building trust with Maracaibo’s authorities and other power players and infusing them with the conviction that their positions were safe, that they would have a place in the Republic’s high spheres of influence, the independentists managed for Maracaibo’s elite to give in, declare its independence and integrate into Colombia.

That trust was achieved through a diplomatic strategy of clandestine negotiations headed by General Rafael Urdaneta, who acted as chief of Simón Bolívar’s Guard of Honor and was a Maracaibo native. Urdaneta contacted people who were both independence sympathizers and personally close to the local authorities with the power to declare independence. It was a matter of gaining political loyalty through preexisting social, family, and economic loyalties.

It would be mistaken to believe, though, that the fact that most of Maracaibo’s power players decided to stay aligned with the Spanish Crown until the last stage of the independence process means that the majority of its population was Monarchist.

There were indeed several important people that sided with the republicans from the very beginning of the war, some of whom joined the insurgent army, while others participated in actively rebellious activity inside the Province, spreading political propaganda, conspiring, and taking part in clandestine meetings, all of which initially failed.

It was precisely some of those Zulian independentists, who were used by Urdaneta: Domingo Briceño y Briceño, Pedro Jugo, Juan Evangelista González, and Juan Evangelista Delgado (brother of Maracaibo’s Governor Francisco Delgado).

It can’t be denied that despite the conspirative strategy undertaken by Urdaneta and his agents, Maracaibo’s destiny wasn’t only decided on the negotiation table. Military pressure was a deciding factor that, despite not being of a direct nature nor openly hostile, was used by Urdaneta as a persuasive or even coercive force directed toward the city’s authorities. Troops under his command had been occupying the Venezuelan Andean region, which limits Maracaibo Province to the south, as well as the southern coast of Lake Maracaibo.

This meant that Colombian arms were pointing toward Maracaibo and Los Puertos de Altagracia, the two main population centers of the Province. This situation of military vulnerability added pressure to Spain’s diminished Expeditionary Army, which already saw an important part of its forces killed off, its chief commander returning to Spain and reinforcements not being sent from the Iberian Peninsula as a result of its own political turmoil. All of these factors combined convinced Maracaibo’s authorities that the circumstances demanded them to support the likely winning side of the war.

Without having within our reach private documentation that could show the true feelings of Maracaibo’s elite and its general population, it is impossible to know if Delgado, Briceño, Jugo and all the insurgents were authentically convinced of the need for independence, if the incorporation into Colombia had honest causes, or if they truly wanted another form of political organization.

The only thing that can be considered an undeniable fact, besides the existence of the declaration itself, is that it was only made possible thanks to a set of political schemes, diplomatic negotiations and clandestine meetings held between the Monarchist Government and elite of Maracaibo and the Colombian government represented by Rafael Urdaneta. In other words, Maracaibo’s Independence was declared as a result of an agreement reached mainly between Maracaibo natives that publicly held opposing positions, but were united by strong links of local, social, family and economic solidarity.

All in all, and even if it wasn’t out of conviction, Maracaibo’s Declaration of Independence was the most the best strategy at the moment and it decided the destiny of that region for the coming 200 years.