Venezuela’s Independence Wars Ended Exactly 200 Years Ago

On November 1823, the last Spanish force remaining in the former colony surrendered after resisting for more than two years at the Puerto Cabello castle. But this date is not celebrated officially. Why?

This is the mural Pedro Castillo painted about the siege of San Felipe castle, at Casa Páez in Valencia, following the general's memories of that night

All Venezuelan children who attend primary school (sadly, some of them don’t) are told that our country became independent after winning a war with the kingdom of Spain. According to the extremely simplified and manipulated version of our past that we must memorize as factual history, that war started after the cabildo in Caracas forced the Spanish captain general to resign, on April 19th, 1810, and French-occupied Spain ordered to crush the rebellion. The war lasted until June 24th, 1821, when the army led by Simón Bolívar defeated the Spanish troops in the savannah of Carabobo. Actually, the schoolbooks said that on Carabobo the independence was sealed—sellada, as an envelope, or a steak—, meaning that Spain couldn’t do anything after it to reverse its loss. 

Things did not happen precisely like that. First, until professional troops arrived from Spain with general Pablo Morillo in April 1815, what we had was a civil war between Venezuelan revolutionaries (patriots in the official history) and Venezuelan royalists. Second, the war was not a single one, but three: the one from 1810 to 1812, when the First Republic fell and its main military chief, Francisco de Miranda, was delivered by Simón Bolívar and other revolutionary officers to the Spaniards; the horrible Guerra a Muerte from 1813 to 1815; and the final sprint, from 1816 to 1823. No, it didn’t stop in June 1821 in Carabobo, but in Puerto Cabello, on November 10th, 1823. 

That day, the remaining Spanish force surrendered to general José Antonio Páez, and the independence wars ended, for sure, even when in the years to come Páez would have to quench loyalist guerrillas and fear a Spanish reconquista.  

It all came to a good cup of Venezuelan coffee

The castle or fuerte of San Felipe, located in a promontory on the port, was a fine military building, towering over a fortified citadel carefully designed by colonial military architects to host a sizable force and endure a siege. Finished in 1741, it was critical for the defense (from pirates and other European navies) of the facilities and shipments around one of Venezuela’s three main ports. 20th century dictator Juan Vicente Gómez used it as a prison for political prisoners, including Venezuelan democracy’s founding father Rómulo Betancourt, and was one of the places where the forces loyal to then-president Betancourt had to fight a rebel Navy division in 1962 during a brutal coup attempt we call El Porteñazo.   

San Felipe was under siege two times before in the independence wars, first by Bolívar, who failed to take it in 1813, and then by the Colombian republican officer Luciano D’Elhuyar, who was also unable to defeat the fort’s defenders in 1814. Even today, San Felipe is an intimidating view. So it’s only logical that, after being almost totally destroyed in the Carabobo battle in 1821, the surviving Spanish forces, led by field marshall Miguel de La Torre, fought their way out from the battlefield and rode by the city of Valencia towards the cordillera and Puerto Cabello, where De la Torre and several hundreds of loyalists found refuge in the castle.  

From that day on, that small but tenacious Spanish army in Puerto Cabello was a problem that the supreme military commander of Venezuela, general Páez, had to solve. Supported by sea with Spanish ships that couldn’t be sank by the precarious Republican navy, the realistas were able to take any opportunity at their disposal to do runs from the fort and attack republican forces along the western coast, including the remote Coro and Maracaibo, before sailing or raiding back to the safety of its thick coral stone walls. From the San Felipe castle, De la Torre sailed to Puerto Rico when king Fernando VII appointed him governor of the island and the fort remained under Spanish hands. Páez had reasons to think that, if he left Valencia unguarded, those guys could run across the cordillera and take the city. 

Paéz tried to retake Puerto Cabello several times, quitting often to ride elsewhere to quench another hotspot of rebellion. In August 1823, field marshall Francisco Morales, the brutal war criminal that replaced De la Torre as chief of the fort, failed at invading Coro and surrendered to the Republic. San Felipe’s defense passed then to brigadier Sebastián de la Calzada, who Páez knew well from years of combat in the plains. Some weeks after, Páez began another siege, but this time he drafted a better plan, along with generals Santiago Mariño and José Francisco Bermúdez. 

The man who defeated the last Spanish force, naturally with the help of other officers like Mariño and many soldiers, was Páez, whose importance in our country’s history has been dismissed or questioned both during his long life and in the 150 years after his death.

On November 7, Bermúdez’s artillery started bombing the citadel from the city, while a fleet led by Mariño attacked the fort’s left flank from the sea. But that was only a diversion. After 17 hours, the republican forces ceased the cannon fire, and just then, when many Spaniards were dead or exhausted, more than 400 soldiers with machetes and knives silently emerged from a mangrove forest at the right side of the fort and surprised the defenders of the citadel. Brigadier La Calzada was taken prisoner while defending a tower, and in the morning of November 10 the last men within the castle raised the white flag.

As he told in his memoir, general Páez watched La Calzada sign the surrender and took him for coffee in Puerto Cabello. The independence wars that ravaged the country and killed innumerable people had ended.   

The castle of San Felipe was a symbol the soon-to-be Republic of Venezuela needed to own. This was the place where Francisco de Miranda waited his final trip to the Spanish prison where he died, and where one of the composers of the national anthem, Vicente Salias, was executed. But it was also essential to export the products of the Aragua valleys and the Lake Valencia basin and, before that, to embark 4,000 soldiers that Bolívar and Antonio José de Sucre needed down south for the multi-national army that would end the Spanish rule on South America in 1825.

What happens in Puerto Cabello remains in Puerto Cabello

November 10 is not a fiesta nacional in Venezuela. Like the end of slavery (March 24th, 1854) or many other events worth remembering, the Toma de Puerto Cabello is not part of the official calendar of celebrations. My guess is: Bolívar was not present when San Felipe fell. El Libertador was busy abroad, with his Gran Colombia project, where he had a lot of work to do both in military and political terms (nation building has never been easy). 

The man who defeated the last Spanish force, naturally with the help of other officers like Mariño and many soldiers, was Páez, whose importance in our country’s history has been dismissed or questioned both during his long life and in the 150 years after his death. 

Hugo Chávez, for instance, respected Páez as a military strategist, but despised him as a man who—according to Chávez and many other people—betrayed Bolívar. Which in the Venezuelan historical tradition, where Bolívar is more than God, is the worst crime of all.

We don’t talk about what happened in Puerto Cabello 200 years ago today. But we should. Venezuela has not engaged in a war with another country during the 200 years that have passed since that morning in Puerto Cabello. There were tense moments like the naval blockade in 1902 or the Caldas crisis in 1987, and of course a lot of chauvinistic bravado, but we still have a record to be proud of. However, what we are hearing instead is warmongering against a neighbor. 

Not many countries in the world can say that they haven’t been invaded or have invaded another nation’s territory in two whole centuries. But today, people in Venezuela won’t talk about that, too worried by so many other things in their present, starting with the fear of losing access to CLAP bags or the already compromised basic right of getting a cédula if they don’t vote in the December referendum against Guyana.