Part of the CGTN special series Rediscovering the New World
Venezuela holds Presidential elections on Sunday, and this week we are looking at some of the key events in the country’s history. CGTN’s Stephen Gibbs reports on a decisive battle in the country’s 19th century independence war.
Carabobo: the site of a battle that changed the destiny of Latin America.
It was almost 200 years ago that Spanish colonial rule came to a bloody end, and the legend of an independence hero was born.
The battle and its fallen are honored at a grand 1920s memorial, constructed to commemorate its centennial. Pride of place is given to the man that led the independence forces. Simon Bolivar.
The Carabobo battle was an organized ambush on the gathered royalist forces. The site was strategically important, as it gave control to the north of what is now Venezuela, and access to the sea.
The combat started with an inspired, deceptive move by Bolivar, who led around 7,000 troops, including several hundred British volunteers, against the Spanish royalists.
“The first key decision was to attack the enemy from the front, and send Colonel Plaza, who was the head of the third division, to the center,which distracted the Spanish,” said historian Raul Rivas.” While they responded, he sent General Paez from the other side, and launched an ambush.”
Bolivar knew this dense terrain well, and used that to his advantage.
This was a brutal battle. In just one hour, 3,000 men, mostly on the Spanish side, were killed.
“The final 15 minutes of the battle were bloody. It was body to body. You kill me or I kill you,” said Rivas “They used the gunstocks, bayonets, canons, everything. Body combat.”
The battle that took place is not just important because it represented a crucial defeat for the Spanish army in this part of Latin America. But also a vital victory for the man that led the forces of independence.
Within weeks of the victory Simon Bolivar became president of a vast territory known as Gran Colombia. He is credited with liberating several South American countries from Spain.
Since his death in 1830, he has become a Latin American icon, almost a cult figure, with thousands of town squares, even a country named after him.
Venezuela, in 1999, formally changed its name to the ‘Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’, as then-President Hugo Chavez said his leftist movement was a continuation of Bolivar’s struggle. The country’s enlarged army became known as the Bolivarian Armed Forces.
Chavez even exhumed the liberator’s remains and replaced them in a vast new mausoleum in Caracas.
The current President, Nicolas Maduro, who is sanctioned by the United States, says he, like Bolivar, is an anti-imperialist. He attended the unveiling of a statue to the general in Belarus.
Some in Venezuela, including Professor Fernando Falcon – an expert on Bolivar – are troubled by the hero worship.
“We have transformed him into a semi-god. We have used him to re-write history,” said Falcon “From the period of Bolivar you can say anything, you can do anything invoking him. But it does not really make sense.”
Others, like Rivas, insist that Bolivar remains relevant
“Our country was born here. Thanks to our liberator we are completely free. We are slaves to no one, dependent on no one.”
In three years’ time, this site will be the center of commemorations on the 200th anniversary of the battle.
Successive Venezuelan governments, in part for their own reasons, have made sure that what happened here, will not be forgotten.