The Venezuelan general and president José Antonio Páez (1790-1873) was one of the leading heroes of Spanish American independence. He continued long afterward to play a dominant role in Venezuelan affairs.
José Antonio Páez was born on June 13, 1790, at Aricagua on the edge of the llanos, or plains, of Venezuela's Orinoco Basin. From a poor family, and largely uneducated, he worked for a time as a ranch hand but by the start of the independence movement in 1810 was in the livestock business on his own. He joined the patriot forces at an early date, and after 1814, when the Spaniards reoccupied the major population centers, he was instrumental in keeping resistance alive on the llanos. In this he was aided by his instinctive understanding of the tough llanero cowboys and his personal mastery of their skills of horsemanship and fighting. After Bolívar transferred his operations to the llanos, Páez agreed to serve under his command. But he always retained a degree of independence.
Páez fought beside Bolívar at the victory of Carabobo in 1821, the last major engagement of the war in Venezuela. While Bolívar then carried the struggle as far as Peru and Bolivia, Páez remained in Venezuela, where he exercised a wide, informal personal authority over and above the various subordinate posts entrusted to him. He had become individually wealthy, accumulating a vast amount of land both as a war bonus and through speculation. He was also gradually acquiring a veneer of civilized manners and education, although he remained a rough plainsman at heart, passionately devoted to gambling, horses, and women. He shared the widespread dissatisfaction of Venezuelans with the inclusion of their homeland in the united republic of Gran Colombia, and in 1826 he led a revolt for greater autonomy. He laid down his arms in return for an amnesty from Bolívar, but in December 1829 he agreed to head the movement that was to make Venezuela a separate republic.
Páez served as president of Venezuela from 1830 to 1835 and again in 1839-1843. Whether holding the presidency or not, however, he kept effective control of the country until 1848, ruling through what came to be called the Conservative oligarchy. His power rested ultimately on the military, but he had a close working relationship with the landed and commercial aristocracy, which saw in him a guarantee of stability. Though arbitrary at times, he usually respected legal procedures; and despite the Conservative label of his regime, it carried out such progressive reforms as the introduction of religious freedom and abolition of the state tobacco monopoly.
In 1848 President José T. Monagas, though elected with Páez's blessing, threw off his tutelage and suppressed a revolt launched by Páez in the hope of regaining power. Páez went into exile but returned in time to serve as dictator from 1861 to 1863 in the last stage of the bitter Federal War, fought between Conservatives and Liberals. Defeated in that struggle, Páez left Venezuela for good, traveling in North and South America and in 1867 publishing his autobiography in New York City. He died in New York on May 6, 1873.
A popularly written, not wholly accurate study is Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, José Antonio Páez (1929), which is largely adapted from the Spanish-language autobiography of Páez. Though it does not focus on Páez personally, there is considerable data on his life and times in Robert L. Gilmore, Caudillism and Militarism in Venezuela, 1810-1910 (1964).