Antonio Guzmán Blanco

views updated May 29 2018

Antonio Guzmán Blanco

Antonio Guzmán Blanco (1829-1899) was a Venezuelan political leader who effectively dominated his country from 1870 to 1889. This period saw the first truly national government of Venezuela and a great surge of economic activity and material progress.

Antonio Guzmán Blanco was born to an aristocratic family in Caracas. His father, Antonio Leocadio Guzmán, was a leading Venezuelan intellectual, editor, and Liberal party spokesman. Young Antonio, very well educated in both law and medicine, saw that Venezuela's intermittent civil wars and revolutions were retarding its progress.

In 1859, a year after the ouster of dictator José Tadeo Monagas, Venezuela was again torn by civil strife—the Federalist War—and Guzmán Blanco joined the federalists, first as secretary and finally as virtual partner of federalist chief Gen. Juan Falcón. In 1863 Guzmán Blanco entered Caracas in triumph at the head of his army.

While Falcón was elected president, Guzmán Blanco took an important financial post and helped draw up the new federalist constitution of 1864. Later that year he was sent to England to negotiate a loan of £1,500,000, on which he received a fat commission. When he returned to Caracas, Falcón entrusted to him the economic reorganization and developmental planning of the nation.

Guzmán Blanco was again in Europe when he learned in late 1868 of a conservative revolution which had displaced the Falcón regime. Returning to Venezuela, he was soon chief of the liberal, federalist counterrevolution. In early April 1870 he again entered the capital in triumph. This time, however, he would not withdraw from power.

The Caudillo

Assuming the presidency, Guzmán Blanco determined to halt the political instability which had so long hampered the progress of his nation. By 1873, after quelling several revolts and restricting the traditional power of the provincial, landed oligarchy, he became the first truly national ruler, able to implement national programs.

In 1873, with the country pacified and the army now an instrument of the national government, Guzmán Blanco decreed universal manhood suffrage and direct election of the president. As a reward, he was elected president himself by a huge majority in April.

With this fresh and overwhelming mandate, he began to carry forward his ideas, striking first at the Church. Anticlerical like his father, he determined to limit the political and economic power of the Catholic Church in Venezuela. In short order the archbishop and papal nuncio were in exile for resisting his authority, and he established state control of education, civil marriage, and closure of the religious orders, finally closing the seminaries as well. While Guzmán Blanco never carried out his threat to nationalize the Church, he limited its power to its religious duties—a prime liberal goal.

In his first term Guzmán Blanco attempted to build up a personal political party to institutionalize his following but was largely unsuccessful. After allowing a chosen puppet to rule from 1877 to 1879, Guzmán Blanco reassumed the presidency from 1879 to 1884. From 1884 to 1886 he allowed Gen. Joaquín Crespo to be president and again resumed the presidency in 1886, ruling until 1888, when another puppet took over and Guzmán Blanco traveled again to Europe.

With his European contacts and his vision of the future, Guzmán Blanco's iron control of Venezuela began to bear fruit in development, stimulating European investment, loans, and increased trade. The stability he enforced worked economic miracles, and his government enacted good tariffs, built better roads, created a banking system, beautified Caracas, and maintained a glittering, cosmopolitan court.

The costs of this economic progress were high. Political repression, censorship, jailings, and exile were common as Guzmán Blanco enforced his vision upon his country. Prosperity was largely confined to the upper classes; the President himself obviously was prospering.

Bolstered by being named governor of several provinces and president of the National University, the "Illustrious American," as Guzmán Blanco was called, found himself faced—while in Paris in 1889—with a revolution led by his own puppet. Making a realistic estimate, Guzmán Blanco determined to remain in Paris with his sizable fortune rather than confront the rebellion.

While his country backslid into political chaos and much of his work was undone, Guzmán Blanco lived on in Paris, dying there in 1899.

Further Reading

The best work on Guzmán Blanco is George S. Wise, Caudillo: A Portrait of Antonio Guzmán Blanco (1951). Also worth consulting is Edwin Lieuwin, Venezuela (1961; 2d ed. 1965), and Robert L. Gilmore, Caudillism and Militarism in Venezuela, 1810-1910 (1964). □