The Mercenary Who Tried to Liberate Venezuela … 200 Years Ago - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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Private military contractors — aka mercenaries — are just as real today as they were in the 19th century.

It was 1815 when a ragtag group of men, on the heels of defeat, gathered in the steamy Caribbean city of Port-au-Prince. They leaned across the table to listen to Simón Bolívar’s plans. He was determined. No matter the cost, they would wrestle a chunk of territory from Spanish colonial rule on a vast continent just south of them.

Loyalists, friends and financial backers joined Bolívar at his side, writes Marie Arana in her biography of the military leader, American Liberator. Most of them had been there during the crushing blow at Cartagena. 

One was a hardened ex-military officer who had already fought across the European continent. Now, he was a mercenary. His name was Henri La Fayette Villaume Ducoudray Holstein, and even though it words of revolution rattled across these men’s teeth, it was the dream of riches that weighed heavy on his mind.

After being rejected at the port of Philadelphia, Ducoudray traveled south seeking fortunes other than the fresh colony-turned-republic known as the United States. A Jewish merchant living in Curacao called Luis Brion had put up the initial money to fund their expedition. Bolívar now had what he needed. The motley crew of independence fighters embarked with a fleet of ships. From Haiti, they threaded through the Caribbean islands and headed south.

The Frenchman Ducoudray, Arana writes, would join thousands of other mercenaries recruited from the European continent: Brits, Irish, Scots. The Spanish monarchy, his leader envisioned, would one day be swept away from Latin America and in its place Bolívar would build an independent, liberal republic. He needed their expertise in war.

Most [of the mercenaries] died of heat exhaustion, rampant infection, or simply too much rum.

Marie Arana, American Liberator

The nation-state as we know it today was a fledgling thing. That meant that to entice independence fighters like Ducoudray, Bolívar promised them rights to vast wealth and land that spread for millions of acres across the slice of continent they planned to free from imperial occupiers. It was called Venezuela.

Even though Venezuela’s current leader, Nicolás Maduro, mimics the Bolívarian claim that he’s freeing the people of Venezuela from imperial oppression, it is the outsider and interim president Juan Guaidó, whose story today more closely mirrors Simón Bolívar’s international project of prying Venezuela open and freeing it from the grip of a ruling power.

In March of this year, when President Donald Trump put a $15 million bounty on Maduro’s head, it was only a matter of time before 21st century mercenaries — former soldiers who served in Afghanistan and Iraq — would start drooling over a chance to lead a cause for freedom in a foreign land. The result? U.S. Army Special Forces veteran Jordan Goudreau tried to lead a coup — coordinating initially with Guaidó strategist J.J. Rendón, before Goudreau went rogue — that was broken up by Maduro’s special forces earlier this year.

“It reinforces the narrative that the opposition, backed by the United States, was seeking to overthrow Maduro militarily,” says Paul J. Angelo, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “For the longest time, there was no such evidence. Now Maduro can weaponize this to great political effect.”

Two hundred years ago, Ducoudray and others made landfall on the same strip of land where Goudreau’s men landed. On the northern crest of South America, they planned to clash with Spanish royalist forces. Ducoudray was seasoned. He had fought for Napoleon as an officer. He was taken prisoner in Cadiz, Spain. In 1814, he met Bolívar in Cartagena on the coast of Colombia and joined his cause.

But now Ducoudray was getting fed up. Though it was easy to admire Bolívar for what Arana calls a “Herculean appetite for adversity,” the independence leader was headstrong, he womanized to no end, and Ducoudray was growing tired of fighting for a man with a fierce totalitarian streak. Others joined him in their disenchantment.

The mercenary experience in Venezuela turned out to be “marred with disappointment,” writes Arana. “Most died of heat exhaustion, rampant infection, or simply too much rum.”

After they landed in Venezuela, Ducoudray was denied a promotion in the field. It was a disorienting battle led by a chaotic leader. The Frenchman defected and turned northward again toward New York, where he would publish a scathing memoir that circled around Bolívar’s mercurial character. The promise of a cash payment evaporated.

Simon Bolivar

Painting of Simón Bolívar in battle.

Source Getty

It remains to be seen how the plight of Goudreau and his 60-man operation to arrest Maduro will turn out. Ducoudray’s story might have a lesson: Bolívar left most of his men unpaid, and if they weren’t killed, they risked succumbing to typhus. Miserable and crestfallen, most of those who survived the brutal wars of independence landed back in Europe with empty pockets. 

Bolívar is remembered for successfully liberating the continent through a bloody, costly struggle against the Spanish crown. Modern-day nation-states Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Panama, Colombia and Venezuela stand on that struggle. But at the time of Bolívar’s death, Arana notes, Ducoudray and others described him as “a snake, not a statesman.” 

“I’m being accused of an inferno of abominations,” Bolívar said near the end of his 47-year life. He even argued it was best that someone else be president of the new republic.

Nearly a year and a half into his challenge of Maduro’s legitimacy, Guaidó risks falling into the same trap as Bolívar — the Latin American liberator unloved amid the struggle.

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