José Antionio Páez, named the “Centaur of the Plains” owing to his skill on horseback, was, according to history author Mike Duncan, a “short, stocky illiterate cowboy,” born on the “llanos,” a grassy plain in the remote south of Venezuela. Before his military career, Páez was, before his military career, a ranch hand and cattleman. But as the wave of revolution swept over South America, Páez organized a band of llaneros – Venezuelan cowboys – into a stunningly efficient cavalry. In this, he operated often independently of Bolívar, refusing attempts by Santander, Bolívar’s general, to join. But when Páez and Bolívar finally met, they proved a devastating force. In one battle, Páez led 1100 men against 4000 royalists, achieving victory by repeatedly confounding the Spanish. He led his horsemen into their camp at night, kicking up dust from the dry ground, then charging through it. Then, as the Spanish regrouped in a field of dry grass, Páez had the grass set on fire, again charging his men through the flames at the Spanish.
After independence, Páez remained a staunch advocate for Venezuelan sovereignty, leading a rebellion against the authority of Gran Colombia and the administration of Santander (Páez preferred the authoritarian and charismatic Bolívar to the “Man of Laws” Santander). After Venezuela became independent, Páez was its first president. But not for long. His rivals deposed him, and the Centaur of the Plains found himself fighting for his own Venezuela… again.