Colombia: Fragmented Land, Divided Society

This is the long-announced survey of the history of Colombia by Frank Safford and Marco Palacios in Oxford’s Latin American Histories series. Central America and Chile are already in their third edition, Argentina, Bolivia, the Caribbean, and Cuba in their second, while Brazil, Mexico, and Peru have new authors with entirely new histories. Nevertheless, the wait is richly rewarded. This is now the best single-volume history of Colombia although some may still prefer David Bushnell’s The Making of Modern Colombia (1993) on the strength of its political synthesis, narrative style, and incisive prose. However, the strengths of Safford and Palacios’s work are many. One of the most notable is its attention to the role geography has played and still plays in the development and dynamics of Colombia’s distinctive regions, regions that are so important to an understanding of its past and present. As a nation Colombia has never coalesced around a critical mass for long. Out of its three-cordillera overlay and difficult geography have come many “mini” worlds, the most famous being “Macondo,” that mythical prototype pueblo immortalized by Noble-laureate Gabriel García Márquez in his Cien años de soledad (1967). These individual Macondos make up the Colombian regions and nation, but in ever shifting relationships whose organizing principles and evolution have often escaped the understanding of historians but not that of Safford and Palacios.

In García Márquez’s hands, Colombia’s blissful beginnings reflected an earthly paradise whose loss came from the original sin of homicide. Paradise lost forced the founding of Macondo, which was then gradually corrupted by politics, religion, elitism, capitalism, and other sins. But in Safford and Palacios’s hands, Colombia’s evolution is explained by the development of its distinctive regional cultures, broadly identified as the West (Cauca and Antioquia), the Coast (including Panama), and the Eastern Cordillera. In very simplified terms, the West had gold and eventually coffee, the East the demographic base and the capital Bogotá, and the Coast the opening to the outside world. Within these dissimilar regions Colombia’s two traditional parties—Conservative and Liberal—had evolved by the 1840s and 1850s and have continued trying to impose some integrative principles on the larger whole. But each in turn has tended to fracture into competing wings thereby making it difficult for anyone to rule. It has also made it possible for the opposition party to take power and explains those pendulum shifts in Colombian history, such as in 1849, 1885, 1930, and 1946.

Many monographs from different disciplines have been produced on Colombia in the last thirty years. Safford and Palacios have benefited enormously from this production. To their credit they have actually read most of them. Synthesizing Colombia’s history involves homogenizing its incredible diversity. Safford and Palacios have solved this problem by providing forty-two tables of country-wide statistics on such topics as population, gold production, slavery, exports, and urbanization. They then provide a solid overview of Colombia’s political, economic, social, and urban development.

Safford’s scholarship on Colombia has been anchored in the nineteenth century, Palacios’s in the twentieth, and they divide up the work accordingly. Safford covers the pre-Columbian, Colonial, Independence, and Republican periods down to 1876 in ten chapters of 238 pages. Palacios develops the period since 1876 in four chapters of 150 pages. Safford gets the book off to a sound start with a lucid overview of Colombia’s distinctive geography and is at his best in describing the origins of the Conservative and Liberal parties, the evolution of the economy and society, and the Liberal Era from 1845 to 1876. Palacios’s presentation of macro-economic, urban, social, and development issues is equally impressive. The book ends with Palacios’ brilliant analysis of Colombia’s recent political violence. However, without a concluding chapter that looks back over the totality of Colombia’s history and that moves it up to another level of synthesis, one is left with the impression that Colombia is doomed to continue its present descent into this maelstrom of mindless violence. If they were to produce a second edition, they should also include something on Colombia’s rich literary and artistic traditions. Nevertheless, this survey of Colombia’s history is excellent and would work well in undergraduate and graduate courses. It would especially be useful as an in-depth case study of one country in a general survey of Latin America’s history or as a basic text in a survey of Northern South America’s history.

Loyola University New Orleans