Between Legitimacy and Violence: A History of Colombia, 1875-2002
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Duke University Press Books
Between Legitimacy and Violence: A History of Colombia, 1875-2002

Between Legitimacy and Violence: A History of Colombia, 1875-2002


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Between Legitimacy and Violence: A History of Colombia, 1875-2002

Between Legitimacy and Violence is an authoritative, sweeping history of Colombia’s “long twentieth century,” from the tumultuous civil wars of the late nineteenth century to the drug wars of the late twentieth. Marco Palacios, a leading Latin American historian, skillfully blends political, economic, social, and cultural history. In an expansive chronological narrative full of vivid detail, he explains Colombia’s political history, discussing key leaders, laws, parties, and ideologies; corruption and inefficiency; and the paradoxical nature of government institutions, which, while stable and enduring, are unable to prevent frequent and extreme outbursts of violence. Palacios traces the trajectory of the economy, addressing agriculture (particularly the economic significance of coffee), the development of a communication and transportation infrastructure, industrialization, and labor struggles. Palacios also gives extensive attention to persistent social inequalities, the role of the Catholic Church, demographic shifts such as urbanization and emigration, and Colombia’s relationship with the United States. Offering a comparative perspective, he frequently contrasts Colombia with other Latin American nations. Throughout, Palacios offers a helpful interpretive framework, connecting developments with their causes and consequences. By thoroughly illuminating Colombia’s past, Between Legitimacy and Violence sheds much-needed light on the country’s violent present.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822337546
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 06/06/2006
Series: Latin America in Translation Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 9.13(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Marco Palacios is Professor of Latin American History at El Colegio de México in Mexico City. He is the author of numerous books in Spanish as well as Coffee in Colombia, 1850–1970: An Economic, Social, and Political History. He is a coauthor of Colombia: Fragmented Land, Divided Society.
Richard Stoller is Coordinator of Selection and International Programs in Schreyer Honors College at Penn State University. He has a Ph.D. in Latin American studies.

Read an Excerpt

BETWEEN Legitimacy and Violence

By Marco Palacios

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3754-6

Chapter One


Four national civil wars (1876-77, 1885-86, 1895, and 1899-1902) provide ample evidence of disagreement among the Colombian elite about how to structure the state's relationships with the individual, the Catholic Church, and the regions. The final war, known as the War of the Thousand Days, brought about the secession of Panama and starkly illustrated the consequences of a political culture characterized by extreme political partisanship on the one hand and on the other by a growing gap between the political elites and the common people concerning the meaning and development of political citizenship.

Radical liberalism came out of the 1876 war gravely wounded, and it was smashed in the 1885 war. From that war emerged the Regeneration (1878-1900), whose symbol was the constitution of 1886: centralist, confessional, presidentialist, and a bit easier to reform than the prior one. Like its predecessor, the 1886 constitution arose not from popular suffrage but rather from an unholy alliance forged during the armed struggle-in this case, between Conservatives and a varied group of Liberals known as the Independents, both of which were excluded from the"Radical Olympus" regimes. The political history of the period is a record of both the fragile alliance between these groups and the discord that was sown in each of the two traditional parties.

Liberals and Conservatives both credited international commerce with opening the doors of civilization. Poverty and backwardness were seen as the consequences of Colombia's isolation from the vigorous currents of trade, capital, labor, and technology in the Atlantic Basin in the second half of the 1800s. The political conflict only marginally impinged on the liberal economic model. The most important and controversial question of political economy during this period was whether the state should control the monetary system. But the basic orientation of the export economy remained uncontested, pulled along by coffee cultivation and by the rebound of gold and silver mining, activities that in turn promoted, albeit in fitful and disorderly fashion, the development of a railway system. The recurring crises generated by the export of tobacco in the 1870s and of quinine in the 1880s contributed to political instability.

The restrictions of the colonial era continued to limit Colombia's long-term economic growth: a very low level of per capita income, with the poverty and lack of education that it implied; the dispersion of the population in pockets isolated from one another and from the exterior; the precariousness of all sorts of infrastructure; the primitive character and techniques of finance and business in general; and last but not least, the shortage of capital. To all this we can add the rivalries between towns, regions, and parties.

Some elements of this picture slowly changed with the development of the coffee sector. Concentrated first in the eastern mountains and spreading to the west, coffee promoted commercial capitalism and land colonization. The oscillations in the international price brought cycles of bonanza (1862-75 and 1888-95) and depression (1889-99), which were felt in public finances and were an important reason for the crises of the final years of the century. Coffee increased agricultural productivity, created employment, and integrated new regions in Colombia's temperate zones into the economy. But its effects would be felt fully only in the second decade of the twentieth century.

An Empty, Mixed-Race Country

Today Colombia has around 44 million inhabitants. More or less on the same territory, exclusive of Panama, the population in 1870 was a mere 2.6 million, of whom 80,000 were classified as "savage Indians." By 1920 the population had doubled, but there were marked regional variations owing to different migration rates and infant mortality. Taking as a base the censuses of 1851 and 1912, one notices a clear contrast between Antioquia and Santander, in the western and eastern mountains respectively. Antioquia's share of the national population rose from 11.2 percent to 23 percent, while Santander's fell from 18.6 percent to 12 percent. These figures can be deceiving because they include not only natural increase but also in- and out-migration, and we know through historical studies that Colombians from Cauca, Tolima, and the central regions of Cundinamarca and Boyacá were important participants in the colonizing of Antioquian lands in the late nineteenth century, while there was some emigration from Santander toward the Caribbean coast and even the neighboring Venezuelan province of Táchira.

Most Colombians in the late 1800s lived dispersed in relatively self-sufficient rural communities. Of 734 municipios (townships), only 21 had more than 10,000 inhabitants. In each of them, from the wealthiest to the most miserable, one's place depended on blood ties, wealth, and education. The feeble supply of educational opportunities rose irregularly, and demand for them-the key determinant of supply, in the absence of government policy-came mostly from urban males. If we are to believe the census of 1870, at the height of the pro-education Radical Liberal period, 64 percent of schools were public, and they accounted for 79 percent of enrollment. The 82,561 students registered throughout the country represented only 12 percent of the school-age population, and the female share of the total was only 27 percent. During the post-1885 Conservative regimes the relative weight of public education increased, as did the attendance rates of both boys and girls. In 1899, right before the War of the Thousand Days, some 140,000 children were enrolled in primary schools throughout the country. Attendance through 1930 (when the figure reached 438,000) also continued to expand under Conservative regimes.

Bogotá and Medellín were the only urban centers with more than 20,000 residents, and together they represented 2.5 percent of the national population-a tiny figure in comparison with similar "urban primacy" measurements of 21 percent in Cuba (1877), 11 percent in Chile (1875), and 7 percent in Venezuela (1873). The 1851 and 1912 censuses both confirm the preponderance of the mixed-race population: 47 percent and 49 percent respectively. In the 1912 census male respondents made their own racial classifications (in earlier censuses the census taker made the judgment), and perhaps for that reason we see evidence of "whitening": the white category went from 17 percent to 34 percent, while Indians fells from 14 percent to 6 percent and blacks/mulattos fell from 17 percent to 10 percent. In the southwestern department of Cauca, however, the picture differed remarkably: there only 19 percent classified themselves as mestizo, while larger numbers chose Indian, white, or black.

In contrast to the situation in countries with large indigenous populations such as Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Paraguay, questions of the legal status of indigenous communities, their access to land, and their incorporation in national society were of limited and regionally circumscribed importance in Colombia. Neither did the country experience the massive influx of European immigrants seen during this period in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. The numerical weight of the mestizo population lent viability to the notion of political participation based on formal principles of civic equality. It strengthened nationally integrated networks of political leadership and patronage long before any national integration of the economy. Although true racial democracy was a civic myth, the notion of a harmonious mestizo-based society was widely diffused. But skin color and all the features associated with it were still strongly correlated with occupation and income.

Once slavery was abolished in 1851, black and mulatto communities presented fewer problems of a legal-institutional sort, since republican institutions did not reserve for them anything like the resguardos (community lands) held by some indigenous populations. Afro-Colombians remained concentrated in dispersed pockets of the Pacific coast and in the old mining regions of the colonial period; on the Caribbean coast; and in the Cauca, Magdalena, and Patía river basins. They were the majority in Cartagena and in Chinú in the north, in Chocó, Tumaco, and Barbacoas in the west, and in several important regions of inland Cauca in the southwest. In Antioquia they were concentrated in Medellín and in mining zones to the north and northeast. The white Bogotá geographer Rufino Gutiérrez wrote in 1917 that in the mining towns "the blacks and mulattos rarely hear Mass, save for those enrolled in school," and he observed that the workers at the British-owned Segovia mines "live like draft animals without souls," in an environment of "permanent hostility" toward the white management. The formal marriage rate was the lowest in the country, as unions outside the ecclesiastical and civil frameworks were the norm.

Some Afro-Colombian communities of the Pacific coast and the southwest, abandoned to their fate, suffered from high crime rates and even higher rates of malaria and yellow fever. In 1916 the Panama Canal administration had to ask Colombia to put the port of Buenaventura (an important stop for canal-bound shipping) under quarantine because of its sanitary crises. The same level of official indifference existed toward the indigenous people of La Guajira in the extreme northeast, where as late as 1943 a malaria epidemic claimed 3,000 lives. BothAfro-Colombiansandindigenouspeopleswerecalledrebelliousandquarrelsome by racially pessimistic (and overwhelmingly white) elites, even though the "whitest" towns of Antioquia and Santander had higher murder rates-in many of those towns, revolvers and machetes were almost universally worn by adult men, and were used with some regularity.

A Mosaic of Isolated Regions

Colombia around 1900 still largely followed late-colonial settlement patterns, although there was substantial recent settlement from the three mountain ranges down toward temperate regions in the Cauca and Magdalena river basins. In the late 1800s and early 1900s several new population centers also arose along the Caribbean coast. Still, the overall picture was one of many distinct populated regions with little or no communication between them. The four great economic regions-Antioquia, the Caribbean coast, the east-central region, and the southwest, including the marginalized Pacific coast-had very different levels of internal political and cultural cohesion and of ethnic composition and homogeneity. At the start of the twentieth century the distinctive cultural profile of each region was not at all clear, and the persistent clichés and stereotypes of a half-century earlier tended to obscure the changes constantly occurring within each region.

The case of Cauca in the southwest illustrates the internal complexity of the four overarching regions. Gran Cauca ("Greater Cauca," including the modern departments of Cauca and Nariño) was extremely diverse in racial composition, traditions and idiosyncrasies, ecosystems, and productive sectors. In the south, the agricultural plateaus of Pasto, Túquerres, and Ipiales had a strongly indigenous cast, in contrast to zones farther north that had a clear split between white proprietors and Afro-Colombian majorities. But these same populations were all fragmented spatially and politically, as we can see by comparing the provinces of Barbacoas and Patía with Chocó or the Cauca Valley.

From independence through the civil war of 1876-77, Cauca was consistently the principal theater of conflict against a backdrop of economic decline, particularly in gold mining. Although the underlying elements of politicization have not yet been extensively studied, it is clear that the tradition of popular mobilization and frequent appeals to arms in a region where the racist legacy of slavery met post independence ideologies of radical egalitarianism was bound to produce situations of turmoil and violence. In the background we also find the old rivalry between Popayán and Cali, the principal towns of central Cauca. The old Popayán elite fought their final battle as national protagonists in the wars of 1860-62 and 1876-77, as Cali emerged as the more important economic center. It would be a mistake to assume that, along European lines, Popayán represented an aristocracy and Cali a capitalist bourgeoisie. Despite the abolition of slavery, in both urban centers society continued to revolve around values based on the hitherto slave-based hacienda and mining sectors. But social insecurity, a real phenomenon further exaggerated by Conservatives, and geographical isolation turned all of Cauca into what one observer called "an economic Paraguay." The mid-century novel María, a crowning example of Latin American literary romanticism set in the Cauca Valley, offers a rather disingenuous view of regional society: in the Cauca depicted by Jorge Isaacs, blacks were part of a poetic natural landscape, displaying obsequiousness, rustic Christianity, and musical talent. One would never guess that this same region would erupt in social and racial violence just a few years after the novel's publication.

Although the war delayed Cali's rise to regional leadership, geographical isolation was a greater factor: as late as1880 the road from Cali to the port of Buenaventura was impassible for part of the year. Popayán, like the similarly decaying cities of Cartagena and Tunja, continued to send more congressmen and ministers to Bogotá, and its elite knew how to take advantage of the prestige and influence of their poets and polemicists and of their tradition-bound university.

A Peasant Nation

Rural poverty, more grinding (and certainly more preponderant) than urban poverty, was not widely noted as a problem even though it was a severe constraint on economic development. Eventually there would be an avalanche of rural migration to the cities, which in the twentieth century would find its voice in populism. The agrarian structure was characterized by concentration of property and underutilization of the best lands, and by low productivity overall; a large percentage of the rural population worked shallow and eroded mountainside soils. Unemployment and underemployment were very high, especially during the "dead times" of the agricultural calendar, though it should be noted that women worked consistently throughout the year. The diet was poor in protein and barely rose above subsistence level for most poor rural Colombians. But on the plus side, between roughly 1890 and 1920 there was a clear congruence-never equaled before or since-between the local manufacture of agricultural tools and the needs of local cultivators.

Climate and soil fertility, as always, determined production and labor options. The rhythms of life of a majority of the population could be altered at any time by droughts or infestations. The rainy season brought regular flooding to the Caribbean coast, where a fifth of the territory consists of rivers, swamps, or other wetlands. The pre-Columbian cultivation calendar was still widely followed for traditional products, and techniques were barely changed from those of the seventeenth century. Land was cleared largely by the burning of existing vegetation, and the traditional assortment of metal tools was supplemented in some cases by mule-drawn wooden plows. The same could be said for the structures of rural property: as three hundred years before, haciendas of varying size occupied the fertile valleys near population centers, and with few exceptions they formed the nucleus of a hyperextensive (as opposed to intensive) cattle sector based on local breeds.

The diffusion and adaptation of new varieties of seeds, sugar mills, metal threshers, or coffee bean dryers depended on the cycles of external demand and on the reduction of internal transportation costs. Since prices were so uncertain, few rural entrepreneurs were willing to use fertilizers, machinery, or methodical pest control (even though locusts periodically ravaged western Colombia from Cauca all the way up to the Caribbean coast). Cold-country haciendas did not even try to compete with smallholders in the production of foodstuffs. In Colombia, as in the rest of Latin America, the interspersing of haciendas, plantations, smallholder parcels, and to a lesser extent indigenous communal properties produced a motley mix of the traditional and the relatively modern, with many regional and local permutations.

World demand deepened the divide between the cold-country regions of longstanding settlement, which produced for internal (mostly local) markets, and the temperate to tropical regions. This is the era par excellence of the Colombian agro-entrepreneur: the coffee grower/merchant of the eastern and central mountains, the cattle baron of the Caribbean coast, and the sugar cane planter of that region and also of the Cauca Valley. The cold-country producers of grains and dairy cattle responded to upticks in internal demand with far less enthusiasm.

The great rural properties of the highlands maintained essentially colonial labor rules, while export agriculture, increasingly penetrated by commercial capital, sought to reinforce them in a new setting. However, the few available statistics permit us to speculate that only a minority of Colombia's rural poor, the so-called residentes, actually lived the stereotypical existence of hacienda subalterns. With hacendados who were generally absentees and rural poor who were more mobile than is often assumed, the Colombian countryside did not develop the social, cultural, and legal ties characteristic of European or Japanese high feudalism. A terminology based on any notion of feudalism does not help us to define or understand Colombia's agrarian structures.


Excerpted from BETWEEN Legitimacy and Violence by Marco Palacios Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Tables viii

Acknowledgments ix

Prologue to the Second Colombian Edition xi

1. From Liberal Decay to Regeneration 1

2. Liberal Economics, Conservative Politics 48

3. From the Expansion of Citizenship to the Plutocratic Elite 93

4. In the Shadow of the Violencia 135

5. An Elusive Legitimacy 170

6. Great Transformations within Continuity 214

Epilogue 246

Bibliographical Essay 269

Index 293

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