Homicide in Colombia

Malcolm Deas

Around 1890 Colombia was governed by Dr Rafael Nuñez. This ravaged old intellectual, a late convert from the fleshpots of Liverpool – he had been Consul there – and liberalism, exerted his influence from a breezy summer-house on the beach near Cartagena, and left the day-to-day business of government in Bogota to the ultramontane grammarian, schoolteacher, Virgil-translator and polymath Miguel Antonio Caro, who in the course of a long life, legend has it, not only never bothered to see the sea, which was then many days distant, but even drew the line at going to see the River Magdalena, close enough for someone of even the feeblest geographical curiosity.

Under the waving palm-trees Nuñez read the Nineteenth Century, the Economist, the Revue des Deux Mondes and that sort of thing (he was an early enthusiast for Freud’s paper on coca, too): for all the world, with a couple of changes in the journals he subscribed to, like any Colombian ex-President these days in the Islas del Rosario. He was a poet too, and one day he was seized with enthusiasm for the rising star of the first Latin American literary boom, the young Nicaraguan genius Ruben Dario, and decided to make him Colombian Consul in Buenos Aires. Caro was telegraphed, and left off ‘violating the muses and persecuting the Liberals’ to telegraph Dario, who responded with gratitude, expressed in an appalling sonnet that begins: ‘Colombia is a land of lions.’

There aren’t any lions in Colombia. Dario knew little about the country, but it would do for a compliment, though neither Nuñez nor Caro was particularly lion-like. What little he did know must have been puzzling: how was it that this vast and warlike tropical republic was governed by two landless literati with hardly a peso between them? ‘Land of Lions’ was suitably vague: it would cover literary lions.

Much has happened, to Colombia and to the drug Nuñez read about, since Dario was helped on his way with that consulate, but to most people it might still plausibly be a land of lions. The rest of the world hears of Colombia mostly through drugs and killings, but the country has a complicated history, and its politics are not what you might expect.

Last time I was in Colombia I carried Robert Dahl’s Democracy and its Critics: a great help in listing questions about this old and battered democracy, if democracy is what the answers to his questions prove it to be.[*] ‘Old’? Competitive elections have been held in Colombia, on and off, at least since the 1820s, and not always on a restricted suffrage: the province of Velez gave votes to women in the late 1850s. Colombia is an old polity. Whatever it is, it is not undergoing one of those ‘transitions to democracy’ which attract attention elsewhere in Latin America.

Professor Dahl, I was glad to read, does show a passing interest in the place, though his information is incomplete and out-of-date. I think he would conclude that, according to his criteria, Colombia is a democracy, though parts of it are clearly more democratic than others – he does not look for perfection. The spectacle its politics offer is nonetheless confusing. Many of the inhabitants are confused. Additions to the local political vocabulary, like architectural styles, are adopted with no fear of modernity or post-modernity. ‘Participation’, ‘dialogue’, ‘primary constitution’, ‘movement’, ‘civic movement’, ‘civil society’ – all these in the last decade have entered into common use as if it was perfectly clear what they mean, and clear, too, that what they signify is thoroughly desirable. Though in 1986 the resilient and much adapted Constitution celebrated its centenary, the air has been thick with talk of constitutional reform. For all the wealth of diagnosis and cure, it is not easy to grasp what the political system is.

Power in Colombia is fragmented. The fragments make a long list. Most of them have their legitimate and their illegitimate side. The country is not run by an oligarchy. I doubt that it ever was – Dr Nuñez and Dr Caro don’t quite fit, for a start – but it certainly has not been so ruled for some time. The conviction that an oligarchy did exist derives from a long tradition in the political rhetoric practised by both the traditional parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives (they now call themselves Social Conservatives but I can’t get into the habit), who have dominated Colombia’s political history, and still dominate it. The denunciation of oligarchy reached a peak of intensity in the speeches of the Liberal Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, who was assassinated in 1948. He gathered great crowds, and struck chords and mobilised the humble, but he was not a dispassionate analyst of politics or of society, and 1948 is a long time ago. ‘Oligarch’ is now no more than a loose social designation, like ‘upper class’ or ‘old money’. It does not help much in locating political power, though a number of ‘oligarchs’ are active in politics.

Is this not finessing? Is the country in some fundamental sense not run even now by the high bourgeoisie? The term clase dirigente, ‘directing class’, tends to replace ‘oligarchy’ and to bear the brunt of criticism for shortsightedness, ineptitude, lack of patriotism and general failure to rise to the occasion. Here is a characteristic of the republic’s political life: a tendency to put the blame on some faceless abstraction, as well as an echo of the old Gaitanista saying: ‘the people are superior to their rulers.’ It is not clear what exactly is meant by the ‘directing class’, and it is rare to find agreement about who should figure in it, or anyone who will confess to membership.

If one takes the term as referring to managers, entrepreneurs, executives in large businesses, then they do not direct the country. With varying degrees of success, they defend their own interests, and treat the governments on which many of them depend as at best unreliable allies and at worst antagonists. Though they seek to influence it, they do not dominate economic policy, and, like their counterparts elsewhere, on many aspects of government they appear to have no ideas at all. The modern executive mentality is not particularly political. At times representatives of this class can also be spectacularly confused. A recent head of the Industrialists’ Association, involved in one of the peace dialogues with guerrillas that are now a permanent feature of Colombian politics, was happy to sign a denunciation of ruthless enterprises dedicated to extracting the surplus value of the Colombian people as if it could not possibly refer to any members of his association.

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[*] Yale University Press, £22.50, 1989.

[†] Universidad de los Andes, Bogota, 1989.