Malcolm Deas

Malcolm Deas is a fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford. He spends his vacations in Bogotá.

Plan Colombia

Malcolm Deas, 5 April 2001

In memoriam, Jesús Antonio Bejarano, murdered by unknown assassins on his way to class, 1999.

Many more people continue to die in Colombia than in the Middle Eastern troubles between Israelis and Palestinians, and it’s high time more attention was paid to it internationally. It’s a country in the Northern Hemisphere and its capital city is within easy commuting distance of...

Moths of Ill Omen

Malcolm Deas, 30 October 1997

The Hispanic world is particularly reverential towards its writers, perhaps because, through the vagaries of world history, it has not much else to be reverential about. There are the turn of the century poets who could fill opera houses; the overcoated figures photographed on the Paris boulevards, making it, in what Latin Americans still sometimes call, with touching loyalty, the City of Light; the accounts, in the (unreadable) Sunday cultural supplements of La Prensa, El Universal, El Tiempo, or in certain beautifully printed but contentless monthly reviews, of breakfast conversations in New England when the revered poet was in residence on some campus or other. Matchless friends, great souls, universal intelligences, and often even accomplished cooks. Think how the shadow of Gabriel García Márquez has loomed over Colombia. Thirty years ago he published One Hundred Years of Solitude, the foundation stone of an unmanageable fame rivalled in the Spanish-speaking world only by Fidel Castro – a possible reason for their friendship – and not by many outside it.

Narco Nabobs

Malcolm Deas, 6 January 1994

Pablo Escobar, the world’s most famous drug smuggler, was finally found and killed by the Colombian police on 2 December 1993. Among journalists everywhere he was popular to the end. Most of the reports of his death invoked Robin Hood, and spoke of the mourning of the Medellín poor; and many local people did indeed turn out for his funeral. It was reported and photographed – cries of ‘Pablo, Pablo’, vengeance in the air, grieving sister dressed in black with elbows on coffin – so as to make Medellín appear as much as possible like some people’s idea of Sicily. Most of the expressions of admiration for Escobar, however, should be attributed to a willingness to live up to the questioner’s expectations, or to the Colombian habit of mamando gallo, or keeping one’s end up by saying and doing disrespectful things. The funeral was obviously an occasion not to be missed. A good turnout was not necessarily evidence of grief, but of a readiness to keep in their place authorities who might otherwise think that they had achieved something for which they should be congratulated. Congratulating governments has not figured much in the local political culture, and the national government has not been particularly popular in Medellin in recent years.

Homicide in Colombia

Malcolm Deas, 22 March 1990

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.

Spectacle of the Rats and Owls

Malcolm Deas, 2 June 1988

‘Fidel Castro, alas’ one would have to answer if asked what 20th-century Latin American had cut the largest figure in the world. The best short account of the cultural reasons for lamentation is G. Cabrera Infante’s ‘Bites from the Bearded Crocodile’ (LRB, 4-17 June 1981). The economic and social reasons for being less than enthusiastic are set out in the leaden pages of Jorge Dominguez’s Cuba: Order and Revolution of 1970: it is worth bearing in mind that the present state of the Cuban economy can only be sustained by the receipt of something like half of all Soviet aid to the so-called Third World. And now there is Armando Valladares’s Against All Hope, a distinguished prison memoir.

Argentine Adam

Malcolm Deas, 20 November 1986

Most recent books in English on Argentine history are on economic history. On looking them over, readers who are not economic historians will probably reach the same conclusion as did J.O.P. Bland (better-known as the unwitting partner of the forger Sir Edmund Backhouse, the ‘Hermit of Peking’) after conscientiously preparing himself for a visit to the River Plate in 1916: ‘From the library catalogue point of view, the subject might well seem to have been exhausted … Yet how few there be amongst all these works (as some of us know to our cost) that properly and worthily inculcate the profitable exercise of travel … Say what you will, the great majority of them are so dreadfully infected with stodgy commercialism, so monumentally useful, that their general effect upon the mind (unless it be the mind of a bagman) can only be compared to a surfeit of suet pudding.’

Read, rattle and roll

Malcolm Deas, 6 February 1986

I like to regard people both making it and smoking it not only as a sort of friendship, but as a vast domain of democracy wherein we find gathered people of every class and race and creed, having in pipe or plug or cigar or cigarette, a bond of sympathetic understanding and a contact of common interest and good fellowship. I like to contemplate the business of producing and the pleasure of consuming this exalted plant as really a realm peopled by congenial spirits and ruled only by those kindlier human emotions which the smoke of these fragrant leaves kindles in the heart of man …

Falklands Title Deeds

Malcolm Deas, 19 August 1982

Territorial disputes are, in the Spanish phrase, matters de mucha teologia. These matters of much theology can easily cause violence; short statements about them are nearly always wrong; intensive study of individual problems can drive you round the bend. Experts in public international law, like theologians, frequently disagree, and like theologians they are not at all immune to national bias. There is also usually much mist surrounding what they are trying to get at. Arguments are frequently both inconclusive and unrewarding. Most editors in recent months avoided going into the background of the Falklands dispute in any detail – it would have taken up too much space. If one had to go into it at all, it was best to be brisk and muscular about it. On page 6 of Chatham House’s ‘Special’ The Falkland Islands Dispute – International Dimensions Professor James Fawcett agrees on line 3 that ‘the determination of territorial title, when it is disputed, is a complex issue of fact and law,’ and asserts on line 31 that ‘the territorial title to the islands… must be accorded to the United Kingdom.’ On this issue our public legal opinions have always been… robust.


Malcolm Deas, 6 May 1982

Knowing something of Argentina gives one no privileged insight, on 18 April 1982, into what should be done; it does give one a stronger desire to avoid a war, and a different awareness of some of the issues. Whatever happens to ships or governments, countries do not sink.

Elder of Zion

Malcolm Deas, 3 September 1981

Jacobo Timerman was formerly a Buenos Aires newspaper proprietor and editor. He was arrested in April 1977, tortured and held for two years in unofficial and official jails, and finally under house arrest. With the publication of his book Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number, the caso Timerman has become a cause célèbre in the United States as well as in Argentina.

Catholics and Marxists

Malcolm Deas, 19 March 1981

Edward Norman’s Reith Lectures reminded a surprised audience that His Kingdom is not of This World, and hinted that there was more than a little that was bogus about Third World theologians who sought to change that fundamental proposition. For this book he has brought together his Birkbeck Lectures at Cambridge and his Prideaux Lectures at Exeter to form a comparative account of ecclesiastical developments in Latin America and in South Africa. There are signs of hurry as he rushes from one engagement to another, but there is certainly an eager audience for his themes – a Christian international. As with the other international, it is often a credulous audience with a short memory, which has much to learn from a sceptical travelling Church historian. South Africa now stands alone. The Pope is on his journeys again. The book is undeniably topical. Dr Norman is not altogether convincing about the value of his comparison: the halves of his book are quite separate and one does not shed much light on the other. But he provides a useful background for those wishing to understand the varied churches of South Africa, and an essay on Latin America which will help Anglo-Saxons catch the nuances of Papal pronouncements on the poorer parts of the world.

Dark Pieces on Dark Places

Malcolm Deas, 3 July 1980

This collection of essays from the first half of the Seventies is here in the briefest of author’s notes described as intense and obsessional. He says, too, that the themes repeat. There is indeed little relief. What has Providence done to Mr Naipaul, that he should find the world so consistently depressing? Can one think of a place that would cheer him up, that would resist his persuasive invitation to lament? Trinidad, Argentina, Uruguay, Mobutu’s Congo – in the first half of the Seventies were these nations not in a sorry enough state to justify everything in his usual tone, to exclude even the odd glimmer of optimism that can be found in his account of a second visit to his first area of darkness, India: A Wounded Civilisation? They were in such a state, but one still comes to the conclusion that that cannot justify all of Naipaul’s intensities and obsessions.


Crisis in Venezuela

21 February 2019

In his piece ‘What’s at stake in Venezuela?’ on the LRB website, Greg Grandin flinches from the task of apologising for chavismo in its current version (, 8 February). He doesn’t defend Maduro, but does attack the record of US intervention in Latin America. Given the depth of the crisis in Venezuela, that is hardly an adequate response, and his conclusion that Washington...
David Lehmann chooses to speculate on my state of mind when I wrote my letter criticising Greg Grandin’s account of Venezuela, rather than to consider my arguments (Letters, 7 September). I did not write it ‘in a fury’, and do not consider my criticisms intemperate. I wrote the letter because I don’t approve of what Lehmann calls Grandin’s ‘even-handedness’:...
South American pedants’ corner: Stephen Sedley is surely wrong to attribute ‘the Mexican sobriquet “gringo"’ to the Confederate marching song ‘Green Grows the Laurel’ (Letters, 24 September). The term, used to describe any foreigner, was current in the River Plate much earlier than the US Civil War, and was also used in Spain. Some authorities consider it a corruption...
I agree with James Sanders that the long Colombian democratic tradition does not deserve the easy dismissal it often gets, but I do not agree with much of his analysis of the current Uribe administration (LRB, 24 January). The Colombian government is not a third ‘warring faction’, to be equated with the paramilitaries and the guerrillas: that is just the sort of ‘Anglophone’...

Vote Uribe!

5 October 2006

Michael Taussig can stop wondering about one small matter: my cleaning-lady’s operation had nothing to do with my connections with President Uribe (Letters, 16 November). As for his other – rhetorical? – questions, he well knows that Colombia suffers from guerrillas and paramilitaries, fed by the drug trade, and that the violence, corruption and threat to legitimate authority worsened...

History Lesson

21 February 2002

Michael Byers writes (LRB, 21 February): ‘By the end of the 19th century, the US had turned its attentions abroad. Its seizure of Cuba in 1898 provoked the Spanish-American War, which gave it control of Hawaii, the Philippines and the Panama Canal Zone.’ The second sentence contains three substantial historical errors. The Spanish-American War was not caused by a US seizure of Cuba, but...
‘Too far from God and too close to the United States.’ Whenever I read that remark, I know that I am in for a parade of worn-out received ideas about Latin America. Anthony Pagden’s review (LRB, 13 June) is just that.Barely a sentence in it is reliable. It is not true that ‘no serious efforts to produce political destabilisation, whether from without or within, have been made...
I do not agree with Gordon Guthrie (Letters, 10 May) that there is a clear correlation between levels of political violence in Colombia and the ‘success’ of ‘frank struggles for a new hegemony’, nor do I agree that I have underestimated the importance of the mechanisms by which Colombian democracy is ‘regulated’. I would like to take particular issue with several...

Falklands Title Deeds

19 August 1982

SIR: Andrew Graham-Yooll is certainly right that Peron increased the intensity of national feeling on the ‘Malvinas issue’ (Letters, 16 September). I just meant to say that Argentine claims to the islands had a long trajectory before he came to power.

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