David Bushnell’s The Making of Modern Colombia

I don’t intend this to be a proper review but a short comment on David Bushnell’s The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself (1993), which I just finished reading.

The book, the first of the kind to have been published in English, although outdated now, is a good introduction to the history of Colombia from colonial times (first chapter), the period just before and after Independence (chapter two),  the three stages of Gran Colombia (chapter three), New Granada (chapter four) and, finally, Colombia (from chapter five to eleven). Its chronological organisation helps framing events although many of them obviously overlap.

The author shows a good outstanding and vast knowledge of the country and its history, and its style makes the text easily accessible for any type of reader. This last point, though a quality, also hints at a shortcoming from the point of view of those readers in need of a fully referenced academic book. Though the author provides some references to certain claims in endnotes, many other (quite important) remain largely unreferenced.

My main critique to The Making of Modern Colombia is that it is a somewhat ‘sanitised’ version of the history of the country which, firstly, starts from the premise of modernisation as the unique desired goal of any social organisation, while paying only marginal attention to its nefarious effects; secondly, it presents every single government in the history of Colombia as a Nation-State in a far too positive light. Although, Bushnell  notes some negative traits of successive administrations, he seems to relegate the worst to the margins in a way that minimises them. His narrative seems thus framed as to leave in the reader the idea that although there have been problems of many kinds with the political class that has always ruled Colombia, the successive administrations have mostly done all they could have so as to finally bring Colombia into modernity.

There are some problematic phrasings which evidence that the author seems to put the emphasis on the goal –making of Colombia a modern nation– without caring too much about the means. On page 267, for instance, when reporting on the reduction of cocaine business in Colombia, he expresses himself in the following terms: ‘Thanks in part to the Colombian government’s efforts at repression, Colombia’s relative share of the [cocaine] business had been slipping vis-à-vis’ neighbouring countries, where ‘repression’ seems to stand as being a good measure (emphasis mine). Another euphemism that seems employed to cast a not too damning light upon the State is found on page 253 when referring to the theft of arms from a military installation in Bogotá in 1979 by members of the left-wing urban guerrilla M-19: ‘The army succeeded in recapturing the arms and seizing a large number of M-19 activists and left-wing sympathisers, many of whom were very roughly handled in the crackdown’ (Bushnell, 253) (emphasis mine).

That state violence has been a constant along the history of Colombia is just hinted at but not given much importance. Morever, it is practically never mentioned in the book. One of the rare occasions the book mentions this comes on page 257 where state violence during Turbay Ayala administration is referred to only to be instantly downgraded by comparing it to the abuses under the military governments of Argentina or Chile. According to Bushnell, in contrast to these dictatorships, under Turbay’s (democratic) rule abuses were discussed in open fora ‘(though not without danger at times to the denouncer) [!]’ (Bushnell, 257). Yet, he seems to complain, ‘by the early 1980s Colombia was receiving much unfavourable attention from international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International’ (Bushnell, 257).

Finally, terms such as displacement, rape, enforced disappearance, and torture appear seldom, if ever. Which is striking given the context. For instance, by 2012 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had already been established in Colombia for 40 years, Colombia is indeed their largest operation in the Americas). Nothing is said of paramilitaries and their early links with the state and public figures, thought it is also true the peak of paramilitary violence came after the publication of the book.



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