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The book, the first of the kind to have been published in English, although outdated now, is a good introduction to the history of Colombia from colonial times (first chapter), the period just before and after Independence (chapter two),  the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.



Translation: In praise of the black woman

The following is the (unauthorised) translation of “Elogio de la mujer negra”, a text by Jaime Jaramillo Escobar published in Colombian magazine SoHo for Edition 143 (March, 2012). This edition was marketed by SoHo as an ‘ironic’ ‘anti-racist’ response to the central photograph accompanying an article about the Zarzur women (a powerful family in Cali, Colombia), published in December 2011 by the Latin edition of Spanish magazine ¡Hola!. The original photograph caused outrage in Colombia and launched a debate about race, racism, and classism in diverse media. The original text in Spanish (easily found through Google) is badly structured, poorly written, and confusing. I will translate whenever possible, and interpret when necessary. The translation corresponds to the online text available in the SoHo website.

I am providing this translation as reference for my research work, which is entirely in English, and mostly destined to an English speaking audience.

In praise of the black woman

by Jaime Jaramillo Escobar

[N.T. This first paragraph appears in the online version, and not in the paper one]

In ¡Hola!’s edition, the doña posed all in white with her daughter, Sonia Zarzur de Daccach, her grand-daughter Royi, and her great-grand-daughter Rosa, in her ‘Hollywoodian mansion’ in Cali while a couple of black maids carried — in perfect symmetric decoration — exquisite silver trays. SoHo decided to rise to the challenge of continuing Hola!’s legacy and with this aim in mind invited Belky Arizala, Yésica [sic] Paola Montoya, Diana Mina and Vanessa Parra — four spectacular Colombian models — to pose all in black in a powerful Hollywoodian mansion.

Returning of attentions with some photographs taken in the formidable Cundiboyacense Beverly Hills.

[N.T. Here begins the text by Jaramillo Escobar as published in the print version]

The colour of humankind is the one called black. We are all black and African. Humankind was not born in the fertile valley between the Tigris and the Euphrates, it was not created by a blond and haughty god, as the religious tale goes. Humankind was born in today’s disreputed Horn of Africa (Unesco. History of Humankind).

As nomad groups moved nothernwards, finding less warm lands, people started losing melaline, which protects against the damaging effects of the sun. So we are discoloured and pretentious blacks. [N.T. The shift in grammatical subject here is of course problematic. The reader is also left to guess who that ‘we’ stands for.] The white man looks down on the black man, and the black man looks down on the white man, yet [N.T. There is a conjuntion here in the original text] both are the same animal that disavows and despises himself. Long before the end of the Stone Age — Sir Leonard Wooley signals — the main branches of human race were already differentiated physically and also, to a certain extent, mentally.

The first men of the black race — states Jacketta Hawkes — appeared in the north of Ecuador — in Asselar, around 300 kilometres to the north of Timbuctú — at the end of the Pleistocene, or sometime later. In Blaise Cendrars’s Anthologie nègre, Nzamé created everything and called Mebere and Nkwa to show them his work. [N.T. there is no way of knowing from the text whether Nzamé is male or female, but it’s highly probable it is male.]  A work completed with groups of enemies that, up to today, keep pleasing themselves in destroying each other. As a means to moderate his own excess, he gave them laws as these: you won’t steal within your own tribe. You won’t kill those who have not hurt you. You won’t eat others at night.

Centuries later [N.T. it is impossible to know what is the point of reference for this ‘later’], black populations begin arriving to this continent [N.T. Again, it is impossible to know what continent he is referring to by ‘this’. From the reference to Borges one can infer it is South America, yet, this contradicts the statement supposedly taken from Hawkes in the paragraph just above], in the well known manner registered by Borges in his Historia universal de la infamia: in 1571, Bartolomé de las Casas felt sorry for the Indians who were extenuating themselves in the working hell that were Antillean gold mines and suggested to the Emperor Charles V he replace them with blacks who will extenuate themselves in the working hell that were Antillean gold mines.

Genetic crossings and geographic and cultural reasons make physiognomy and skin colour change so that a notable variety of [racial types] called yellow and morenos have been created. Yet, these manage to ignore each other. [N.T. This sentence here is particularly problematic because the grammatical subject changes in the middle of the sentence. There are also semantical issues. How what’s said here connects with what is to come is also unclear]. Thus we have the splendid and lustful presence of the models who are embellishing this edition with the grace and finesse with which photography outpowers words.

How the people euphemistically called of colour have survived to adverse circumstances [N.T. rather than ‘people of colour’ the euphemism here is ‘adverse circumstances’], so that they [N.T. again, grammatical subject issues. He starts with ‘black people’ which suddenly becomes ‘the four black models of this edition’] arrive to the exclusive pages of SoHo is an interesting story. Such beautiful women are the product of amazing transformations. They are proof of the existence of God, says the poet Verano Brisas.

Such beauty is this way [N.T. Not clear what ‘this way’ exactly means] because it is backed up by the strength which allowed the race to resist. It was because slaves had so much own life [N.T. ‘tanta vida propia’, I don’t know what this means] –writes Ramón Gómez de la Serna– that they managed being slaves. Slavery would have absorbed and diminished the white man. The black man dances as if possessed by the great original beast, sings Luis Palés Matos.

Time passes and results are astonishing [N.T. I don’t know what this means]. The influence of Africa on Europe and America renews the arts with unsuspected force.

In 2010, the [Colombian] Ministry of Culture published the collection Biblioteca de literatura afrocolombiana ‘Library of afrocolombian literature’, in 19 volumes, with 74 representative authors: 16 men and 58 women. Which means that not only beauty and festive sensuality are displayed. [N.T. again, it is not clear who is displaying what or where. Nor the previous neither the following sentence implies it is the displaying of the models in SoHo’s edition what he’s referring to.] The admired woman [N.T. we don’t know which woman in the singular he is referring to] is also backed up by a solid artistic tradition, a tradition solidified in sternness, which makes it significant and of everlasting importance for national memory.

Literature and arts have dwelled on praises of the morena woman since the famous verses of “Cantar de los cantares” [“Song of Songs”]: Black I am, but gracious./ don’t pay attention to my blackness: it is because the sun burnt my skin [N.T. ‘No os fijéis que soy morena’. He uses ‘morena’ as an euphemism for black].

Or what Luis Palés Matos evokes: the black woman is the one who sings / and her sensual singing extends / as a clear air of happiness / below the coconut tree.

And not only voluptuous memories. Let’s be sensible: also the wet nurse, lady of milk, the most important of all, the one no artist forgot, the one everybody cried when she died, remembering the beloved days of childhood. And this way sings Ciro Mendía: ¡Ay, Rosa, brave Rosa, / Ay, how much I liked how she beat me / if I didn’t run to the well / to bring poems of water.

The scandal aroused recently in [Colombian] written media because of a photograph of some women from Cali, with their maidservants carrying some tableware, is an excellent example of social hypocrisy and of how easy it is for a magazine like ¡Hola! to manipulate it for marketing ends [N.T. No idea what he means by ‘hypocrisy’ or how ¡Hola! is manipulating it]. It should be noted that [we live in a place and time] where you get the stick whatever you do [N.T. now he is siding with the Zarzur]. If you offer work to the morenos it’s exploitation, if you don’t it’s injustice. But those very same people who defend them call them pejoratively negros. Negros who with their work, their music, their songs, their admirable art, are the complement of a culture [N.T. not clear which culture blacks are complementing and influencing] which they infuse with vigour, joy, and generosity, ignoring their own history of being mistreated and marginalised. This is why [N.T. not really sure what’s the ‘why’] we are doing this parody in SoHo, as a sort of negative of the original photograph. A tongue-in-cheek but friendly critique, not of the Spanish magazine [¡Hola!], but of the social hypocrisy that makes an out of proportion fuzz from such an insignificant, wrongly or rightly calculated, event given that there are so many really important issues demanding serious and informed public attention.

Link: “Freakish Fat,” “Wretched Black”

For those interested in Cultural Studies, Judith Butler’s theoretical work on subjection and the performativity of gender, and/or Colombia, here I am providing the link to my article “‘Freakish Fat,’ ‘Wretched Black'” that just appeared in Feminist Media Studies.


This paper explores the construction of female abject beings in Colombian contemporary media and culture comparing a character in the 2010 telenovela Chepe Fortuna named Venezuela, and the cultural representation of Piedad Córdoba. I argue that the construction of these two characters as abject beings is coherent with the dominant discourse of Alvaro Uribe’s national project, which relied on a strong nationalist rhetoric based on binary oppositions of the type “we/other.” In this context both Chepe Fortuna’s Venezuela and Piedad Córdoba are constructed as “other.” While Venezuela’s abjection is partly effected on the basis of her being fat and black, Córdoba’s is on the basis of her being a left-wing politician, and mediated through her being a black female. These two instances evidence an approach to femaleness that goes hand-in-hand with particular understandings of female subjectivity within current post-feminist paradigms.