This is a continuation of the project started by noted Colombian sociologist Orlando Fals Borda to reconstruct the history of a very interesting region of Colombia—La Costa del Caribe, rather neglected by professional historians but already immortalized in the novels and short stories of Gabriel García Márquez, as the general area of “Macondo.” Fals Borda is a native of this area, as am I. It is impossible to do justice in a few paragraphs to all the important points that this work deals with explicitly or suggests indirectly.
Although we, as historians, analyze these books for their historical value, it is not certain that Fals Borda would consider them as works of history. As he makes abundantly clear in both volumes, his historical reconstructions have a definite political objective for present-day Colombia: to raise the political consciousness of contemporary popular protest groups. Thus, the subject matter and historical evidence he chooses will be those which will serve that political objective. Fals Borda uses in part the historian’s approach of examining written records, but he also uses some methods more in vogue among anthropologists and sociologists, particularly his extensive use of oral interviews with descendants of some of the protagonists of the historical events he focuses on.
On the positive side, Fals Borda has put together a great amount of empirical detail in a way that no one has yet done for the history of this region. We may wonder, however, as to the choice of topic. Why El Presidente Nieto, a regional caudillo in an era of regional caudillos? However, Fals Borda is trying to come to grips with a particular problem that the coast has for social scientists, native and foreign; that is, a lack of concern with the political, military, and religious fanaticisms that have been rife in the Andean regions of the country. The author is trying to explain the ethos of the costeño, politically nonviolent, nonmilitaristic, nonauthoritarian, and somehow unable to get deeply involved in the struggles for political power in the capital. Thus, for Fals Borda, Nieto represents these regional traits. At a different level, Nieto is representative of a social group that becomes important in the political process unleashed by the aftermath of independence. He is not a member of the creole elite of large hacendados or big merchants. He comes from a social segment of people of mixed-racial background (in this case, Spanish father and mestizo mother), who are free, small property owners in this area of Nueva Granada. Nieto, the author tells us, exemplifies one of the two responses of the popular sectors to the world the landowners made: that of taking part in the political struggles of the day and somehow trying to tilt the process in a “democratic” direction, but basically accepting the rules of the game imposed by the elite. The other response is exemplified by Adolfo Mier, a popular troubador and his extended family and friends who react by escaping, actually running away from the political and religious civil wars (these are white or mestizo families, not black maroons), and settling away from the reach of the landowners and the political authorities of any party. A very important point explored in this volume is the role of Freemasonry and the Masonic lodges in spreading liberal ideas. This is something that has been neglected by Colombian historiography, perhaps because the evidence is hard to obtain. The evidence presented by Fals Borda leads us to conclude that the lodges were bridges of social mobility between the elite and nonelite members of the Liberal party. There was a sprinkling of Masonic Conservatives, if one can call General Mosquera a Conservative, but most members were of varying degrees of Liberalism.
I have some criticisms of this volume on El Presidente Nieto. The first concerns the so-called method of “imputación” by which Fals Borda feels free to supply missing facts in his story. At this point, a more orthodox historian would have trouble telling historical fact from literary fiction. This is particularly the case since Fals Borda does not present the supporting documentary (archival) evidence in the way we historians are accustomed to. He gives us a general indication of his archival sources, but we would have trouble replicating or finding some of the information that he cites. Of course, some of it comes from private sources (archivos de baúl) which are not open to any researcher. Another problem is the author’s use of the concept of “ideological antielite” that he takes from Pareto and other sociologists. The theoretical concept may be well developed, but Fals Borda applies it to a crucial historical instance (the social and political struggles and reforms of 1848-54) in a manner that I find unconvincing. Who are the “ideological antielite” the author is referring to? The draconianos, artisans, and military personnel are the true social antagonists of the oligarchs whose hegemony they endanger for a short period when they become the prime movers of José María Melo’s coup. However, it is clear that Fals Borda is talking about another group, the Liberal members of the elite, who believe in an ideological jumble of economic liberalism and utopian socialism. But this supposed antielite group readily joins hands with their Conservative brothers to smash the daring challenge of the artisans and draconianos.
I find a remarkable contrast between volume III and the previous one, in subject matter and methodology, if not in its general objective. If volume II is a fascinating mixture of old-fashioned narrative plus sociological analysis, volume III attempts a more rigorous reconstruction of the agrarian history of another sub-region of la Costa, the San Jorge River area. More rigorous does not mean here systematic quantitative evidence regarding land tenure and production, but abundant descriptive evidence regarding the colonizing efforts of Spaniards, criollos, mestizos, free blacks, and even cimarrones; the formation of large landholdings for cattle ranching; small peasant agriculture; and the foundation of certain villages and towns. There is no detailed description of the economic activities, but there is a description plus explanation of the power relationships, antagonistic and cordial, between the different social and ethnic groups. Inside this general framework, the guiding thread is the story of Jegua, a small village, initially Indian, bypassed by the original conquistadores. Jegua successfully defended its communal lands, the resguardo, for a long time. By the end of the nineteenth century, Jegua, now a mestizo town, was overwhelmed by advancing capitalism and the onslaught of the latifundistas. Its long, successful resistance is what qualifies it as the collective hero of this story.
Once again, the question is: is Jegua typical of a generalized type of agrarian resistance? If we attempted a systematic analysis of land occupation and settlement in the rest of la Costa, would we find this to be an exceptional case in the past? Today, this is a region of extremely difficult agrarian struggles. Finally, the author’s use of the concept of contrapoder popular and the supporting empirical evidence is much more convincing than his use of ideological antielite in the previous volume. Fals Borda also brings another dimension that historians in our country would do well to explore further—the history of popular culture and popular traditions.