The growing sophistication of work on Colombia’s Violencia and the trend toward regional examination of the long civil war are reflected in this study of the coffee-growing Quindío area of central Colombia. This book, Miguel Ortiz’s doctoral thesis in sociology at the School of Advanced Social Science Studies in Paris, is a model of research using local sources that stands as a significant contribution to writing on the Violencia. It illustrates both the value of the “microhistorical” approach to the Violencia, and the way municipal archives can be used to enhance our understanding of the social change it produced.
Estado y subversión en Colombia is the most intensive local study of the Violencia to date. It contains a trove of data from a range of archival sources, and draws on 270 interviews, most of them conducted among the campesinos of Quindío. In that it brings together so much of a primary nature, it stands with the first volume of Germán Guzmán’s La Violencia en Colombia as a source on what happened in the Colombian countryside from the late 1940s into the early 1960s.
Ortiz finds that there was no causal pattern in Quindío’s Violencia. Absent was any history of mass movements, whether social or political, sufficient to condition what came later. Neither does he find the collapse of the Colombian state to have touched off strife: “[I]f one uses the term ‘collapse,’ one would have to say the State was always in a state of ‘collapse’” (p. 325). What was important, in Ortiz’s analysis, was the way local individuals used the Violencia as a means of breaking down old patterns of social control.
Ortiz carefully destroys the “legend” that the Violencia was used by large landowners to increase their holdings. On the contrary, the author finds that while such persons did not significantly improve their position over the course of the Violencia, many others did. A nouveau riche class composed of persons who astutely took advantage of the social upset rose to join the older, monied elite.
Violentos such as the notorious “Chispas” emerge from this study with slightly enhanced reputations, while the Colombian Army does not fare as well here as in most other studies. Liberal campesinos of Quindío believe that thanks to “Chispas” and the other Liberal guerrillas they survived the Violencia and managed to hold on to their parcels of land. The army is portrayed as having consistently mistreated Liberal campesinos up to the time that a program of military-civilian collaboration was initiated in 1961.
In spite of its virtues, this work is poorly integrated, and seems to have been written for the specialist rather than for the general reader. Little effort is made to connect the events described in Quindío with others taking place on the national scene. The absence of an analytic index is a serious omission in a volume containing such a wealth of information. Still, these problems pale before the fact that this monograph represents a notable advance in the regional study of Colombia’s Violencia.