In the current revision of Latin America at midcentury, it is passing strange that Colombia has not received greater attention. Neither David Rock’s recent volume on the 1940s nor Leslie Bethell and Ian Roxborough’s earlier studies of the postwar era discuss what has long been regarded as an idiosyncratic case of partisan violence and social breakdown. This neglect surprises, given the key role of this period in Charles Bergquist’s influential Labor in Latin America (1986) and Herbert Braun’s masterly study of the era’s political culture, The Assassination of Gaitán (1985).
Eduardo Sáenz Rovner’s book should do much to rectify this indifference. The author argues that in the decade and a half after 1929, Colombian industrialists chafed under Liberal administrations favoring both coffee exporters and trade unionists. With the election of Conservative Mariano Ospina Pérez to the presidency in 1946, owners of large textile factories and other manufacturing firms seized the opportunity to remake the national economy on their own terms. Sáenz Rovner shows how the industrialist lobby, ANDI, joined with Laureano Gómez and other Conservative extremists to checkmate moderates in both traditional parties and the coalition of agricultural, labor, and other interests led by the populist tribune Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. The industrialists marshaled support from technocrats, politicians, and the press to secure protective tariffs and repressive labor policies from an increasingly dictatorial Conservative regime.
This novel interpretation stands solidly on a critical reading of secondary works, along with a careful use of Colombian and U.S. government archives and previously unexamined materials from major business associations. Sáenz Rovner takes on the big questions of Colombia’s midcentury transition and boldly challenges the dominant liberal and Marxist historiography. Unfortunately, his analysis downplays the powerful crosscurrents of partisan politics, gives short shrift to the coffee lobby, and exaggerates the separation of manufacturing from other elite interests. Nevertheless, it is likely to set the standard for Colombia’s business and economic history for some time.
Sáenz Rovner helps locate Colombia’s midcentury experience squarely in Latin America’s economic and social transformations after World War II. But perhaps more significant, his tale suggests that those triumphant elites, with industrialists at the helm, presaged the authoritarian capitalism linked to foreign capital that arose elsewhere in the region decades later. The Colombian bourgeoisie successfully manipulated public opinion; swept aside populist, labor, and nationalist alternatives; and cut deals with the U.S. government and corporations. Moreover, these industrialists and their political partners helped midwife an official terror during the late 1940s and early 1950s, thereby undermining constitutional rule, thwarting serious reform, and making coercion a mainstay of elite domination for the rest of the century. This compelling study reveals Colombia in this period not as a historical anomaly but as an early and unhappy example of the violent origins of contemporary Latin America.