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Colombia and the Legal-Cultural Negotiation of Racial Categories  

Joanne Rappaport

Colombia is a country that has over the past two centuries defined itself as a mestizo nation, but almost no one identifies as mestizo. During the colonial period (16th to 18th centuries), an early modern epistemology of race different from our own was founded in the notion of an ever-changing human body and on a society whose members were only in certain contexts classified by race, fostering fluid taxonomies that cannot be adequately represented by the canonical triad of “white,” “black,” and “Indigenous,” and their admixtures. If, in the 19th century, “scientific” notions of race spread across the globe, this racial discourse took particular forms in each location. In Colombia, racial categories were adjusted to mark geographic, as opposed to individual, diversity. Regions of the nascent Colombia were defined by their “whiteness” or their “blackness,” in a civilizing discourse that attempted to erase but at the same time maintain social hierarchies. This redrawing of racial taxonomies had at its center the goal, for the Andean heartlands at least, of a progressive movement toward whiteness.

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Coca and Cocaine in Latin American History  

Paul Gootenberg

Coca leaf (“chewed” by indigenous Andean peoples) and cocaine (the notorious modern illicit drug trafficked from the Andes) are deeply emblematic of South America, but neither has attracted the in-depth archival research they deserve. Their two modern histories are closely linked. Coca leaf, a part of Andean indigenous lifeways for thousands of years, is the raw ingredient for the alkaloid drug cocaine, discovered in 1860, and illicit peasant coca plots in the western Amazon of Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia have been the source for the infamous illicit cocaine “cartels” since the 1970s. The two drugs’ fates have both had surprisingly shifting trajectories and meanings across the colonial, national, and modern eras. They have also distinctively linked the Andes to the outside world and national political cultures of the three chief Andean states. Bolivia has the most continuous history with coca, related to the highland geography of its indigenous majority, though coca leaf only became a “nationalist” symbol over the past fifty years or so. Peru was home to the world’s first legal cocaine industries, starting in the 1880s, and coca and illicit cocaine have interacted in complex ways ever since. Colombia had the least coca traditions, and was the last nation to develop illicit cocaine exports in the 1970s and 1980s, although with a dramatic impact on Colombia and the world. This largely unknown and changeable history underlies the present-day crossroads of coca and cocaine: will the US-abetted Andean “drug wars” against cocaine continue, despite their long failures, and will coca’s place as a symbol of cultural and national pride in the Andes be fully restored?

Article

The Drug Wars in Colombia  

Lina Britto

From Hollywood movies to binge-worthy TV shows, stories of Colombian narcotraficantes waging war against state agents and civilians are profitable narrative devices of our times. But beyond the screen, the history is not as clear-cut or simple. The drug wars in Colombia began years before the cocaine lords launched a crusade against extradition in the mid-1980s. Building upon a long history of military and intelligence cooperation against communism during the Cold War, the US and Colombian governments engaged in a series of diplomatic exchanges during the 1970s to define the best approach to the growing traffic in marijuana and cocaine between the two countries. By the end of the decade, this long process of political accommodation led to the first drug war in the South American nation. Since then, antinarcotics campaigns against producers of illicit crops and the criminal structures that controlled exportation and distribution to the United States and European markets have constituted essential components in the relationship between the two countries. For the last forty years, prohibitionist drug policies and militarized antinarcotics campaigns have systematically interacted with traffickers’ efforts at survival and their ruthless competition for the accumulation of capital, power, and status. As a result of this dynamic, warfare has become the norm in the functioning of the illicit business as well as in the state’s efforts at drug control and repression, making Colombia one of the main theaters of the drug wars in the world.

Article

National Parks in Colombia  

Claudia Leal

The history of Colombian national parks started in 1948 with the establishment of a reserve for scientific research, which stood alone until the 1960s, when various state agencies created a few parks with quite different goals in mind, including preserving imposing landscapes and conserving water. This rather casual development changed after the growing international concern for the environment led to the creation of an environmental agency in 1968 and the enactment of an environmental code in 1974, which served as institutional platform for the planned expansion of a system of national parks based largely on ecological criteria. Chronically underfunded and understaffed, the Office of National Parks has confronted its weakness by establishing parks which confer legal protection on areas whose natural attributes were deemed valuable. Such a strategy has led to confrontations with local populations living in and around parks, whose rights to resource use have been hampered. The office’s incapacity to properly enforce rules and its attempts to work with rural communities, especially indigenous groups, have to some extent mitigated such tensions. It has further sought to enlist the support of the middle classes and been forced to deal with illegal armed groups on the left and the right, as well as the national army, vying for territorial control. Although parks have not fulfilled their ideal, they have fostered the notion that the nation has a natural patrimony and have contributed decisively to its conservation.

Article

The Putumayo Atrocities  

Angus Mitchell

The Putumayo atrocities allude to an outrage that made international headlines between 1909 and 1913. The evolving press story drew public attention to the extreme exploitation of people and environment by a British-owned extractive rubber company in a contested region of the northwest/Upper Amazon bordering Peru, Colombia, and Brazil. The scandal contributed to the demise of the “boom” in the extractive rubber industry in the Amazon. Claims of atrocities were brought initially to the attention of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society (ASAPS) in London. Humanitarian pressure triggered a series of official investigations undertaken by the governments of Britain, Peru, the United States, and the Vatican. The British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, dispatched the consul general in Brazil, Roger Casement, to investigate. Casement made two separate journeys into the region in 1910 and 1911. In 1912, a British government Blue Book was published containing his reports and oral testimony gathered from British-Caribbean subjects recruited by the company to act as overseers. This was followed by a parliamentary select committee inquiry held in London that ran from October 1912 to April 1913. The US government organized their own commission of inquiry and published their own report. Despite the acreage of text produced, the efforts to help the rainforest communities proved too little too late. By the time the investigations had been undertaken, and the reports published, the main Indigenous communities living across the territory had been largely worked to death, displaced, or hunted down. In July 1914, an amendment to the Slavery Bill was passed in the British Houses of Parliament requiring transnational companies to assume humane responsibility and care for their workforce in whatever territories they operated. However, as Europe collapsed toward war, the legislation was never enshrined into international law, and this remains one of the unrealized goals of international labor relations to this day. Nevertheless, the Putumayo atrocities endure as the most closely documented and described incidents of the last years of the Amazon rubber boom and allow for consideration of the unfathomable human cost in a particularly vicious moment of untrammeled international colonial capitalism in South America.

Article

Radio Education in the Andes During the Second Half of the 20th Century  

Anna Cant

In 1947, a Colombian priest, Padre José Joaquín Salcedo Guarín, established a small radio station in Sutatenza, Boyacá to provide basic literacy education for poor peasants. Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, Salcedo’s pioneering example gave rise to hundreds of similar initiatives across the Andes. Amid widespread illiteracy, entrenched poverty, and a mountainous terrain that limited access to state institutions and the mainstream media, radio was seen as a technology of immense promise that could increase education levels and stimulate development. The escuelas radiofónicas (radio schools) were an innovative form of distance learning designed to be followed in groups within the home or in a community building. In other parts of the world, radio education was largely delivered by secular agencies, but in the profoundly Catholic Andean region they had a strongly religious character, being operated by priests and funded by international Catholic organizations. Although hailed by many for their transformative impact on rural communities, others criticized their “developmentalist” assumptions and tendency to spread anticommunism. Initially focused on basic numeracy and literacy, radio schools later included programs on agricultural techniques, health, family relationships, music, and spiritual guidance, which were accompanied by newspapers, pamphlets, and readers. Peasant leaders and so-called auxiliaries were recruited and trained to promote radio school attendance and reinforce new ideas and practices. As the tenets of liberation theology filtered out through the Latin American clergy in the 1970s and 1980s, radio education acquired a more activist tone and moved away from didacticism toward community participation, often having a cultural and political impact far beyond that intended in the 1960s. Cultural and economic changes of the late 20th century brought an end to many such radio schools, but a number persist and radio continues to be vitally important among rural Andean populations.

Article

Amazonian Frontiers: Borderlines, Internal Frontiers, and Political Ecology of Amazonia  

Germán Palacio

In dealing with the intersection between Amazonia and frontiers, Amazonia, understood as a region, is a recent construction that cannot be confused with the Amazon as river. Its meaning is related to the idea of Panamazonia, a multinational region. In terms of frontiers, there is a distinction between borderlines with their main ramifications, borderlands, and internal frontiers. From a historical point of view, both, borderlines and “internal frontiers” approaches must be taken into account simultaneously when dealing with the Amazonian frontiers. From a chronological point of view, in brief, a borderline was traced in the late 15th century in a contest between the Portuguese and the Castile and Aragon crowns over the Atlantic. At the beginning of the 16th century, Iberian people arrived at Pará, what today is part of Brazil. They found transformed lowlands landscapes by indigenous people of several linguistic and ethnic origins. The British, Dutch, and French crowns were able to settle in the “Caribbean” Amazonia, the Guianas. Later on, during the second part of the 17th century, Portuguese people started to expand successfully from the east to the west following up the Big River. The Spanish crown only decided to deal with Portuguese expansion in the middle of the 18th century through diplomatic negotiations. Well into the 19th century definitive demarcations in the framework of nation-state building became evident, and this becomes a priority for these independent nation-states, particularly due to the economic importance of two highly valued commodities: quinine, and rubber. The process of establishing borderlines became firmly decided around the middle of the 20th century, and with few exceptions. While the process of establishing borders has almost concluded, the material appropriation of frontier landscapes is still taking place. The current appropriation of Amazonian lands is, probably, in its last stage. It is extremely conflictive in some cases, such as in Peru and Colombia, because of internal armed conflict, illegal extractivism, and drug dealing. It also involves a dispute between forces associated with development projects and forces of conservation during the late 20th century and the turning of this new century, all in a context of the environmental globalization of the Amazonia. This has implied a redefinition of the territorial role of the Amazonian nation-states. Therefore, it is more proper to analyze this last stage as a political ecology of the appropriation of Amazonian frontiers.

Article

Food Science, Race, and the Nation in Colombia  

Stefan Pohl-Valero

At the beginning of the 19th century, Colombian physicians thought of food as an essential factor in shaping human character and corporeality. Framed in a neo-Hippocratic system, health and racial differences were related not only to climate but also to the connection between food qualities and humoral fluids. For example, it was believed that the tendency to eat cold and moist food, as well as greasy substances, was one of the reasons why people in warm regions of Colombia were choleric, phlegmatic, and indolent. By midcentury, it was further argued that each regional type—a local racialized categorization based on geographic determinism—had certain diet habits and physiological characteristics that explained its character (sober, obedient, lazy, industrious, etc.), and that made this type “naturally” suitable for different kinds of work. During this period, the working population’s diet was not perceived to be a social problem requiring regulation, at least not by the government. In the midst of liberal reforms, the political elites were more focused on the economic and genetic integration (“whitening”) of highland Indians, and to a lesser extent blacks, than on producing a supposed “better race” through nourishment. But by the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, however, a new cultural framework that crossed the boundaries of thermodynamics, political economy, experimental physiology, and eugenics had begun to emerge in Colombia, converging in the social problem of nutrition. Centered on the analogy of the human body as a heat engine that transforms energy, local scientists began to conduct surveys of the eating habits of the “working classes,” analyses of the chemical and caloric composition of their foods, and studies on the metabolic characteristics of different regional populations. The results of these investigations were used to push the government to “restore the energies” of an impoverished population that was consistently thought to be weak and racially inferior, but capable of physiological and hereditable improvement. The cry of conservative elites for political and moral “regeneration” at the turn of the century also had a biological component—the optimization of the human motor. In the 1920s and 1930s, several campaigns and institutions were created for this social engineering, aimed at producing a modern, healthy, and industrious citizen. These campaigns gained special political force after the Liberal Party returned to power in 1930.

Article

Digital Resources: Massacres and the Evolution of the Colombian War  

Óscar Parra

Since 1982 there have been at least 2,000 massacres in Colombia committed by different illegal groups and by members of the Colombian army and police. The development of the conflict in Colombia has a direct relation with the causes and consequences of these crimes, perpetrated in most cases by paramilitary armies, associated to varying degrees with the cocaine trade. Paramilitary groups were a counterinsurgency force organized by the State, or independent, and supported economically by drug cartels and some landowners and businessmen. Although guerrilla armies, insurgency, and communist groups created mostly in the 1960s perpetrated several massacres, these crimes were systematically used primarily by paramilitary groups to terrorize people in places where they had a particular interest, such as drug trafficking or vying for political power. In its book ¡Basta ya!, the Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica has documented that 59% of the massacres were committed by paramilitary groups and 17% by guerrillas. Rutas del Conflicto is a project created by journalists that marks the evolution of these groups through more than 30 years of war. Using mapping and timeline tools developed especially for the project, it has documented more than 700 of these crimes, displaying the degree to which the tragedy has affected the lives of millions of people in Colombia.

Article

Francisco de Miranda  

Andrey Iserov

Francisco de Miranda (March 28, 1750, Caracas, Venezuela—July 14, 1816, La Carraca, Spain) was a Spanish American revolutionary who after a career in the Spanish Army from 1783 devoted his life to the cause of Spanish American independence. The various designs of Miranda in the 1780s–1800s were founded upon the idea of a military liberation expedition to Spanish America led by him and organized with the support of a power (Great Britain, United States, France) in conflict with Spain that would then foment existing discontent and lead to a wide-scale revolt and independence. Though these plans failed, as did his attempt to organize an expedition from New York without the support of any power (1805–1807), in 1810 the revolution in Spanish America started without his participation as a consequence of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain. Miranda was called to Caracas and eventually led the short-lived First Venezuelan Republic in 1812. After its defeat he spent the last years of his life in Spanish jails. Miranda’s failure influenced the South American revolutionaries who adopted the tactics of unconditional warfare against the Spanish troops from 1813. A shrewd and sophisticated expert in world affairs and political intrigues and an acclaimed military commander, Miranda was persistently trying to use the conflicts between great powers to achieve his goal though he knew that these powers’ leaders were eager to use him as a trump card against the Spanish Empire in their geopolitical games. His contacts ranged from US Founding Fathers, British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and Viscount Melville to the Prussian king Friedrich II and the Russian empress Catherine II. He was a respected peer in the high society of the European “republic of letters” in the Age of Enlightenment. In the United States his friends belonged to the Federalist Party, which represents an interesting phenomenon since Federalists are usually viewed as being generally skeptical toward foreign revolutions. In Spanish America Miranda’s ideas received no support until 1810–1812, as his failed expedition clearly shows—this is an excellent example of the interplay between “evental history” (histoire évenémentielle) and the longue durée, demonstrating how fast and unpredictable radical historical change may be. In spite of this long political solitude, Miranda entered the Spanish American symbolic pantheon as the precursor of independence.