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The Struggle for Power in Post-Independence Colombia and Venezuela by Matthew Brown (review)

From: The Americas
Volume 70, Number 1, July 2013
pp. 115-117 | 10.1353/tam.2013.0062

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The bicentenary of the revolutions that broke the formal ties between mainland Latin America and the Iberian metropoles yielded a flourishing historiography whose outpouring continues to this day. But while historians have debated the fundamental causes and elemental processes of imperial breakups, there has been a strange silence in regard to their consequences. Matthew Brown's book asks readers to consider the repercussions of the revolutions for independence.

In a nutshell, Brown's argument is this: the revolutions in Colombia and Venezuela created power vacuums. With the monarchy gone, a dispute erupted over who and how to govern new republics. From the 1820s to the 1850s there was a standoff between "Bolivarians," who yearned for a centralized state ruled by a strong executive, and local liberals, who preferred a federalist system with power invested in legislators. In the 1850s, a brand of centralism finally triumphed when erstwhile localists embraced a new conservative spirit. In culmination of this new synthesis, the neo-Bolivarians launched the cult of the Liberator whose legacy they claimed to have inherited, and turned over crucial elements of sovereignty to international (British and American) economic interests and influence. In this fashion, a new historic bloc prevailed over a popular amalgam of mestizos, blacks, indigenous peoples, and plebeians of all sorts in the struggle to restore stability to the northern Andes.

To historians of nineteenth-century Latin America, the argument is not altogether new. In fact, it's a bit conventional; the durability of the basic argument reflects the fact that it contains an important truth and revisionists have yet to come up with a full-throated alternative to the master narrative. Still, Brown's book does not square with the recent efforts to challenge the old binaries of conservative vs. liberal, centralist vs. federalist, foreign vs. local, and republican vs. liberal with a substitute that accents the hybrid, syncretic models at work.

Where Brown innovates is in his narrative strategy. He charts the story beginning with the Battle of El Santuario in Antioquia, Colombia, in 1829. A minor skirmish in the grand arc of Spanish American military history (1,150 men fought), it nonetheless exemplified the ways in which two rival models of statehood pit defenders of local autonomy and popular sovereignty against centralists backed by "foreign" influences, if not led by "foreign" commanders. In this case, the combatants were General Daniel O'Leary, the Irishman who joined Bolívar late in his career, against General José María Córdoba, the antioqueño patriot who had also fought alongside Bolívar against Spanish armies but was nonetheless an equally fervent defender of his province's right to autonomy. The revolutionary wars had cascaded into a civil war.

Brown offers a collective biography of the combatants on both sides, tracing their careers and trajectories over several decades to derive a composite portrait. To one side stood those who supported a republican dictatorship supported by British military, diplomatic, and commercial interests and influences. To the other was a motley Army of Liberty that rebelled against the Colombian government. In Brown's treatment, the localists were an amalgam of conservative, pious men and liberal war heroes who commanded local peasants and farmers; what united them was the belief in local government free from the intrusions of a central and sometimes arbitrary authority. All were creoles from the province. The leaders of the Colombian army had similar ideological tendencies but firmly supported centralized rule; their ranks were populated by British veterans and mercenaries like O'Leary, Thomas Murray, and Rupert Hand, who come across as duplicitous, murderous fiends—willing in the end to sell out the very republic they fought for to foreign powers to favor their personal careers and fortunes. From this struggle emerged a Bolivarian regime and an informal empire that reconnected Venezuela (some of the veterans of El Saturnino influenced the path of Venezuelan history) and Colombia to the new free-trading Atlantic order.

One learns a lot from this portrait of the actors. All too often, historians have let ideologies or identities speak for actors' motivations and explain their actions. Brown reminds us that personal interests were at stake as well. Piecing together this level of...



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