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Reviewed by:
  • Ensayos de Historia Política de Colombia, siglos XIX y XX
  • Malcolm Deas
Ensayos de Historia Política de Colombia, siglos XIX y XX. By David Bushnell. Medellín: La Carreta Editores, 2006. Pp. 195. Illustrations. Notes.

David Bushnell is known to many as the author of a classic study of General Francisco de Paula Santander's administration of Gran Colombia, vice-president under Bolívar in the 1820s, a work that has stood the test of over half a century, and of a wise general history of Colombia. He is truly the doyen of Colombian studies, for as he reminds us here he first arrived in Bogotá a couple of months after the 9 April riot of 1948 which followed the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. A book of Bushnell essays is therefore an event, and this little collection does not disappoint. One only wishes that the essays were longer and that there were more of them.

There are seven. Two are about Santander, one about his "problematic image" and another detailing his Venezuelan supporters. Another essay analyses Bolívar's final dictatorship, and there is also an analysis of the press in Gran Colombia during the 1820s. More contemporary is a comparison of the "opening" of Colombia by the mid nineteenth-century liberals and the recent version of the same carried through by César Gaviria in the early 1990s. Also firmly in the twentieth century is a study of Colombian perspectives on the Spanish Civil War. Finally there is a piece of philosophical philately, in which the author reveals his secret weakness for the issues of the Conservative Republic, 1885-1930, and ponders the significance of whom they portray: Rafael Núñez alone made it onto a stamp while president, though he may not have been responsible himself. All these pieces have the Bushnell stamp of clarity and authority. All, even when it comes to stamps, have an extraordinary evenness and maturity of judgement. Points are never laboured; there is no overselling of the work in hand. It will be a pity if these virtues lead readers to underestimate the importance of this small collection, both as history and as a background to some current concerns.

The studies of Bolívar's final dictatorship and of Santander should be read by all interested in the period, and by all who have curiosity enough to enquire what historical truths there may be in the current Bolivarian rhetoric emanating from Venezuela. Bushnell here is not anti-bolivarian, but he rightly has no patience with those who seek to make out this last phase of his politics as progressive. His analysis of the laws and decrees of the dictatorship—a close reading of legislation has always been one of Bushnell's strengths—shows a certain exhausted realism, but no great concern for the popular masses. Of equal importance, and of the same even-handedness, is the main essay on Santander, which not only manages to convey with deft economy much of the character of the man—virtues and vices—but which also explores the ups and downs of his posthumous reputation.

Bushnell's long memory can easily recall a Colombia where Bolívar was seen as the founding father of the Conservative party, and he finds his transformation in recent decades into a hero of the left ironical. Though he is far too professional a historian to be described as a partisan, one can also detect in these pages an invitation [End Page 685] to Colombians and others to think again about the significance of Santander, who can claim the merit of discerning and devising how the country had to be governed, and whose liberalism was more than skin deep. The pendant on Santander's Venezuelan supporters is unlikely to go down well with any chavista reader it may find.

The chapters that touch the twentieth century are also sure-footed. Separated by more than a century though they are, the two aperturas can be usefully compared. Colombia was too remote, too poor and too peculiarly politicized itself for the Spanish civil war to have had much of an impact, and here Bushnell gives us an...


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