The Americas 57.2 (2000) 286-288
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With this fine volume, Jane M. Rausch completes a trilogy on the Colombian Llanos, the first two parts of which (1984, 1993) traced the evolution of this isolated plains region from 1531 to 1930. The book under review is only partly devoted to the Llanos. The first section examines administrative and other changes affecting all of Colombia's frontier territories during the Liberal Republic (1930-1946) while the second focuses on the Llanos during the same period. Enhancing the book's appearance and usefulness are five well-drawn maps, thirteen tables, and reproductions of caricatures by KLIM (Lucas Caballero Calderón) and Jorge Franklin Cárdenas.
In 1930, Colombia's territories--lands too sparsely populated to be designated as departments--accounted for approximately sixty percent of the national domain but for less than three percent of the population. Of these territories, the largest was Amazonia (420,875 square kilometers), lying south of the Guaviare River, and the Llanos (253,000 square kilometers), lying east of the Andean cordilleras. Since the late nineteenth century, they had been divided into intendancies and special commissariats and their administration had been virtually surrendered to various religious orders, whose primary mandate was conversion of the indigenous peoples living there.
Alarmed over threats to Colombian sovereignty in the territories, dramatically illustrated by the conflict with Peru over Leticia (1932), the administration of Eduardo Olaya Herrera (1930-1934) undertook numerous initiatives to centralize oversight of the territories in a single government department and to improve transportation and communications. His successor, Alfonso López Pumarejo (1934-1938), increased expenditures for health and education, created a new national police division to patrol international borders, and, in general, asserted the authority of the government. He was also able to visit the territories thanks to reliable air transport. In addition, the existence of the territories was recognized in the constitution for the first time as a result of the reforms of 1936.
By mid-century the territorial population had grown but still represented only 3.1 percent of the national total. The territories were now linked to central Colombia by air and highway, and some economic development had occurred. Even so, the sums earmarked for the territories were too small to effect significant change while settlers (colonos) who survived the tropical climate found it difficult to gain legal title to land. In western Colombia, Chocó won departmental status in 1947, though it lacked the required 250,000 inhabitants, because of the efforts of native son Diego Luis Córdoba.
In the Llanos, change was most notable in the intendancy of Meta, where the population tripled between 1928 and 1951, and a paved road linked Bogotá with the regional capital of Villavicencio. The production of cattle and agricultural commodities for highland markets also increased. In other sections of the Llanos, improvements were modest at best. Casanare, which was ruled by impoverished Boyacá department, stagnated, and the commissariats of Arauca and Vichada "continued to function more as western frontiers of Venezuela than as the far eastern frontier of Colombia" (p. 217). [End Page 287]
Rausch has discussed Latin American frontiers in comparative perspective elsewhere and does not address the subject here. Instead, she ends with an account of the early stages of the Violencia in the Llanos. She relies almost entirely on printed primary sources, especially government and church documents and newspapers, and on secondary works, many of them produced recently by Colombian scholars. As a result, she offers little firsthand information about the daily lives of frontier inhabitants. She does leave the reader with a sense that as late as the mid-twentieth century the Colombian government had at most a fragile presence in the more distant territories. Despite the fact that the 1991 constitution converted all the territories into departments, it is therefore not surprising that fifty years after the end of the Liberal Republic the...