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51f38SlZnUL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Across ten chapters organized thematically rather than chronologically, Michael J. LaRosa and German R. Mejía present this fine English-language history of Colombia in accessible prose that only occasionally belies that they were writing or thinking initially in Spanish before making this considerable gift to the English reading public.

The line-up of chapter titles arguably serves as LaRosa’s and Mejía’s first promise that their history will not weep over a fragmented and violent nation, but rather will sketch the contours of a nation seeking unity, nourished by a certain dynamism, and eager—or perhaps more often merely destined—to find its place in the world:

  • ‘Origins’
  • ‘The Colombian Nations’
  • ‘The Dynamics of a Political Community’
  • ‘The Cadence of Unity’
  • ‘Conflict’
  • ‘Economic Unity’
  • ‘A Common Space’
  • ‘Cultural Dynamism’
  • ‘Daily Life’
  • ‘Colombia and the World’

The book’s first chapter (‘Origins’) establishes the case for autonomy and then independence from Spain on the awkward fact that Spanish plans for that European nation’s ‘American’ colonies would always leave the ‘creoles’ at a disadvantage over peninsular interests. The detail that this history begins with post-Columbian political reorganization rather than the pre-Columbian ‘given’ that the Spanish conquerers encountered is perhaps symptomatic of the concise nature of the work. It is also programmatic of history and of this particular narrative that ‘Colombia’ was born in blood and contest, a genesis that wants to extend its hegemony—but in LaRosa’s and Mejía’s telling, does not finally succeed—from the beginning through to the end of the nation’s story. In this North American reader’s opinion, the authors make the eventual Colombian state’s post-Encounter pre-history understandable in broad brush and via analogies with a North American historical experience that is more familiar to the book’s English readership.

‘The Colombian Nations’—the work’s second chapter—clarifies that political wrestling between fair-skinned peninsulares and criollos does not by itself exhaust the Colombian story, neither in its earliest decades not in the present time. On the contrary, the country’s staggering diversity is enriched by vast contributions by its indigenous and Afro-Caribbean populations, even when ‘official’ histories and mainstream politics have conspired to push such nations to the barely visible margins. Colombia is a ‘nation of mestizos’ in which a majority self-identifies as white. Yet history, as ever, is more complex than any demographic snapshot of self-identification suggests. In addition, the chasms, evolutions, and migrations between and among rural and urban experience are those of a profoundly regional country, where the sentiments and realia of national unity have been condemned to swing against the strong and persistent currents of regional identity.

In ‘The Dynamics of a Political Community’, (chapter 3), the authors introduce us to the 1830 death of ‘Gran Colombia’ (comprised of today’s Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela) and the de facto birth of the Republic of Colombia, with its political center of gravity never shifting entirely from Bogotá despite the pretensions of elites from the country’s other regions. The hard work of ‘transforming subjects into citizens’ was now to raise myriad questions about what citizenship should mean in this country of comparatively modest dimensions after the collapse of the Bolivarian dream. Here the influence of the French and North American revolutions is felt, with their values duly registered in a sequence of national constitutions that register the enduring conflict between federalist and centralist views of what the nation should become.

LaRosa and Mejía observe that …

… (t)he lesson of Colombia’s nineteenth century was clear: presidentialism/centralism created fertile ground whereby party-led management of the state became the factor that contributed most directly to chronic violence. A monopoly of state offices by one or the other political party was viewed as the most efficacious manner of operating government, and such a monopoly was typically enforced through violence. Triumphs at the ballot box granted political party to one party to the exclusion of the other. The party out of power often determined that violence was the only way to overturn such a situation of exclusion. Although formal civil wars disappeared in the twentieth century, political party violence remained one of the basic characteristics of the Colombian political model: violence was the manner through which control over the Colombian state was ensured.

In the authors’ persuasive telling, this hard-wired impulse towards the exclusive use of power of political party by one party and the reactive deployment of violence to ‘rectify’ the situation by the other led to the political exhaustion that produced the concordist National Front model in the middle decades of the twentieth century. This political agreement established alternating ‘turns’ at national government by, respectively, the Conservative and Liberal parties. It managed to reduce political violence but at great cost:

Politics as an exercise of citizenship was stripped of its virtue, instead favoring the technocrat and punishing the career politician. At the same time, new, dangerous actors, exploded onto the national political scene: the guerrilla fighter, the drug trafficker, the paramilitary, and the corrupt public official. A society that was becoming ever more urbanized increasingly grew politically apathetic, a phenomenon that was made evident by the significant abstention that characterized all elections during the last two decades of the twentieth century.

LaRosa and Mejía seem to place significant hope in the consequences of the 1991 constitution, though faulting the manner in which it nourished the continuance of ‘a weak Congress. This has allowed the executive power to carry out legislative initiatives in the country, either because many of the law projects discussed in Congress have been developed in the offices of the different ministries or because the constitution of 1886 allowed the president to govern by decree …. Also, unfortunately, the parties continue to approach politics in a manner that places a high value on coercive customs associated with political caudillos.’

Still, somehow, the Colombian political reality has with one brief exception managed to avoid the cold grip of dictatorship, no doubt a core plank in any case that can be made for Colombian exceptionalism.

The book’s well-titled fourth chapter (‘The Cadence of Unity’) broaches the remarkable fact that a Colombian state—in multiple forms and with more than one name—existed long before a Colombian nation had come to be:

As the multiple name and territorial changes suggest, the nation (a unifying culture) did not exist when the state first formed. Even today a “Colombian nation” is difficult to identify. What emerges out of the depths of Colombia’s republican h history is a state that constructed the “nation”. By actively producing both governmental and cultural institutions over its territory, Colombia would gain stability and, over time, would consolidate into a unified nation.

The primary creative forces were the two traditional political parties, the Catholic religion, and the Spanish language, not necessarily in that order. Of these, the first (the Liberal and Conservative parties in their undying quests for national hegemony) were the agents of conflict and disunity as well as undeniable unifiers of Colombians who shared similar political sentiment across the regional divides.

This fourth chapter is arguably LaRosa’s and Mejía’s most illuminating and orienting assessment in a book that excels at both. It leads organically into the next, with its awful and too accurate title (Ch. 5, ‘Conflict’). The chapter begins pungently: ‘Colombia’s history has been defined by epic conflicts.’

Organized around four key categories (politics, international relations, social structure, illegal narcotics), the discussion shows that—even here—Colombian history is paradoxical, for …

 … (d)espite endemic conflict, Colombia has held together as a territorial entity, with the exception of the separation of the Province of Panama, which resulted from a myriad of colliding national and international factors. Colombians have been able to resolve conflicts through creative methods and intermediaries.

Alas, these creative methods involved the (arguably ill-fated) National Front in the late 1950s, of which the unintended consequence was that ‘it pushed people who belonged to neither party toward the sociopolitical margins and eventually into armed guerrilla forces’.

Though their tracing of internecine violence from the Spanish evacuation thought to Plan Colombia has no shortage of episodes upon which to alight, the authors insist—again, the paradox is rife and at times the protestation a bit much—that Colombian levels of violence are not unique within Latin America. Indeed the they do not approach the ‘lurid madness’ of the Mexican experience. Sadly, the 2013 date of the book’d most recent edition allows the inclusion of Álvaro Uribe’s mano dura, corazón grande but not the efforts of Uribe’s erstwhile secretary of defense (now president) to achieve a peace deal with the FARC and eventually the ELN. The authors’ efforts to move beyond bare description and on to the lived experience of Colombians is again evident in the chapter’s conclusion:

Colombians have learned to live with great ambiguity and uncertainty. Conflict is part of everyday life, but so too is warmth, generosity, and a spirit of collaboration. Most Colombians try to transcend the daily political and social conflict by spending as much time as possible with family, friends, and visitors—a style of endurance influenced by Colombia’s unique historical and cultural development.

In chapter five (‘Economic Unity’), we learn that Colombia’s ‘modern, diverse, market-driven economy’ maintains itself in the context of ‘one of the most unequal societies in Latin America and the world’, yet another of Colombia’s pluriform paradoxes. The economy of what we today call Colombia would not have been foreseen from the time of the Spanish conquerors, for its land area was modestly endowed when compared to the rich metal deposits to the north and the south. Moreover, it would be impossible to speak of a ‘Colombian’ economy until modern transportation networks allowed production and consumption to escape the country’s marked regionalization.

The authors explore coffee’s role as an economic motor, with due attention to how this and other economic developments in Colombia took place in the shadow of the economic behemoth in the North. LaRosa’s and Mejía’s analysis manifests a center-left suspicion of large corporations, external investment, and industrial agricultural that is more common among Latin American economic historians than among English-language readership. Yet if ideology discernibly contextualizes the authors’ efforts to make sense of their topic, it does not in this reader’s estimation come close to distorting the narrative. The chapter includes a valuable discussion of the drugs cartels from an economic perspective.

The post-independence forging of a shared national community (Chapter six, ’A Common Space’) has been a long journey on a mountainous road. ‘From 1830 until the profound social crises that lasted from about 1960 to 1980, the fundamental objective of governance was to force all populations to cooperate with an ideal that was to be nourished by democratic-liberal institutions and principles, the ideals of capitalist bourgeois thinkers, and the normals and practices of Catholicism’. The authors argue, however, that in the light of today’s multicultural Colombia national unity can only be a political reality.

In working out how this common (political) space has been formed to date, LaRosa and Media survey improvements in transportation systems, the establishment and expansion of mail and communications systems, the growth of regional print media (few of which have commanded a national audience) as means that have served the pursuit of this end (Chapter seven, ‘A Common Space’). A useful chart (‘Table 7.1. Railroad National Network’) nicely illustrates several flurries of railroad  construction as well as the quite limited lengths of each line, owing no doubt to the ever-influential limitations that topography imposes upon any transportation ambition in Colombia. Sadly, this chapter was written too early to allow consideration of Medellín’s recent inventiveness with urban rail (‘metro’) and the city’s transformative ‘metro cable’ system. The latter has linked previously isolated comunas on the sides of the valley the city occupies, to great social and economic effect.

The names ‘Botero’ and ‘García Márquez’ loom large over any discussion of Colombian visual and literary art, yet the authors introduce their readers to the lesser lights of a dynamic culture that, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, has often been veiled by the ‘centrifugal force’ of ‘the enormous vogue of things Mexican’ (Chapter eight, ‘Cultural Dynamism’). In this reader’s opinion, Colombian music has enjoyed less light than the chapter might have thrown upon it, particularly as popular superstars such as Shakira and Juanes have refracted its rhythms and tones to an international public.

LaRosa and Media have a knack for nuanced and illuminating final statements in their chapters, of which Chapter Eight gives us this:

Colombians have been successful at creating literacy works of astonishing originality, such as García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude; at the same time, they have been able to incorporate, adapt, and innovate as only a mestizo nation can. Colombians are comfortable with the hybrid; their culture is not obsessed with pursuits that are purely intellectual, avant-garde, or otherwise divorced from the concerns of daily reality. Colombian culture, shaped by regional realities and restraints and the burdens of history, and conditioned by the serene wisdom of living day to day, is vibrant, often nostalgic, and sometimes uncertain. It is a metaphor for Colombian society.

The authors once again explicit their option of avoiding the ‘catastrophic history’ that characterizes much writing about Colombia (Chapter Nine, ‘Daily Life’): ‘Few textbooks published in English deal with Colombian daily life, preferring to focus on violence, drug trafficking, and other lurid topics that frequently find their way into the Colombian evening news. This chapter seeks to explore the cultural forces that move Colombia and Colombians: for example, religious festivals and Catholic feast days are part of the rhythm of the Colombian calendar.’ The shared celebrations of a ‘decidedly more secular’ Colombia are still apportioned with reference to Catholic saints, though only the most devout can these days link the holiday to the religious figure whose life is memorialized by it.

Colombians have also made their mark internationally in auto racing, golf, tennis, cycling, baseball, and coleo—the latter ‘a sort of Colombian-Venezuelan rodeo’. LaRosa and Mejía also touch on Colombia’s remarkable presence in international beauty pageants, the retaking of the nation’s urban centers, radio and TV (including the famed soap operas), gastronomy, and university life. Yet, even here, national unity is an uphill climb:

A nation as divided as Colombia, by geography, race, social and economic class, political power, education, and apellido (family name) can never come together completely and earnestly, but innovative and intelligent Colombians have worked hard to create infrastructure, parks, programs, transportation systems, and university curricula that help Colombians focus on what unites them as a people and a nation rather than what has historically divided society.

In their tenth chapter (‘Colombia and the World’), LaRosa and Mejía engage Colombia’s place in the wider world to which it belongs.

As independence from Spain became a reality, ‘(t)he new Colombian nation looked—generally—to Great Britain for economic advice, to France for cultural and philosophical principles, and to the United States, begrudgingly, for technical support.’ The word ‘begrudging(ly)’ is a serviceable descriptor in fact for much of nearly two centuries of Colombian interaction with the colossus to the north. Yet paradox continues to play a central role, for the authors note that, Panama and other grievances notwithstanding, ’(c)compared with the United States’ historical relationships with other Latin American nations during the twentieth century, the U.S.-Colombian relationship is actually a model of pragmatism and stability.’

Notice of Eric Hobsbawm’s description of Colombia as ‘long … known for an altogether exceptional proclivity to homicide’ evokes a push-back from the authors in terms of ‘the remarkable set of policies developed by Colombians to stem the violence’. This push-pull of the authors’ recognition of the harshest realia of Colombian history accompanied by an insistence that there is an additional side to the story that is seldom told is a signature facet of LaRosa’s and Mejía’s historiography. The desire to set the record straight by broadening and completing its conclusions is perhaps to be expected in a substantial history like this that is directed to an English-language readership that will almost by definition have missed all but ‘catastrophic’ history-writing on Colombia. In this reader’s objective, it is important that this impulse be called out, but it does not lessen the value of the ‘concise contemporary history’ that our authors have given us. The book’s publication date allows only for a consideration of Presidents Bush and Uribe as ‘brothers in arms’, followed by the briefest recognition of President Santos’ ‘entrance’ as president, though hardly as a national leader of influence since he had served as Uribe’s Secretary of Defense.

The authors ‘Conclusion’ is something of a cri de coeur, a plaintive and to this reader compelling plea that the non-catastrophic history they have given us persuade Colombia watchers that …

… Colombia endures as a nation despite difficulties, challenges, and a history that is tragic and dynamic. Colombians do not hide from their past. Indeed, they have learned to confront and incorporate parts of their history that would be more convenient to forget … Our book has attempted to show that Colombia, despite its complex historical record, endures, and that the focus on political violence, illegal narcotics, and corruption hides a less dramatic but more important story of constitutional procedure, governments that regularly transfer power after elections, and a concern with social rights of the people … While interpretations will vary, we have little doubt that Colombia the nation will endure and that Colombians will continue to face the challenges ahead of them with a sound spirit of skepticism grounded in hope, fortitude, and the dignity that seems to define them as a people. The quest for a better future is the goal of all civiized peoples, and Colombians have been moving toward that goal—not always evenly, but in a systematic, remarkably creative Colombian fashion.

This reviewer has read LaRosa’s and Mejía’s perhaps misnamed brief history alongside Marco Palacio’s Between Legitimacy and Violence. A History of Colombia, 1875-2002. Both books open doors and windows through which Colombia becomes accessible to an appreciative viewer who peers in from outside.  Both require a patient reader, for the complexities of this nation’s story are dense and persistent. LaRosa and Mejía move more satisfyingly beyond Colombia’s economic and political history, which is more a description of their focus than of any deficiency in Palacio’s arguably magisterial work.

I cannot think of a better place for the highly interested reader on Colombia to move beyond or bypass the tendentious tourist guides and dig into Colombian realia. The journey on which these authors take their readers is a sober one, yet the path on which one is led takes in the dramatic, the painful, the violent, and the enchanting aspects of Colombia and Colombians in a measure that corresponds to the lived experience of this nation’s hopeful citizens.

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I have always appreciated the Rough Guides for their deep research, stunning photography, and urbane matter-of-factness about the places and people that fall under their gaze. A certain British eye on the world and the exploration of it is usually detectable as well, which arguably shortens the distance between the tourist and his or her hosts.

51liskguw4l-_sx324_bo1204203200_The Rough Guide to Colombia is no exception. It may well be the best of its kind for Colombia. Why do I say this?

First, the photography in the Kindle format I own just pops on my iPad.

Second, Stephen Keeling has a knack for capturing a whole complex of reality in a single, well-crafted sentence or two. His very first lines of introduction prove the point.

One of the world’s most infamous but misunderstood countries, Colombia boasts a rich history and an incredibly diverse array of attractions, from soaring Andean peaks smothered in cloud forest to palm-fringed Caribbean beaches and gorgeous colonial cities such as Cartagena.

But this ability is sustained throughout the book. Allow me a few more examples:

Colombian food is hearty and filling rather than spicy or exotic (although they do spice it up a bit more on the coast) …

For all its instability and upheavals, Colombia has a strong and robust tradition of press freedom, and as befits a country with 94-percent literacy, a wide range of newspapers and magazines … Colombian newspapers tend to be regional rather than national … Although the press is in principle free, and papers express a wide range of views, press owners tend to be closely tied to political interests—indeed, some are active politicians …

Colombia is a tropical country, where germs breed fast, but it’s also a country where hygiene is generally good, and most travellers who come here catch nothing more serious than a dose of the runs, if that …

The same sense for brevity without reductionism is found in the book’s helpful ‘Fact Files’, which are eccentric without being cute.

Again, one-offs like ’21 Things Not to Miss’ touch upon a wide range of Colombia’s virtues without kowtowing to any narrow line of interest.

Third, Keeling invests a substantial number of pages to the basics of traveling to, through, and out of Colombia. He neither moans about Colombia’s violent past nor naively whistles past current risks that must be thoughtfully addressed.

Fourth, the research that has gone into this guidebook is both broad and deep. A reader could spend a lifetime in Colombia and not exhaust the practical counsel that Keeling offers here.

Most, however, will not spend that lifetime in Colombia. A week or two is more likely. In this light, one of the standards to which I hold a purported guidebook takes the form of a question: ‘Would a citizen of the nation that is being introduced say, “Yes, the author has understood us and our place?” I believe a Colombian reader would likely judge that Keeling has done so.

The Rough Guides in general are the guidebook line to beat. If I were to take only one guidebook to Colombia, Stephen Keeling’s Rough Guide would be the one.

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David Lee’s much-used Medellín Living blog is now complemented by this serviceable guide to an up-and-coming city.

519ihwqp2rlThe Medellín Travel Guide‘s strength is that its author has followed the people of the city he surveys in putting Medellín’s regrettable notoriety firmly in his rear view mirror. Though Lee references the bad old days when the city writhed under the rule of its drug lords—and even places the Pablo Escobar Tour first on his list of ‘Top Nine Things to Do’—he clearly loves Medellín as it is today. His enthusiasm is catching.

This travel guide leans heavily in the direction of the single male traveler but is by no means a ‘lecher’s guide’ to one of Latin America’s most exciting cities.

When the author has told us all he knows about Colombia’s second city—or, more likely, all he thinks we can profitably absorb—he finishes with a chapter called ‘Beyond Antioquia: Three Must-See Places in Colombia’. Which is to say, Medellín is a great place to begin to explore Colombia. There’s much more out there.

Lee’s reliable little book has made it easier for us to find our way there.

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This is a good map of Costa Rica, though it promises a bit more than it can deliver.

The familiar blue-and-gold ‘National Geographic look’ come across attractively and clearly. The map details are, as expected, Spanish-language designations: for example, ‘Parque Nacional’ rather than ‘National Park’ and ‘Provincia’ rather than ‘Province’. Some of the ‘marginal’ text is either in English or in both Spanish and English. National Parks are highlighted helpfully and some ‘adventurous’ activities are signaled by an icon at the appropriate location. For example, a stylized surfer icon marks beaches where surfing is especially promising.

51-gsp0ymql-_sx228_bo1204203200_If that’s what you expect from an ‘aventure travel’ map, you’ll be pleased. If you expect more than this, then maybe not so much.

The level of detail is good for a map of a country that is roughly the size of the American state of West Virginia, splashed across the two sides of the map and labeled as ‘East’ and ‘West’. Elevation lines give an adequate sense for the topography of this largely mountainous country.

The paper is solid stock and at the same time flexible enough for quick unfolding and refolding. I find this characteristic better than the vast majority of maps of the region that I’ve seen. Yet National Geographic insists on claiming that the map is ‘waterproof’, which seems quite a stretch. If you attempt to stand under an umbrella and read this map during one of Costa Rica’s ‘aguaceros’ (= downpours), your ‘waterproof’ map will be toast. Thus, my claim about over-promising and under-delivering on what is otherwise a perfectly fine product.

The Costa Rican road system is constantly upgrading and degrading and the rhythm of this is difficult to predict, let alone to record on a paper map. Some reviewers have faulted this map for being out of date on that front. The non-local traveler in Costa Rica would be well advised never to count on a paper map for knowing whether this or that bridge was out, or this highway paved or unpaved. Costa Rica is simply not the place for a paper map to stay up to speed on such things, and this is not the fault of the product under review. Having said this, I find the map relatively reliable for road travel planning.

All in all, I like this map a lot. It fills a gap for getting the big picture of where I’m about to travel or where I’ve just driven in this inexhaustibly beautiful country, which deserves and repays scrutiny. I’ll just smile a bit at the ‘adventure travel’ and ‘waterproof’ marketing.

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This exceptionally planned and executed visual introduction to the Colombia surpasses any other coffee-table book about a nation or region that I’ve seen.

51ebrfdjyzl-_sx362_bo1204203200_-2Its 333 pages and high-quality paper stock make it an admirably heavy work, a full five pounds in the lifting.

Best of all, its exquisitely photographed images communicate the beauty and stunningly regionalized diversity of this South American nation. The prose does not pander to the reader, but introduces him or her to just enough context to form a helpful setting to the photography, which dominates.

A well-written (in Spanish) ‘Prologue’ and ‘Presentation’ give way to a presentation of one of the signature characteristics of the country: ‘Territorio de Contrastes’ (A Territory of Contrasts). The rest of the work leads the reader across the major regions of this vast country: ‘Altiplano Cundiboyacense y Santanderes’, ‘Region Caribe’, ‘Antioquia y Región Cafeteria’, ‘Pacífico’, ‘Sur Andino’, ‘Alto Magdalena’, ‘Orinoquía’, and finally ‘Amazonía’. (more…)

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