This article was given to The City Paper as an exclusive for Colombia by its author Gonzalo Guillén. It was first published in the Miami-based El Nuevo Herald newspaper in April 2008.

Juan Manuel Santos is not Colombia’s 59th President, but its 60th as through circumstance, which some historians could attribute to racism, a black president who ruled this country in the middle of the 19th century, José Nieto Gil, has literally been erased from history.

Nieto Gil was also this country’s first novelist, writing three largely forgotten works. If he is remembered at all, it is because of his rank as a prominent liberal General in the civil wars of the 19th century following Colombia’s independence from Spain.

José Nieto Gil was unearthed two decades ago, during academic fieldwork by the father of Colombian sociology and respected historian, Orlando Fals Borda.

Fals Borda, who had already reconstructed the life of Nieto Gil as part of his masterwork, a multi-volume edition titled Historia doble de la costa (Double History of the Coast), found an oil painting of Nieto in the dungeons of the Palace of the Inquisition in Cartagena, rotting among the rubble of old papers and furniture. The painting was created before Nieto Gil became President of Colombia from Jan. 25 to July 18, 1861, when a power vacuum existed between the all-Conservative government of Mariano Ospina Rodriguez and the second of four terms by liberal General Tomas Cipriano de Mosquera.

‘Whitewashing’ history

When Nieto assumed office, a Presidential sash was added to the painting.  After his death on the July 16, 1866, the painting was sent to Paris “to be retouched in the same artistic style as any portrait of a prominent French president, and upon its return was hung in the Museo Historico de Cartagena until it was withdrawn in 1974 after undergoing a restoration which wasn’t approved by the city’s academics,” recounts Borda in a biography on the forgotten President.

While the painting was exhibited, it was never presented as a unique work of an unknown Colombian President, but rather as that of a 19th century costeño General. “What happened in reality in Paris,” said the historian, “was to ‘whiten’ Nieto.”

However, with the 1974 restoration of the picture, the original pigmentation of the black man resurfaced and while he is believed to have been a ‘mulato’ from the Caribbean, by most standards in Colombia he would be considered to be black.

The restored image of the national hero did not sit well with some of Cartagena’s academics.

Moisés Alvarez,a director of Cartagena’s Historical Archive (which operates in the Palace) told Gonzalo Guillén of El Nuevo Herald, how his friend Fals Borda found the painting in his presence. “There were lots of things piled on top of it. It was literally thrown away.”

Forgotten, or hidden?

Alvarez considers the unjust segregation to which Nieto Gil was subjected to be “something more local than national,” referring to racist sentiments, particularly among the high society of Cartagena, which have survived for centuries preventing Nieto from occupying his rightful place in Colombian history. “Cartagena was very elitist and Nieto wasn’t from here,” he said.

Nieto Gil has also never been officially included in Colombian history texts. In schools, it is taught that the period in which he ruled was occupied by the end of President Ospina Rodríguez’s term and the start of Mosquera’s second term. The fact that Nieto Gil only governed for six months doesn’t justify his exclusion from history.

Presidents such as Mosquera Cháux and Carlos Lemos Simonds have portraits hanging in the official Presidential Gallery despite the fact that they governed for no more than a month and a half. Mosquera Cháux became president for five weeks in replacement of Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala (1978-1982), and Lemos during Ernesto Samper’s term (1994-1998).

Juan José Nieto was born on June 24, 1805 in Cibarco, Atlántico. Fals Borda claims that he was born at the foot of a matarraton tree while his parents Tomás Nicolás Nieto and Benedicta Gil were traveling. According to Fals Borda, Nieto Gil was a “well-built man of sallow skin or dark brown complexion, greenish eyes, a wide and straight nose, fine lips, arched eyebrows and somewhat curly black hair.”

He was self-taught and a mason, and was elected  in 1839 as a deputy of the Cartagena Provincial Assembly. He participated in the War of the Supremes, was sent to prison and lived in exile during five years in Kingston, Jamaica. He returned to Cartagena in 1847.

Born in the same territory as Gabriel García Márquez, Nieto was Colombia’s first novelist with his books La Hija de Calamar and Los Moriscos, among others. The texts, however, appear to have been lost.

  • Alfonso Delgado

    Va uno descubriendo las feas cosas ocultas que hay en la historia patria de todos los países.
    Hablamos de racismo en otras partes del mundo y aquí pasaba y pasa lo mismo.

  • What an interesting article ! well written. He was a victim of prejudice and racism, how shameful. It leaves me curious about his writings. Well done Mr. Guillen.