Interview with Jorge Orlando Melo: “Colombia is a field of research unto itself”

“Colombia was never a national project” begins Jorge Orlando Melo, a preeminent philosopher and historian who has authored numerous books on the country’s economy, political life and cultural identity. “This is why the regions are entrusted with so much power.”

Born in Medellín in 1942, in the country’s second largest city and industrial heartland of a territory that “developed reasonably,” his recently published 300-page book Historia Mínima de Colombia – Brief History of Colombia – has already been translated into several languages, including Indonesian, within a year of its release.

The editorial success of Melo’s condensed history of Colombia is in part due to the book’s easy narration, beginning with the first hunters and gatherers, settling an inhospitable and fractured topography, to the rise of a modern nation-state forged out of a negotiation between mercantile rivals.

With specialist degrees in Philosophy and Letters from the University of North Carolina and Oxford, Melo’s Alma Mater is the country’s largest public university, Universidad Nacional, where he held tenure as a Professor of History before joining the faculties of Universidad de Los Andes, Universidad del Valle and Duke University.

Beyond the world of academia, Melo has redefined the role of the historian in contemporary society, not just as someone who studies the past, but draws on many fields of study to explain current events and what many Colombians are interested in, such as: What does it mean to be Colombian? Is corruption endemic to the country’s history? Why is a culture of violence so entrenched, despite the nation never having been ruled by long dictatorships?

As a respected columnist in leading publications and creator of an open-source historical archive on Colombia, Melo is a household name for many, having worked as Presidential Advisor on Human Rights in the Liberal government of César Gaviria and as Director of Libraries and Museums for the Central Bank, Banco de la República, between 1994 to 2005.

His 1977 seminal work, History of Colombia: The Spanish domination of the establishment, continues to be the reference for scholars of the events that led to the proclamation of Independence by Simón Bolívar and the collapse of Colonial Rule.

In an interview with The City Paper, Melo discusses his latest book and sheds insight on a country of regional diversity, modest economic growth and where the statement “I have Rights” rings as true today as 200-years ago.

The City Paper (TCP): How do you define Colombia as a society?

Jorge Orlando Melo (JOM): The Colombia we know today was a product of racial mixture, a mestizaje that impeded any one group – or ethnicity – from taking control of the country’s direction. In order for people to reach an agreement on the most fundamental issues, they had to learn to negotiate with others. Bogotanos tried to rule the country by themselves, but realized they couldn’t, so they struck commercial agreements with Medellín’s industrial elites, coffee growers, and the plantation owners of the coast. As all the country’s oligarchs were of mixed race as well, there was a like-mindedness to develop the country to its full economic potential. But, this consensus also gave way to the development of a country with delayed progress, without too much protectionism, nor promoting too much free enterprise. This is why I consider that Colombia remains a country of half-baked solutions, everything is constantly being adjusted and legislated.

TCP: So, essentially Colombia is an over-legislated state?

JOM: When Colombia emerged from Independence it insisted on creating legal frameworks, partly in response to the militarism that was taking root in Venezuela, with the ideological enmity between Bolívar and Santander. From Independence onward, Colombia established laws, but laws became subject to interpretation. What we see with Colombia is that it either fulfills the Law or gives the impression that it does. This scenario played out last month with the protocol debate with the Marxist ELN guerrilla. Colombia does over-legislate itself, and this has been one of the causes for the historical violence in rural areas. The guerrilla justifies violence as a mechanism to create “a more just country,” a tradition that dates back to the uprising of striking banana workers in 1928.

TCP: How do you explain the political polarization of the country?

JOM: The government is justified in putting tough conditions on the ELN, but it goes too far by placing conditions for negotiating that can’t be met. Colombians don’t believe in the notion of an armed struggle anymore, and the expansion of a middle class has consolidated a shift to the right. Colombia has always been a conservative nation.

TCP: How do you see economic development and growth historically?

JOM: As I mentioned, there’s no single dominant group that imposes a political line or economic vision, which means that sectors continue to forge alliances with one another to get the upper hand when reforms are presented in Congress, as we saw with the new Financing Law. This will continue as there is no great national pact, nor one natural resource that determines our economic future.

Colombia has weathered its share of economic crises, and without a national project, what can hurt importers, benefits exporters. Market forces play an important role when it comes to dictating who wins and who loses. But, the market also presents unexpected solutions for economic growth, never as orchestrated though as the plan the Chavistas had for Venezuela or Lula’s grand vision of transforming Brazil.

We only have to look at the country’s health Law 100, as one example: it may be deficient and chaotic, but offers universal coverage. So too our universities. They are decent – not great – but not that bad, either. What we see with the rise of populism around the world and threats to democratic governability is that Colombia continues to be not very efficient, but constantly adjusting to preserve its legal institutionality.

TCP: You can get to know Colombia from your many books, why publish a “short his- tory” at this moment in your career?

JOM: It was an opportunity that presented itself, and I spent more time editing down this “short history” than actually writing it. At first, it was 600 pages in length and ended up in 300 in order to qualify for the publisher’s Latin American series.

TCP: How do you see the role of the historian in contemporary Colombia?

JOM: During the 19th century up to the mid-20th century, historians were used to promote political ideologies and at the service of parties defending elites. This was especially acute with the power struggle between Liberals and Conservatives. During the 1950s, however, historian Jaime Jaramillo of Los Andes University uncoupled the relationship between historical fact and political manipulation to the extent that historians became more modest, more focused on understanding- ing what is happening in their country. A whole new generation of historians has emerged since the 1960s, publish- ing biographies, that often become bestsellers.

History is so ingrained in our consciousness that one of the agreements reached with FARC in the Final Accord is a book with the definitive history of the internal conflict.

The study of Colombia has also interested outsiders, as we see in Professor Malcolm Deas and sociologist Daniel Pécaut. These scholars have dedicated their lives in trying to explain Colombia to their fellow citizens. Colombia is a field of research in itself.

TCP: What is the relationship between Colombia and the outside world?

JOM: Colombia had the dream of bringing many immigrants to these shores between 1820 and 1870 with concessions given to European colonizers for the building of railways and development of the country’s agriculture. There are many reasons why Colombia didn’t accomplish this dream, first, the climate wasn’t attractive for many immigrants, finding themselves in a jungle, when they could be in New York or Buenos Aires. For every 2,000 titles that were handed out, only 20 immigrants turned up.

Colombia then began to close up to the world, because foreigners also came with strange, revolutionary ideas that went against staunchly pro-Spanish and Catholic values. Colombia wanted the “elegant foreigner” who would settle in either Bogotá or Medellín to marry a white girl from a prominent family. At one point in the country’s history, Colombia was quite hostile to Protestants, Jews, and colonizers they considered “dangerous.”

When Colombians began to close up to the outside world, the idea that they were the best at everything took shape. La Violencia changed this, however, as all of a sudden Colombians were forced to migrate to Venezuela and the United States, realizing that they didn’t do there as well as they expected. The few foreigners who did settle in Colombia, however, became very influential.

TCP: By researching the past, what trends do you see in the future?

JOM: Historians have never been good at forecasting, even though they like to see themselves in this role. I am moderately optimistic as homicide rates are on the decline, and the violence associated with terrorism is also declining.

During the next decade, we will still have an internal conflict but accompanied by a growing sense of security in big cities and in the countryside. I don’t see the drug situation getting any better unless the government changes its strategy from going after the consumer to attacking the capos and their elaborate criminal enterprises.

Colombia has to be consistent with the many challenges of the future, and I fear that we are losing too many economic possibilities with dispersed initiatives.

The vision historians have of the country is too idyllic, but I do believe that the overall quality of life for the majority of Colombians will improve in time, but always, as history has shown us, at a slower rate than expected.