During the period of European imperialism following Columbus’s arrival in the New World, Colombia’s indigenous tribes could offer little resistance to Spanish conquest. For the most part, these tribes amalgamated (intermarried and lived together in society) with their Spanish conquerors. Consequently, much of the Colombian population consists of mestizos—people of both native Colombian and Spanish origin.
A former part of the Spanish colonial empire named New Granada that gained its freedom from Spain in 1810, Colombia suffered from several civil wars throughout the nineteenth century. By the mid-1800s Liberals and Conservatives comprised the opposing political groups that would subject Colombia to frequent and bloody revolutions. Severe fighting reached its height between 1899 and 1903, a period known as the War of a Thousand Days. During this time there was a continuing separation between wealthy elite landowners, often of European descent, and freed slaves and indigenous populations whose lands had been confiscated and redistributed. Meanwhile, Colombia was struggling to grow its export trade, which consisted largely of coffee, petroleum, and bananas, under Conservative leadership.
The Depression of the 1930s meant severe economic hardship for Colombia due to its growing dependence on exporting goods whose worth plummeted on the world market. The Conservative government in power at this time was replaced by Liberal president Alfonso Lopez, whose biggest reform was a move to redistribute land from wealthy landowners who were not using their land productively to peasant “squatters” who depended on their plots for subsistence. The Depression also meant an increase in domestic industry, since competition with imported goods was significantly reduced. Assisting Colombia’s poorest residents has been an ongoing concern for Colombian government, particularly during Liberal administrations.
Opposition between the Liberal and Conservative parties in Colombia has been extremely hostile and violent. This confrontation escalated during the period between 1948 and 1962 known as La Violencia. Although initially sparked by the assassination of Liberal leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, much of the following fifteen years of fighting was caused by existing hostilities between the two parties. Some 200,000 people lost their lives in the fighting, much of which involved extreme acts of cruelty to the victims.
La Violencia involved a wide spectrum of Colombians’s concerns. Peasants who had improved their land under the 1930s land reform found that they were required to pay exorbitant legal fees to gain title in some areas of the country. Guerilla leaders, increasingly the sons of small farmers and merchants, were able to gain peasant support as they ambushed and retaliated against each other in longstanding feuds regarding family relationships, political party (which is inherited in Colombia), and government ties. Migrating groups of peasants looking for work in other areas joined the fray. The government abdicated control in many areas, leading to multiple bids for power by local groups in many towns and cities.
It was during La Violencia that president Laureano Gomez, a Conservative, instituted a fascist government in an attempt to regain control. He was overthrown by the military and populist president General Gustave Rojas Pinilla, who in turn was driven from office by the military. Finally, the National Front, a coalition of Liberals and Conservatives, arranged a truce. Garcia Marquez covered many of these events as a journalist before treating them in his fictional works. La Violencia has been one of the most fictionalized events in Colombia’s history.
Colombia continued its struggle for economic development in the 1960s; intervention by the United States increased Colombia’s dependence on outside assistance, but did little to help the economy. The 1960s were a period of high unemployment, low coffee export prices, and economic stagnation. Under Conservative president Guillermo Leon Valencia, union workers received a forty percent wage increase and inflation skyrocketed. Deflationary pricing resulted in high unemployment. Government policy later improved, however, and by the late 1960s Colombia’s economy was growing again. During this time, migration to the cities continued, and by 1970 over half of Columbia’s population consisted of urban residents.
Because so much of Colombia’s development was distributed unevenly, there remains a large gap between economic classes. Approximately 20 percent of Colombia’s population lives below the poverty level, many of them in slums on the outskirts of Colombia’s urban areas. Fear of military intervention in the government, violence, and acts of terrorism still exist. A large drug-trafficking problem continues to plague the nation as well. Nevertheless, the decades after La Violencia have seen Colombia become one of the most urbanized and modernized countries in Latin America.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez and History
Although little of Colombia’s history makes its way into “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” the history of Colombia is an important part of Garcia Marquez’s work. The isolation of the village, the mythical sense of time portrayed, and the anonymity of the characters make the absence of history so obvious that one begins to question why Garcia Marquez has chosen deliberately to omit this information. This omission technique can be found in other works of magic realism as well. One explanation for its use, according to critics, is to protect the author, particularly if he or she is writing something controversial in countries where freedom of speech is curtailed by the government. By making the story “about” something other than one’s own country, the writer can safely express controversial viewpoints. Another possibility is that Garcia Marquez avoids a specific history to make the characters and the action representative of all people, not just those of a particular place. Nevertheless, the kindness and love the villagers show to the drowned man, when read against the background of Colombian history, contrasts sharply with the violence and cruelty that belongs to much of Colombia’s past.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Published by Gale, 1997.