Of Colonels and Lost Causes
Five hundred years after Europeans stumbled across it, Latin America often seems a disappointment to its inhabitants. It is as if its destiny had been fixed by Columbus, “the great captain,” who discovered the new continent by mistake, misnamed it—“the Indies”—and then died embittered and disillusioned in the early sixteenth century; or by the “great liberator” Simón Bolívar, who put an end to Spanish colonial rule in the early nineteenth century but died dismayed at the newly emancipated region’s disunity and at the bitter thought that “he who makes a revolution ploughs the sea.” More recently the fate of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the twentieth century’s most romantic revolutionary icon, who died a martyr’s death in Bolivia in 1967, only confirmed the idea that Latin America, still the unknown continent, still the land of the future, is home to grandiose dreams and calamitous failures.
Long before the name of Guevara circled the planet, in a small Colombian town which history only briefly illuminated during the years when the Boston-based United Fruit Company chose to plant bananas there in the early twentieth century, a small boy would listen while his grandfather told tales of a war that lasted a thousand days, at the end of which he too had experienced the bitter solitude of the vanquished, tales of glorious deeds in days gone by, of ghostly heroes and villains, stories which taught the child that justice is not naturally built in to the fabric of life, that right does not always triumph in the kingdom of this world, and that ideals which fill the hearts and minds of many men and women may be defeated and even disappear from the face of the earth. Unless they endure in the memory of those who survive and live to tell the tale.
At the end of the nineteenth century, seventy years after achieving independence from Spain, the republic of Colombia had been a country of less than five million controlled by an elite of perhaps three thousand owners of large haciendas, most of whom were politicians and businessmen, and many also lawyers, writers or grammarians—which is why the capital, Bogotá, became known as the “Athens of South America.” The War of a Thousand Days was the last and most devastating of more than twenty national and local civil wars which had ravaged Colombia during the nineteenth century, fought between Liberals and Conservatives, centralists and federalists, bourgeoisie and landowners, the capital and the regions. In most other countries the nineteenth century gradually saw the Liberals or their equivalents winning the historical battle, whereas in Colombia the Conservatives were dominant until 1930 and, after a Liberal interlude from 1930 to 1946, took charge again until the mid-1950s and remain a powerful force to the present day. Certainly Colombia is the only country where, at the end of the twentieth century, the general elections were still being fought out between a traditional Liberal Party and a traditional Conservative Party, with no other parties gaining a lasting foothold. This has changed in the last ten years.
Although named the “War of a Thousand Days,” the conflict was really over almost before it began. The Conservative government had vastly superior resources and the Liberals were at the mercy of the eccentricities of their inspirational but incompetent leader Rafael Uribe Uribe. Nevertheless the war dragged on for almost three years, increasingly cruel, increasingly bitter and increasingly futile. From October 1900 neither side took prisoners: a “war to the death” was announced whose sombre implications Colombia is living with still. When it all ended in November 1902 the country was devastated and impoverished, the province of Panama about to be lost for ever and perhaps a hundred thousand Colombians had been slaughtered. Feuds and vendettas resulting from the way the conflict had been fought were to continue for many decades. This has made Colombia a curious country in which the two major parties have ostensibly been bitter enemies for almost two centuries yet have tacitly united to ensure that the people never receive genuine representation. No Latin American nation had fewer coups or dictatorships in the twentieth century than Colombia but the Colombian people have paid a staggeringly high price for this appearance of institutional stability.
The War of a Thousand Days was fought over the length and breadth of the country but the centre of gravity gradually shifted north to the Atlantic coastal regions. On the one hand the seat of government, Bogotá, was never seriously threatened by the Liberal rebels; and on the other hand, the Liberals inevitably retreated towards the coastal escape routes which their leaders frequently took in order to seek refuge in sympathetic neighbouring countries or the United States, where they would try to raise funds and buy weapons for the next round of hostilities. At this time the northern third of the country, known as la Costa (“the Coast”), whose inhabitants are called costeños (coast-dwellers), comprised two major departments: Bolívar to the west, whose capital was the port of Cartagena; and Magdalena to the east, whose capital was the port of Santa Marta, nestling beneath the mighty Sierra Nevada. The two major cities either side of the Sierra Nevada—Santa Marta to the west and Riohacha to the east—and all the towns in between as you rode around the sierra—Ciénaga, Aracataca, Valledupar, Villanueva, San Juan, Fonseca and Barrancas—changed hands many times during the war and provided the scenario for the exploits of Nicolás Márquez and his two eldest, illegitimate children, José María Valdeblánquez and Carlos Alberto Valdeblánquez.
Some time in the early 1890s Nicolás Márquez and Tranquilina Iguarán had moved with their two children Juan de Dios and Margarita to the small town of Barrancas in the Colombian Guajira and rented a house in the Calle del Totumo, a few paces from the square. The house still stands today. Señor Márquez set up as a jeweller, making and selling his own pieces—necklaces, rings, bracelets, chains and his speciality, little gold fish—and establishing, it seems, a profitable business which turned him into a respected member of the community. His apprentice and eventual partner was a younger man called Eugenio Ríos, almost an adopted son, with whom he had worked in Riohacha, having brought him from El Carmen de Bolívar. Ríos was the half-brother of Nicolás’s cousin Francisca Cimodosea Mejía, with whom Nicolás had grown up in El Carmen and whom he would later take with him to Aracataca. When the War of a Thousand Days began, after many years of Liberal frustration and bitterness, Nicolás Márquez was, at thirty- five, getting a bit old for adventure. Besides, he had established a comfortable, productive and agreeable life in Barrancas and was looking to build on his growing prosperity. Still, he joined the army of Uribe Uribe, fought in the Guajira, Padilla and Magdalena provinces and there is evidence that he fought harder and longer than many others. Certainly he was involved from the very start when, as a comandante, he was part of a Liberal army which occupied his native city of Riohacha, and he was still involved at the conclusion of the conflict in October 1902.
By the end of August 1902 the recently reinforced Liberal army, now under the command of Uribe Uribe, who had recently made one of his frequent unscheduled reappearances, had marched its way westward around the sierra from Riohacha to the small village of Aracataca, already known as a Liberal stronghold, arriving on 5 September. There Uribe Uribe held two days of talks with Generals Clodomiro Castillo and José Rosario Durán and other officers, including Nicolás Márquez. And it was there, in Aracataca, that they made the fateful decision to fight one more time which would lead to their disastrous defeat at the Battle of Ciénaga.
Uribe advanced on Ciénaga in the early morning of 14 October 1902. The battle went badly for the Liberals from the moment that a government warship began to shell their positions from the sea. Uribe Uribe was shot from his mule and several bullets that pierced his jacket miraculously missed his person (not for the first time). He exclaimed, as García Márquez’s Colonel Aureliano Buendía might have done: “How many changes of uniform do these damned Goths think I have!” (“Goths” was the Liberal name for the Conservatives.) Nicolás Márquez’s teenage son Carlos Alberto died a hero’s death; his elder brother José María, fourth in command of the Conservative army’s “Carazúa Division,” survived.
Two days later, shattered by the death of Carlos Alberto, José María rode out of Ciénaga towards the encampment of the defeated Liberals, where his father, among others, was nursing his wounds. José María was carrying a peace offer from the Conservatives. As his mule approached the tents of the defeated Liberals an advance party intercepted him and he rode in blindfolded to present the Conservative terms to Uribe Uribe. What took place between the nineteen-year-old illegitimate son and his rebel father on an historic occasion overshadowed for both of them by the death of the younger son, we shall never know. Uribe Uribe discussed the Conservative proposal with his senior officers. They decided to accept. The young messenger rode back to Ciénaga and arrived late at night at the railway station, where he was greeted by a delirious crowd and carried aloft to deliver the joyful news. Ten days later, on 24 October 1902, Conservative leaders and Uribe Uribe met with their respective chiefs of staff at a banana plantation called Neerlandia not far from Ciénaga, to sign the peace treaty. It was little more than a fig leaf concealing the bitter truth: that the Liberals had suffered a disastrous defeat.
Late in 1902, Nicolás Márquez went back to Barrancas and his wife Tranquilina and picked up the threads of his life. In 1905 their third child, Luisa Santiaga, was born and things appeared to have returned to normal. But in 1908 Nicolás was involved in a violent encounter which would change his family’s destiny for ever and he was forced to leave Barrancas. Everyone still knew the story when I passed through Barrancas eighty-five years later in 1993. Unfortunately everyone told a different version. Still, no one denies the following facts. Around five o’clock on the rainy afternoon of Monday 19 October 1908, the final day of the week-long Festival of the Virgin of Pilar, whilst the procession carrying her image was proceeding to the church just a few streets away, Colonel Nicolás Márquez, a respectable local politician, landowner, silversmith and family man, then in his forties, shot and killed a younger man called Medardo, the nephew of his friend and comrade in arms General Francisco Romero. Something else that no one denies is that Nicolás was a “ladies’ man” or, more bluntly, a philanderer. To readers from some other parts of the world this quality might seem to conflict with his image as a man of dignity and good standing among his neighbours. But there are at least two sorts of renown which a man prizes in such a society: one is his “good reputation” as such, the conventional respect, always mingled with fear, which he should know how to impose; and the other is his reputation as a “Don Juan” or a “macho,” which others will happily circulate for him, usually with his complaisance. The trick is to ensure that these reputations mutually reinforce one another.
The first version I heard was as convincing as any that followed. Filemón Estrada had been born in the very year the events took place. He was now completely sightless, and that long-ago story had retained for him a vividness which other testimonies had lost. Filemón said that Nicolás, who already had several illegitimate children, seduced Medarda Romero, the sister of his old friend General Romero, and then bragged about it over drinks in the square. There was a lot of gossip, most of it at Medarda’s expense but some of it involving Tranquilina. Medarda said to her son, “This slander must be washed clean with blood, my son, there’s no other way. And if you won’t see to him I’ll have to put on your trousers and you can put on my skirts!” Medardo, a skilled marksman who had ridden with Nicolás in the war, and now lived in nearby Papayal, repeatedly and publicly challenged and insulted his former commander, who took the warnings seriously and some time later lay in wait for the younger man. Medardo rode in to town on the day of the fiesta, dressed up in a white gabardine raincoat, and took a short cut down an alleyway that no longer exists. As he got down from his horse with a bunch of grass in one hand and a lighted pilgrim’s candle in the other, Nicolás said, “Are you armed, Medardo?” Medardo said “No.” “Well, you remember what I told you”—and Nicolás fired one, some say two shots. An old woman who lived down that alleyway came out and said, “So you finally killed him.” “The bullet of right has prevailed over might,” said Nicolás. “After that,” said blind Filemón, “old Nicolás Márquez charged off down the street, leaping over puddles, with his gun in one hand and his umbrella in the other, and looked for Lorenzo Solano Gómez, his compadre, who went with him to give himself up. He was jailed but later his son José María Valdeblánquez, who was very smart, and almost a lawyer, got him out of jail. Medardo being illegitimate, it wasn’t certain whether his surname was Pacheco or Romero, so Valdeblánquez said it wasn’t clear who exactly had been killed; it was a technicality, see, and that’s how Valdeblánquez got him off.”
None other than Ana Ríos, the daughter of Nicolás’s partner Eugenio, who surely had better reason to know than most, told me that Tranquilina was closely involved in the entire tragedy. She recalled that Tranquilina was intensely jealous, and with good reason because Nicolás was always deceiving her. Medarda was a widow and there is always talk about widows in small towns. It was widely rumoured that she was Nicolás’s regular mistress. Tranquilina became obsessed with this possibility, perhaps because Medarda was from a higher class, and therefore more dangerous, than his other conquests. It was said that Tranquilina consulted witches, brought water from the river to clean her threshold and sprinkled lemon juice around the house. Then one day— it is said—she went out into the street and shouted, “There’s a fire at widow Medarda’s place, fire, fire!,” whereupon a boy she had paid to wait in the tower of the the church of San José began to ring the alarm bells, and shortly thereafter Nicolás was seen sneaking out of Medarda’s house in broad daylight (presumably while his friend the General was away).
When he gave his statement to the authorities Nicolás Márquez was asked whether he admitted killing Medardo Romero Pacheco, and he said: “Yes, and if he comes back to life I’ll kill him again.” The Mayor, a Conservative, resolved to protect Nicolás. Deputies were despatched to collect Medardo’s body. He was placed face down in the rain and his hands were tied together behind his back before they carried him away. Most people accept that Medardo sought the confrontation and “asked for” what happened; this may be, although the bare facts seem to demonstrate that it was Nicolás who chose the time, the place and the manner of the final showdown. There is not enough information to appreciate how justified or reprehensible his action may have been; what is crystal clear is that there was nothing remotely heroic about it. Nicolás was not some sedentary farmer but a seasoned war veteran; and the man he killed by stealth was both his military inferior and his junior.
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