How Colombia erased its first and only president of African descent from history
“Colombia must admit that there are racial problems in the country and throughout Latin America”, Barack Obama said at a business conference in Colombia’s capital, Bogota, in May 2017. Some years prior to the conference, Obama had been elected as the first Black president of the U.S. While the U.S. celebrated this feat and its citizens showed how proud they were to have their first Black leader, Colombians had kept their first Black leader hidden for decades.
Colombia is one of the South American countries still struggling with racism. Before the passing of legislation in the country to represent its multi-cultural background, many Black people were invisible under the law. Afro-Colombians, numbering about 3 million, can be stopped from enjoying basic amenities and denied access to opportunities as compared to other ethnicities in the country. And that is how it has been throughout history, making the story of the country’s first Black president not surprising.
Juan José Nieto Gil, a Colombian politician, army general and writer, became Colombia’s first president of African descent in 1861. For about seven months, he was the leader of the country or what was then known as the Granadian Confederation, which included Panama. Nieto Gil’s legacy as the first Afro-Colombian to hold such an office had been virtually erased from Colombian history when historian Orlando Fals Borda discovered a portrait of him while digging in a palace loft in Cartagena more than 30 years ago.
Fals Borda started a campaign to have Nieto Gil’s story told to the world but it was until the death of Fals Borda in 2017 that the media in Colombia began delving into the story of the former president and army general. And after 157 years, the face of the 14th and only Black President of Colombia occupied a position in the presidential palace of Bogota. But this was only after Colombia had hidden him, had his portrait painted, whitened the portrait to make it more appealing to the society, before re-darkening it in 1974 when Fals Borda found it.
Born on June 24, 1805, in Baranoa, a farming town in the Colombian Atlantic, Nieto Gil was the son of artisans. He joined the Colombian Army and rose in rank to the position of general, becoming a friend of the hero of independence Francisco de Paula Santander. Nieto Gil, a liberal republican and a deputy during what is called the “Grenadine Confederation” era, later became a state governor of Bolivia.
In 1861, he and some liberal allies overthrew the conservative government in power. Nieto Gil then went on to proclaim himself president. Some accounts say one of his White friends should have become president but that White friend did not get to the inauguration in time, so Nieto Gil took over, staying in post for seven months before he was forced from power by General Thomas Cipriano de Mosquera.
His portrait, showing his Afro-Caribbean features, was painted just before he became president but after his overthrow and death in July 1866, authorities in Colombia took that portrait to France where it was whitened and “altered” to make Nieto Gil more acceptable to the elite of the society. Essentially, Nieto Gil was being erased from history not only because he was “mulatto” but also because he was coming from the Caribbean coast where a lot of people of African descent resided, and a region the central power in Bogota had always relegated to the background, a report said.
“Nieto, in addition to being Black and of humble origins, was from Baranoa, a farming town in the Colombian Atlantic, which led to a bitter rejection by the Cartagena society of the time, which was very elitist,” Moisés Álvarez, director of the Historical Museum of Cartagena, told Pan American World. He further explained that Nieto Gil’s “speech focused on the struggle for the autonomy of the regions, in this case the Caribbean; an imminent danger for the conservative political groups in the capital.”
When Nieto Gil’s portrait was “re-darkened” and Fals Borda found it, it would take decades before the Colombian government would unveil a replica of his original portrait in the presidential palace with leaders from the Afro-Colombian community present. Nieto Gil’s long-overdue recognition followed an extensive investigation by Colombian journalist Gonzalo Guillén. Fals Borda, before his death, asked Guillén to continue investigating Nieto Gil’s story. Guillén did just that, including sending a petition to the Colombian government in 2014.
“Recognizing Juan José as one of our presidents was long overdue…It took us a long time, but now he will remain in the Palace of Nariño as one of ours”, president Juan Manuel Santos said in August 2018 when he unveiled the official presidential portrait of Nieto Gil at the presidential palace.
Historians say Nieto Gil shouldn’t be thought of as a politician only, as he founded two newspapers — La Democracia and El Cartagenero. Some accounts also state he was the first romantic novelist in Colombia, with his work Ingermina being the first one to be on record.