Camilo Torres, His Life and His Message
Camilo Torres por el Padre Camilo Torres Restrepo (1956-1966), Sondeos No. 5.
Camilo Torres, Un Símbolo Controvertido, 1962-67, CIDOC Dossier No. 12. publications.)
The historic view of Latin America is that it is a thrill. Huge mountains, lush jungles, exotic wealth and poverty, bloody politics—this is the exciting continent. The image has obsessed not only tourists and artists but businessmen, churchmen and statesmen, and revolutionaries. Its strongest enthusiasts now are the New Leftists, here, in Europe, and in Latin America. They see the death of Camilo Torres, the Colombian priest and sociologist killed in revolutionary action in 1966, like the death of Che in 1967 as a brilliant case of martyrdom in the long march to freedom. Camilo Torres is a special hero, a real intellectual who went off with the guerrillas.
There is a darker view of Latin America, that it is a bore. Incredibly various, dense and complicated, resentful of change, in constant pain, it is the depressing continent. In this view Torres died in vain, not a martyr because he was not a cynic.
Colombia—What is the meaning of a man’s death in its politics? It is a grim country, “developing” but disjointed and constricted. Three Andean ranges lifting it from the Pacific pull it into knots. Up the cold hollows the rural folk rot in grudges and feuds. In the valleys along the rivers, the Cauca and the Magdalena, the coffee planters and cattle ranchers stew in their rancor. In the big cities, Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali in the interior, Barranquilla on the Caribbean, all deals are suspect. Rain is forever falling, or threatening to fall, shutting people in, making the streets empty and shining, deepening the mud in the fields, turning the country as gray as a newsreel. Everywhere the feeling is of loneliness, exclusion.
Colombia has a superficial coherence. For 150 years, since independence from Spain in 1819, one class has ruled there. Maintaining Liberal and Conservative parties, letting parvenus marry into their ranks, easing diehards out, several Great Families have traditionally provided the hierarchs of the political, religious, and economic establishments. Masters of manipulation and co-optation, they are modern Latin America’s shrewdest oligarchy.
But their enduring control of the country aggravates its conflicts. The worst burden is the very agency of rule, the two old parties. Among the Great Families the parties have been yokes of union, holding Liberal and Conservative gentlemen in erudite debate in Bogotá. But out among the plain people with mud on them, where the Liberal Families have organized their clients, employees, debtors, and tenants as the “reds,” and where the Conservatives have organized theirs as “blues,” the parties have turned local feuds into local crusades. Because of the Great Families, politics pervades but does not relieve the loneliness.
On the rare occasion when the oligarchy loses control, the country goes into agony. The latest debacle lasted from 1948 to 1958, when the parties disintegrated and Colombians murdered each other to the sum of probably 180,000 deaths. The killing started under a Conservative…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.