At the end of the 19th century, Jose Nieto Gil was president of Colombia. And yet, you won't find him in a single history book. Why? Presumably because he was black.
While Americans are proud to let the world know they've elected their first black president, the Colombians kept theirs hidden for over a century.
Colombian historian Orlando Fals Borda discovered a portrait of Jose Nieto Gil when digging in a palace loft in Cartagena more than 30 years ago. Fals Borda then spent his entire life trying to do justice to the forgotten politician. But it wasn't until the death of the historian last August that the Colombian media discovered the first African American to reach such an exceptional post.
Whitened for his portrait
"There’s no way Colombia would elect a black president today"
Juan Carlos Jaramillo is a former Colombian diplomat. He currently works as a political consultant in Bogota.
People were already very racist in Nieto Gil's time. White people didn't even go to the beach in fear of getting a bit tanned, and these prejudices are still very present today.
Indigenous people are also victims of racism, but they're more organised when it comes to demanding rights. They've set up their own pressure groups to weigh in on the democratic assemblies.
Black people, however, even today are literally excluded from politics. They 'ghettoed' to the Choco region. And even there, where they make up 95% of the population, resources, like goldmines for example, are owned by the white minority. The people there are extremely poor, and literacy levels are low.
That might explain why chunks of history, either inaccurate or entirely forgotten, haven't been retrieved by the Afro-Caribbean population.
Power is very centralised in Colombia. It's the white people in Bogota who decide on the country's history. If you look at the police and top civil servants, you don't find the ethnic diversity that Colombia's made up of. There's no way Colombia would elect a black president today.
Honestly this story has interested intellectuals more than the general population. Most people are still none the wiser when it comes to the existence of this man."
"This story only proves that racist prejudices are deeply rooted in the Colombian elite"
Anne Losonczy is an anthropologist and director of Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, a graduate school in Paris. A specialist on Colombia, she's particularly interested in the deprived areas of Chocó and the Caribbean coast, where Jose Nieto Gil came from.
Nieto Gil was erased from the history books because he was "mulatto" but also because he came from the Caribbean coast, which is largely populated by people of African descent and has always been considered marginal by the central power in Bogota.
Nieto Gil was a liberal republican. He was a deputy during what is called the "Grenadine Confederation" era and later became a state governor of Bolivia. In 1861, along with several liberal allies, he overthrew the conservative government in power and proclaimed himself president.
His accession was somewhat of an accident. One of his white friends was supposed to become president, but he didn't get to the inauguration in time, so Nieto Gil took his place. He stayed in the post for six months.
His portrait was painted just before he became president. It was immediately sent to France, where it was whitened and altered to make Nieto Gil more "worthy" for the elite of Cartagena, who were racially very closed. The painting was then "re-darkened" in 1974, when Fals Borda found it. But it was only recently that it was displayed in Cartagena's museum.
Nieto Gil is still absent from the official time line, while other presidents who stayed in power for less time than he are regularly mentioned. This story only proves that racist prejudices are deeply rooted in the Colombian elite."