During his June 2003 visit to Colombia, el Mico took in the vast expanse of Plaza Bolívar, Bogotá‘s mammoth central square built along classic Spanish colonial lines (and sometime battlefield).
Santafé de Bogotá was founded by the Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Jinénez de Quesada in 1538. Following the Spanish urban system, a central plaza was laid out with a gridded street system emanating from it. Here, the Monkey sits in that central plaza, which was named for Simon Bolívar after his decisive role in liberating the northern regions of South America from Spanish colonial control. Behind the Monkey is the sandstone facade of the Bogotá Cathedral, built on the site of the first mass said in Bogotá after its founding. The current cathedral dates from 1807, and is the fourth one built on this site. In the background, you can just make out the peaks that rise at the edge of Bogotá.
While taking in the sights of official Bogotá, the Monkey paused to admire the recently completed Palace of Justice, home of Colombia’s Supreme Court. The Palace had to rebuilt following one of the most spectacular events of Colombia’s long civil war. In November of 1985, members of a now-defunct left-wing guerrilla group called the M-19 seized the previous Palace of Justice, taking numerous court officials hostage. The M-19 was known for its daring, publicity-generating attacks, and sought to better its position at the government negotiating table by showing it was still capable of pulling off such stunts. While the civilian government was practically stunned into paralysis by the M-19’s Palace take-over, the Colombian Army was embarrassed and appalled by the affront to its authority at such a central place in the Colombian power nexus, and quickly took the lead in the operation to oust the guerrillas from the Palace. The Army’s heavy-handed attack, employing tanks, rocket launchers, and artillery at almost point-blank range, soon caused a fire in the Palace. Horrible gunfighting erupted in Plaza Bolívar, and by the end of the two-day battle, the Palace was a burnt-out shell. The guerrillas and dozens of their hostages, including eleven Supreme Court Justices, were killed in the fighting and fire.
The Monkey takes in the open space of Plaza Bolívar, which always draws a crowd of Bogotanos looking to relax or people-watch for a while. Across the square is the Capitolio Nacional with its stately colonnade. This elegant palace houses the two chambers of the Colombian Congress. Designed by the British architect Thomas Reede, construction commenced in 1874. Political instability delayed completion until 1925, and a number of other architects were drafted to contribute to the project.
Media reports and government officials often refer to Colombia as the oldest democracy in Latin America, but this banner, hung on the Congress in June 2003, reminds us that this claim is just so much mythology.The man commemorated on the banner (by the then-current far-right administration in Colombia), General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, took control of Colombia by military coup in 1953. Though his coup can be seen as an attempt to stop the bloody confrontations of the Violencia period, Rojas Pinilla ousted the elected president of the country and kept his military dictatorship in power for four years, thus breaking the streak of democratic governance the aforementioned errant claims assert.
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