A progress history between modernization and predatory practices

by William Baca

The muelle in Puerto Colombia, long forgotten.

Barranquilla is an example that globalization is not necessarily a bad thing. This is a city that obtained considerable economic benefits using its contact with foreigners, via immigration, and the promotion of international free trade. As an example, the tobacco boom (1850-1857) was determinant. It set the foundations for capital accumulation in Barranquilla.

In 1849, under the federalist years, restrictions on imports were abandoned, and Sabanilla port gained vibrant dynamism. Also, the gains from free trade made investments possible in key infrastructure points such as the Bolivar railway, which connected Barranquilla with Sabanilla (Old Puerto Colombia). This railway was finished in 1871. Since then until the early 1900s, Barranquilla was unstoppable. Signs of progress were evident. Population growth, manufacturing expansion, and consolidation of commercial activities, among others, were the features constantly described by visitors of the time.

However, all this progress happened within a complex institutional process. By institutional, I mean within established social rules that constrain and enable human agency. It is definitely a complex institutional process as modernization and progress are parallel to pre-modern political practices of our leaders. However, the silver lining during this time is that this political class was counterbalanced by the businessmen, mostly under the influence of immigrants. The entrepreneurial spirit, looking out for constant innovation, was a contribution of those immigrants. In essence, we can assert that predatory behavior was contained, which is positive for the growth process of accumulation that Barranquilla was experiencing.

While Barranquilla had been growing since 1849, the British Empire had investments all over the world. One of the main focuses for overseas investment by the British was on railway construction. The railway of Bolivar was built by the British firm; Railway and Pier Company. In 1873, the national government took over the administration of the railway. It was argued that the financial problems of the railway justified the intervention. However, there were never financial difficulties. As a matter of fact, Colombian railways were profitable even we compare them with other nations that had a more comprehensive railway system like Argentina.

The elite of Barranquilla started an “anti-British Empire” campaign to promote the removal of property rights from them. General Ramon Santodomingo and Ramon B. Jimeno were going to be beneficiaries of the British departure from Colombia. They would receive the benefits of the contract, 50 years of rights to exploit the economic earnings and the possibility of 25 years of extension.

As we know it today, Puerto Colombia grew as a municipality geographically away from Barranquilla. The success of the port was the reason to move it from Puerto to Barranquilla. For this reason, Bocas de Cenizas was built (1936). There were no financial reasons; it was just based on the anxious desire, by the political class, of having strict control of the port in Barranquilla. Some scholars of Barranquilla’s history defend the hypothesis that the move was necessary because the rise of Buenaventura as a port diminished the importance of Puerto Colombia. In that way, Barranquilla was going to be able to increase exports. But it did not go like that at all. The decline became constant throughout the 1936-1950 period.

History is history, and it cannot be changed. Nonetheless, what our political leaders should have done is to use the financial gains that Puerto Colombia was producing and reinvest them in the expansion and modernization of this port. This last alternative was more instrumental, instead of building a new one, which clearly was incapable of competing with the one in Buenaventura. The conspicuous motive of being a port of the city – the golden gate of Colombia – diminished the instrumental potential of having an improved port in Puerto Colombia. We lost the opportunity of having Puerto Colombia as a port city while Barranquilla focused on commercial and industrial products that could be transported via railway to Puerto and from there to the world.

With this example, I want to demonstrate that Barranquilla had the most remarkable experience of economic growth along with the prevalence of pre-modern political institutions carried out by our political leaders. These features persist today in Barranquilla. This is the reason why wanting more public goods, as shown in the last ten years, is never enough. We do not need the best mayor of the country, what we need is that Barranquilleros and Barranquilleras understand that better progress is never enough. Whoever happens to be the leader has to be irrelevant. Otherwise, the dream of becoming a Caribbean capital would just be a chimera.