Colombia had a black president comparable to Barack Obama himself, whose legacy is still unknown in many spheres of the Caribbean country’s political history.

His name was Juan José Nieto and, like Obama, he was an Afro-descendant, an intellectual and a political leader. In 1861 he was proclaimed president and for seven months he took the reins of the country or what was known at that time as the Granadian Confederation, which included Panama.

He was the first and only black president that Colombia has had in more than 200 years of independence, a milestone that was celebrated in the United States more than a century and a half later with the arrival of Obama to the presidency, in January 2009.

The Only Black Colombian President

Between January 25 and July 18, 1861, Juan José Nieto Gil was president of Colombia.  By then, slavery had been abolished in Cartagena (in 1852) and civil liberties had been promoted in Colombia.

If history repeated itself, it would make of the only black Colombian president a character worthy to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, as the former US president was a decade ago, who actually won this distinction for his efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and eliminate nuclear weapons.

Colombian Black President
It took 157 years for the face of the 14th and only black president of Colombia to finally take its rightful place in the presidential palace of Bogotá. Photo: Colprensa

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Nieto Gil could be compared to other black world leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Pelé, Frederick Douglass and Bob Marley. Or perhaps to the Spanish poet and religious figure Juan de la Cruz himself for having been born on June 24.

Like Obama, Nieto Gil would hold the title of inspiring leader for young people throughout the Americas. And due to his humble origins and his prolific career as a novelist, writer, politician and promoter of social rights in Colombia, Nieto Gil would have likely inspired some film by Alfonso Cuarón or Steven Spielberg.

Juan José Nieto: decades of invisibility

Unfortunately, Nieto Gil did not enjoy any kind of recognition. In the 18th century, a black provincial, liberal and reformist neither instilled a sense of pride in the elites nor was deserving of the title of Colombian president.

Moisés Álvarez, director of the Historical Museum of Cartagena confirms the following: “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.”

Nieto’s political ideals were not well viewed either. “His 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”, Álvarez adds.

Colombian Black President
The figure of Juan José Nieto is beginning to be recognized in his country after years of suppression.

Likewise, in the biography written by sociologist Orlando Fals Borda about Nieto, he described him as “a black and coastal genius, with a temperamental side”. The type of character without any grays, which is either venerated or hated.

After the death of Nieto in July 1866, decades of racial segregation ensued. First there was the historical ingratitude of not recognizing him as president, even though the other presidents who exercised power between 1858 and 1863 (some for a month only) did enjoy such acceptance.

Then his portrait as president (in which Nieto exhibited his Afro-Caribbean features, dark complexion, thick hair and presidential band) was sent to Paris for his appearance to be “restored”, since by whitewashing him, he would be more acceptable to society. An act that Moisés Álvarez described as “racist”.

The result of that artistic intervention was not pleasing, so the work ended up in the basement of the Palace of the Inquisition in Cartagena, a museum located in that Caribbean city. In colloquial language “they hid him, painted him, whitened him, erased him”, as can be heard in the song El Presidente Negro de Colombia (Colombia’s Black President), by champeta folk artist Melchor El Cruel.

Colombia: Claiming its Black Image

“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”, as stated by president Juan Manuel Santos in August 2018, when he unveiled the official presidential portrait of Nieto at the Nariño Palace.   

Contrary to the original image, this painting does show off his lush black beard and his brown skin, typical of the Afro-descendants of the Caribbean coast.

It took 157 years for the face of the 14th and only black President of Colombia to occupy a position in the presidential palace of Bogota.

Colombian Black President
“Recognizing Juan José as one of our presidents was long overdue”,  said Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

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Behind this symbolic act stands sociologist and researcher Orlando Fals Borda, who was key in reconstructing Nieto’s life and getting this politician and coastal intellectual out of anonymity. Before his death, he gave journalist and researcher Osvaldo Guillén the task of ensuring that Nieto’s prominence would be acknowledged.

Guillén, currently exiled from Colombia, recorded a documentary on the Colombian coast as a tribute to Nieto. Already in 2016, the Historical Museum of Baranoa opened a permanent exhibit to recount the life of its illustrious son.

Emmanuel De la Cruz Palma, general director of the museum, told this magazine that “in 2017 a book was launched entitled Juan José Nieto, un Caribe Integral, compiling three of his works.

“#NietoVive is being promoted in the schools of this municipality, as a small step toward obtaining Nieto’s inclusion in the history books of Colombia, and as a pedagogical route for residents and tourists, with all the sites that marked and witnessed the development of Nieto in Baranoa “.

Footsteps of the Colombian Black President

Nieto was born in 1805 in Baranoa, a hot land that produces cotton, corn and cassava. It is called “The happy heart of the Atlantic”, because it is geographically located in the center of that department.

He was the son of artisans, a self-taught man renowned for his contribution to literature, music and theater. He was a liberal and a friend of the hero of independence Francisco de Paula Santander. He also served as congressman, house representative, governor and president of the sovereign state of Bolívar.

Colombian Black President
The work of President Juan José Nieto, his intellectual legacy, is being disseminated in Colombia.

“But we cannot think of Nieto as a politician only”, warns De La Cruz Palma, stressing that Juan Jose Nieto Gil was the great thinker of the Colombian Caribbean.

He founded two newspapers: La Democracia and El Cartagenero and he was most likely the first romantic novelist Colombia has had, since his work Ingermina is the first one to be on record. “In Colombia we had our own Jorge Isaac”, highlights the museum director.

Not much is known about his descendants. His sister Francisca was known among the inhabitants for her personality and good humor. In 1990, the story of a carpenter bearing the same name emerged. He identified himself as his grand-nephew.

“In Baranoa and in the neighboring town of Tubará, we are investigating the baptism acts and gathering all those that bear the surnames Nieto Gil in order to build the president’s family tree”, says Emmanuel De la Cruz Palma.

Undoubtedly, Nieto’s story is worthy of study and reflection. “Colombia must admit that there are racial problems in the country and throughout Latin America”, Barack Obama said at the conference he gave in Bogota last May.

By returning Nieto to his rightful place as fourteenth president, Colombia is recognizing its history of racism towards people of African descent.

Article written by Alicia Pepe