Madrid To Chicago, Tracking Down Ancient Colombian Treasures

Colombian cultural officials have been busy trying to recover an ancient burial treasure displayed in a Madrid museum.

Gold artifacts from Quimbaya Collection in Madrid, Spain
Gold artifacts from Quimbaya Collection in Madrid, Spain
Nicolás Marín Navas

BOGOTÁ — A decade-long legal battle may culminate this year in forcing Spain to return the Quimbaya collection to Colombia. The collection, consisting of 122 gold and burial pieces of exceptional value, has been in Spanish hands since the late 19th century. Colombians have been clamoring for years for the restitution of this treasure, named for one of Colombia's ancient native cultures. But the stakes are huge, and Madrid has continued to hold onto the collection, which is on display in the capital's Museo de América.

Among those involved in these efforts is Colombian lawyer Felipe Rincón. His lawsuit led to the Constitutional Court ruling in 2016 obligating the Colombian government to make every effort to recover the items. The History Academy of Quindío, the department in western Colombia where the treasure was found in 1890, has been working for years for the return of the treasure.

There is no shortage of data on the items. In 1998, an article by Pablo Gamboa, a professor at the National University in Bogota, registered their existence and explained that they included objects ranging in size from tiny collar beads to a póporo a globular container 35.5 cm high and weighing 1,710 grams, which is the collection's biggest and heaviest object. But Gomboa noted that "what is displayed in Madrid, which is only goldwork, is just part of the original treasure discovered in 1890 in Quindío. That includes a greater number of gold pieces and, like any burial offering, ceramics and other objects."

We didn't know where to start.

The head of the Quindío Academy of History, Jaime Lopera, says the entity began investigating the case in 2003, "with enormous uncertainty and skepticism, because we did not know where to start. It all began with letters we sent to Felipe González, Spain's prime minister at the time, which were never answered. At the same time we knew the ambassador there was Noemí Sanín, and we sent her a letter telling her the Academy was delighted she had shown up in person, and had seen a Colombian treasure worth asking for."

Still, throughout this process, many of the letters were ignored by Spanish authorities. Eventually, the Colombian government was more responsive, and eventually led to the Constitutional Court's historic decision. Lopera calls the Court's order to the president a "moral, not a political triumph," adding that "we managed to overcome a whole lot of obstacles, and all manner of skepticisms before Colombia's highest courts paid heed to a matter that is obviously, just symbolic. The return of the Quimbaya treasure shows that countries can reclaim cultural heritage held by others."

Quimbaya artifacts at Madrid's Museo de America — Photo: Kathe Buitrago via Instagram

The academy is hopeful that should the collection return to Colombia, it could be kept in Quindío, its place of origin, instead of Bogotá. "This is a very important reference in archeology and ethnography, worth staying here and accessible to people who want to see it. That would be a fundamental dream for me ... the Central Bank will want to leave it in Bogotá, obviously there's more security there. But our aspiration is to have an annex in the Armenia Quimbaya Gold Museum so it comes to Quindío," says Lopera.

The 122 pieces in Madrid apparently constitute just a part of the original treasure, and the Academy's research shows that other items are in the Field Museum in Chicago. Lopera says "years ago I was looking for information on Quimbaya pieces and I realized through the computer that there was a museum in Chicago that had pieces from Latin America ... I immediately wrote to the museum's director whose name was online. The gentleman received the letter, I know he did, but never answered."

Lopera says once the Madrid collection is back, recovering the pieces from Chicago will be the next challenge.

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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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