Colombian military and political leader Rafael Reyes (1850-1920) assumed the presidency following a disastrous civil war and established an absolutist regime which contributed to recovery from the excesses of the fighting.
Born in Santa Rosa, Rafael Reyes grew into a vigorous and robust youth addicted to outdoor life. At the age of 24, with two brothers, he undertook the exploration of the Putumayo River, which links Colombia with the upper Amazon Basin. For over a decade he charted jungle routes and located resources of rubber and quinine. One brother died of fever, and the other was killed by Native Americans.
Reyes distinguished himself in the civil wars of both 1885 and 1895. During the 3 years' bloody fighting which commenced in 1899, however, he was outside Colombia. In 1904, with the support of the Conservatives, he ascended to the presidency.
Coming to power in the wake of disastrous bloodletting and Colombia's loss of its province of Panama, Reyes first attempted to institute a policy of compromise, dedicating himself to the resurrection and strengthening of national unity. Unable to secure cooperation from dissident political elements, he established a highly centralized and authoritarian government which was committed to material change and economic development. Dissolving by executive decree an uncooperative Congress, he jailed many of its members, declared martial law, and assumed full dictatorial powers. Reyes sought the aura of legality by appointing a National Assembly whose task was to ratify his decisions. Impatient of dissent and uninterested in free elections or constitutional government, he turned to the improvement of material conditions.
Reyes adopted a series of stern measures. In 1905 he merged the finance and treasury ministries in order to tighten financial control and to reorganize the economy. The floating of foreign loans helped restore Colombian credit in world markets, and coffee production was encouraged. Public works included the building of highways and railroads, especially along the Magdalena River Basin.
In his early years in power Reyes encountered little opposition from a war-weary populace, but despite his efficiency the political situation grew stormy. He survived several attempts on his life, and the National Assembly voted to extend his term to 1914. In 1909 he negotiated treaties with Panama and the United States as final settlement of the independence movement in the former and was met by national protests and by student demonstrations. Although he withdrew the treaties, he was forced to resign in June 1909. After years of exile he returned home in 1919, where he died the following year.
The best analysis of Reyes's career within the context of national history is Jesús María Henao and Gerardo Arrubla, History of Colombia, translated by J. Fred Rippy (1938). A North American historical survey which also places Reyes in historical perspective is Hubert Herring, A History of Latin America (1955; 3d ed. 1968).