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Since Independence

Since Independence

Leading citizens of Cartagena, Pamplona, Socorro, Bogotá, and other provincial towns initiated the movement toward Colombian independence in 1810. The power struggle of the Patria Boba (Foolish Fatherland) period (1810–1816) foreshadowed the nineteenth-century disputes surrounding the issue of regional autonomy (federalism) versus centralized rule. Miguel Pombo and Camilo Torres Restrepo drew upon Enlightenment thought and the example of the United States in their defense of federalism within the United Provinces of New Granada—a governmental model well suited to the starkly divided Colombian topography, but not, perhaps, to Colombian political dispositions. The precursor, Antonio Nariño, however, insisted on a centralized structure for reasons of military expediency and political authority. The conflict between these factions facilitated the 1816 Spanish reconquest by General Pablo Morillo, whose pacification techniques included the execution of Torres and some three hundred other patriots. After Morillo's 1816 capture of Bogotá, patriot forces retreated to the plains of Casanare, where they joined the llanero (plainsman) chief José Antonio Páez. Francisco de Paula Santander, a Cúcuta-born lawyer, helped Simón Bolívar march over the Andes and defeat the Spaniards at the Battle of Boyacá on August 7, 1819. Shortly thereafter, the Congress of Angostura created the Republic of [Gran] Colombia, comprised of contemporary Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and Ecuador.

The Congress of Cúcuta in 1821 established a constitutional framework that shaped the subsequent Colombian constitutions of 1832 and 1843. These centralized regimes allowed for the division of authority among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, with a clause providing the executive with emergency authority. Bolívar was selected as president, but it was vice president Santander who gave the new government administrative shape and direction while the Liberator led the independence struggle further to the south. The regime instituted the standard reforms, including the elimination of the Inquisition, Indian tribute, and the alcabala (sales tax); the opening of ports; the assertion of patronage over the church; and the gradual emancipation of slaves. A moderately protective tariff was retained for fiscal purposes, as were monopolies on tobacco and aguardiente (sugarcane alcohol).

Regional tensions doomed the Gran Colombian experiment. The 1826 federalist revolt by José Antonio Páez forced Bolívar to dampen the uprising and impose a dictatorship upon the country, an assumption of extraordinary powers that many Colombian presidents later used in the interest of public order. Bolívar survived an assassination attempt in September; the failure earned Santander several years of exile in Europe and his co-conspirators death. Gran Colombia collapsed two years later as both Venezuela and Ecuador charted their own national destinies. Santander returned from exile to assume the presidency of the Republic of New Granada in 1832.


Regionalism, determined by geography, patterns of economic and social development, and political jurisdiction, has profoundly influenced Colombian history. Leading cities dominated each region: Popayán was the center of the Cauca; Medellín, Antioquia; Cartagena, la costa; Bogotá, the central highlands; and the multiple nodes of Vélez, Socorro, and Pamplona were associated with the northeast; only the llanos to the east of the Andes lacked a major city. These regions continue to define the country, though Cali has long eclipsed Popayán as the leader of the Cauca. Further, late-nineteenth-century migration created the coffee regions of Caldas and Quindío.

Independence changed colonial economic patterns very little. Agriculture remained the most important activity in a regionally dispersed economy, with larger estates (often dedicated to raising cattle) more prevalent in the Cauca, coastal, and central highland regions, and smaller peasant production dominant elsewhere, especially in areas around Socorro-San Gil, Pasto, and Medellín. Sugar estates to the north of Popayán, which had relied upon slave labor, suffered a significant decline as wartime emancipation and the flight of enslaved peoples stimulated the emergence of widespread subsistence activities (as well as social strife). As the most important export earner until well into the century, gold from the Pacific lowlands of the Chocó and the Antioquia slopes sustained substantial mercantile activity. Manufacturing remained in the hands of multitalented rural and urban artisans, especially in the production of domestic textiles in the Socorro-San Gil region. Efforts by the New Granadan government to stimulate the manufacturing industry through a system of privileges in the 1830s proved largely unsuccessful, although they did sustain a fledgling iron industry in the central highlands.

The early national social structure is poorly understood, but several characteristics are apparent. An elite bound by kinship ties dominated regional social hierarchies, drawing their strength from large landholdings and positions in the civil bureaucracy, church, and mercantile communities. Most members of rural societies, especially those of the central highlands and Cauca regions, were highly deferential, bound by tradition and dependence upon landholders. Native inhabitants of the resguardos (common lands) maintained more independent lives and defended themselves against efforts to abolish their corporate privileges. Small farmers and artisans of the northeast and central highlands had considerable social, economic, and political autonomy. Antioqueño society was dominated by large landholders, the Church, and the mining elite, but also included numerous independent small farmers.

Population: 44,379,598 (2007 est.)
Area: 439,736 sq mi
Official language: Spanish
National currency: Colombian peso (COP)
Principal religions: Roman Catholic, 90%
Ethnicity: mestizo 58%, white 20%, mulatto 14%, black 4%, mixed black-Amerindian 3%, Amerindian 1%
Capital: Bogotá
Other urban centers: Barranquilla, Cali, Medellín, Cartagena
Annual rainfall: 42 in
Principal geographical features: Mountains: Andes Mts., including the Cordillera Occidental, Cordillera Central, Cordillera Oriental, Sierra de los Andes, and Sierra de Perijá; Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria includes the highest peaks in the country, Cristóbal Colón and Simon Bolivar (both 18, 947 ft); Serranía de Baudó
Rivers: Cauca, Magdalena; the Amazon and Orinoco form portions of the southern and eastern borders
Islands: San Andrés and Providencia archipelagos, Gorgona, Gorgonilla, and Malpelo islands (ownership is disputed by Nicaragua)
Economy: GDP per capita: $8,600 (2006 est.)
Principal products and exports: Agricultural: bananas, coffee, flowers, rice, shrimp, sugar
Manufacturing: chemicals, food processing, textiles
Mining: coal, emeralds, gold, petroleum
Other: Production of illicit drugs such as cocaine is an important part of the Colombian economy in areas outside the effective control of the government.
Government: Formed as an independent nation after the breakup of Gran Colombia in 1830, Colombia is governed as a republic, but the president holds particularly broad powers and is both chief of state and head of government. The legislature is popularly elected, with some seats reserved for certain minority groups, and consists of a 102-seat Senate and a 166-seat House of Representatives. Rebel and drug trafficking organizations limit the effectiveness of the government in some regions.
Armed forces: As of 2007, armed conflict between government forces and rebel and narcotics organizations within Colombia had been underway for decades.
Army: 178,000
Navy: 22,000
Air force: 7,000
Paramilitary: roughly 8,000 rural militia and 121,000 national police
Reserves: 60,700
Transportation: Rail: 2,053 mi
Ports: Barranquilla, Buenaventura, Cartagena, Muelles El Bosque, Puerto Bolivar, Santa Marta, Turbo
Roads: 10,110 mi paved; 60,098 mi unpaved
National airline: Avianca
Airports: 103 paved and 831 unpaved runway airports, with 6 major airports; 2 heliports
Media: Numerous newspapers, including El Colombiano, El Espacio, El Heraldo, El Nuevo Siglo, El País, and El Tiempo. 463 AM and 35 FM radio stations, 60 television stations.
Literacy and education: Total literacy rate: 92.8%
Nine years of primary education are compulsory. Public education is free. The Roman Catholic Church exerts great influence over public schools; private schools are also available. Secondary schools are generally only present in urban centers. Universities include the National University in Bogotá, Universidad Javierana, Universidad de los Andes, and Universidad Libre.

The degree of autonomy enjoyed by these social sectors shaped patterns of political affiliation social strife. More rigid patron-client relations produced long-term partisan loyalties and more stable social hierarchies, which was evident, for example, in the Boyacá region around Tunja. By contrast, Socorreño craftsmen, Antioqueño freeholders, and the newly liberated slaves of the Cauca valley resisted the reimposition of elite control. Migrants to the frontier zones of the coffee regions carved out enclaves of relative political autonomy. Urban artisans, especially those of Bogotá, exercised considerable social and political independence throughout the nineteenth century.

Regionalism manifested itself in the initial bipartisan alignment of the Conservative and Liberal Parties. Men with ready access to centers of authority, education, religion, and political position during the late colonial and early national periods tended to align themselves into the Conservative Party by the late 1840s. By contrast, the elite and middling sectors of secondary provincial centers such as Vélez or Socorro formed the Liberal Party at the same time. Other issues affected party alignment, such as the Bolívar-Santander division of the 1820s and alliances during the War of the Supremes (1839–1842), but social location seems to have been a key variable in the development of factions. After the 1830s, members of the Conservative and Liberal Parties dominated the system of formal politics until well into the twentieth century, engaging in numerous civil wars shaped more by party loyalty than by any other factor.


The presidential election of 1837 and the War of the Supremes opened the door to partisan rivalries and conflicts. Santander had wanted General José María Obando to succeed him as president, but Obando's military background, ambiguous social station in the aristocratic Popayán region, and alleged involvement in the assassination of Antonio José de Sucre embittered other groups, who supported José Ignacio Márquez, the eventual winner. In the aftermath of the election, both sides mobilized urban middle sectors, especially artisans, in the attempt to expand their bases of popular support, a critical step in the development of the party system. In 1839 the National Congress ordered the closing of several minor convents in the highly religious community of Pasto, a move that sparked the War of the Supremes, in which Obando played an important role as the alleged protector of religion and federalism. Several other pro-Santander leaders declared themselves in revolt, which the government did not suppress until 1842.

By the mid-1840s the nation seemed to be making little progress, leaving leaders ready for significant reforms. The liberal reforms that began with the presidency of the nominal Conservative Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera (1845–1849) included the reduction of tariff rates and the abolition of the tobacco monopoly, antecedents to the widespread reforms undertaken by the Liberal José Hilario López (1849–1853). López's government abolished slavery, expelled the Jesuits, decentralized the nation's fiscal structure, declared absolute freedom of the press, and began political decentralization. The Constitution of 1853 established the separation of church and state, allowed for civil marriage and divorce, extended suffrage to all male citizens over the age of twenty-one, instituted the popular election of governors and many other officials, and weakened executive powers. Several years later, in the wake of the civil war of 1859 to 1861, a final set of reforms privatized corporate properties for public sale and outlawed convents and monasteries.

Despite basic agreements on economic issues between the Conservative and Liberal Parties, serious conflicts erupted over several reforms, especially those concerning social order and public morality. Conservatives tended to view the church as the proper foundation, whereas Liberals placed their faith in an educated and self-reliant citizenry. The abolition of slavery threatened vested interests in both the Cauca and Antioquia regions; this was a primary factor in the unsuccessful Conservative revolt of 1851. Reduction of tariff rates inspired Bogotá's craftsmen to mobilize politically into the Democratic Society of Artisans, and eventually to align themselves with moderate (Draconiano) Liberals who, like Obando, opposed the reduction of executive powers and the threats to the military contained within the Constitution of 1853. This alignment of forces, generally drawn from the middle sectors of rural and urban society, produced General José María Melo's 1854 coup d'état, a movement whose defeat by a Conservative-Liberal elite alliance paved the way for the election of the Conservative Mariano Ospina Rodríguez as president in 1857.

The Constitution of 1863 established a federalist system of quasi-independent state governments within the United States of Colombia. States were allowed their own armies, and all nine had to agree upon constitutional revisions. A president served for two years without opportunity for reelection, a system that ensured near-continual campaigning and political strife throughout the thirty-some years of Liberal hegemony.


Economic liberalization offered Colombia limited success in the 1800s, but it oriented the economy toward the world market over the long term. Initially, Colombian commodities enjoyed only sporadic success. Exports earned an estimated $1.88 per capita in the 1830s and $4.77 in 1880, figures that suggest a general increase in value but actually ranked Colombia's export economy among the least important in nineteenth-century Latin America. Furthermore, the fate of exports caused serious political and social instability. Tobacco boomed in the lowland Ambalema region after demonopolization in the 1840s, but declined in the 1870s due to inconsistent quality and Javanese competition. Cotton, cinchona bark (a source of quinine), Panama hats, indigo, and coffee experienced similar booms (and busts), with only coffee surviving in the export mix, along with gold.

Coffee spurred the great southward migration of Antioqueños to the frontiers of south-central Colombia. This was the country's most important nineteenth-century social and economic phenomenon. The movement gained force in the 1830s and 1840s, fueled by a rate of demographic increase substantially above that of the rest of the country. Pioneer farmers (colonos) sought freehold for subsistence crops on the forested slopes of what were largely unclaimed public lands, or lands whose claims were disputed by inheritors of earlier grants, who more often than not were men of considerable economic and social prestige. The colonization of the frontier spurred a tremendous amount of litigation, most of it involving access to land and control of labor for the production of coffee; this pattern of conflict persisted well into the 1930s. Through decades of struggles, thousands of colonos established small, family farms that sustained the twentieth-century coffee industry.

Migrants also came from the Cauca, though not in the same numbers as those from Antioquia. A significant demographic pool of mulattoes, blacks, and mestizos existed in the central Cauca as wage laborers, but these groups preferred subsistence farming and relative autonomy on abandoned lowlands and slopes and the establishment of medium-sized farms. These "dangerous" social sectors were at the center of several social conflicts, as when Obando mobilized them in support of his cause during the War of the Supremes, and in the protests against large landholders near Cali in the early 1850s. Conflicts over access to land and the social order played roles in the 1851 Conservative rebellion, the Melo coup of 1854, and regional insurrections in the 1870s.

The Conservative intellectual and Cauca political leader Sergio Arboleda (1822–1888) decried this lack of order in the early 1870s, suggesting that a combination of Catholic social restraint and capitalist development could save the region from social and political disorder. The failure of Conservatives and Catholic leaders to achieve public order led to the civil war of 1876 to 1877, perhaps the only armed conflict in Colombia with a genuine religious core. Importantly, that conflict divided the Liberal Party into Radicals and Independents, the latter which would align itself with Conservative in the 1880s.


Economic, political, and social tensions forced a fundamental realignment of the Colombian polity in the 1880s. The failure of export commodities undermined the fiscal resources of the state and engendered social unrest. Rafael Núñez's 1880 and 1884 Independent Liberal presidential victories propelled Radical Liberals to rebellion in 1885. Conservatives joined with Independents to repress the Radicals, thereby allowing Núñez to undertake the Regeneración (Regeneration) of the country. With the crucial assistance of Conservative philosopher and politician Miguel Antonio Caro, Núñez engineered passage of the Constitution of 1886, which swept aside the tenets of mid-century liberalism and established a centralized state with departments instead of sovereign states. Núñez accepted a six-year presidency with increased executive authority, including the power to direct fiscal policy through a national bank. Núñez increased tariffs and signaled state support for industrial development. Taking advantage of the government's ability to print paper money, Núñez ordered several large issues, with disputed economic effect. Caro's concern for a "proper" social hierarchy restored Roman Catholicism as the state religion, reestablished its strong role in public education, and helped produce a concordat with the Vatican in 1887.

Independents and Conservatives cooperated in the establishment of the National Party, whose purpose was to end partisan contention in support of the new regime. Núñez's preference for his native city of Cartagena to the highland capital made this mission impossible. (Núñez's absence from the capital meant that executive power rested in the hands of vice president Caro.) Both the dogmaticism and heavy-handedness of Caro alienated many Regeneration leaders, especially "historical" Conservatives led by Antioqueño Marceliano Vélez Barreneche (1832–1923) who were less willing to cooperate with Independents. The 1892 presidential election formalized this split, as Caro and Barreneche contended for the vice presidential position (Caro succeeded). The Liberal Party attempted to regain its political voice in 1893, but its members faced arrest and overt repression.

Partisan political strife escalated through the 1890s, culminating in the War of the Thousand Days (1899–1902). Inflationary pressures from the release of paper money and the erratic performance of coffee called into question the fiscal leadership of Caro's government. The more aggressive "war liberals," who had failed in an 1895 insurrection, redoubled their efforts after the inefficacious presidential election of 1897 placed the feeble, eighty-three-year-old Manuel A. Sanclemente (1814–1902) at the head of the government. Economic and political crises merged into war in October 1899. The "gentlemen's war" soon gave way to bitter conflict between Liberal guerrillas and government forces assisted by their own guerrillas. Although the zones of coffee agriculture in Huila, Cundinamarca, the Cauca, and Santander were the primary zones of conflict, few regions of the country were spared before the struggle came to a merciful conclusion in 1902. The estimated 100,000 deaths fail to resolve the bitter social animosities engendered by the conflict, many of which persisted as social vendettas for decades. Nor does the human loss reflect the traumatic national impact, which created the conditions for the successful separation of the department of Panama from Colombia with the assistance of the United States.

The Conservative General Rafael Reyes (1849–1921) emerged victorious in the suspiciously corrupt 1904 presidential election. The well-born Reyes favored cooperative politics, and named several Liberals to his cabinet. Reyes practiced the interventionist style of the Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz, instituting reforms intended to restore stability to the fiscal system, improve the country's rail infrastructure, boost industrial activity through protective tariffs, and increase the production of coffee. Reyes also mirrored Díaz's penchant for personal rule, dismissing the Congress in 1905 in favor of a handpicked "national assembly," which immediately extended the length of the president's term. Reyes sought to restore the friendly relations with the United States that had been disturbed by the U.S. role in the independence of Panama. The proposed treaty to resolve outstanding issues required the approval of the national assembly, which, when called back into session, rejected Reyes's proposal in March 1909, in keeping with public opinion. The president resigned his position and left the country several months later.

Most presidents in the 1910s shared Reyes's tendency toward bipartisan rule, though not his predilection toward strong-handedness. The constitutional reform of 1910 mandated minority representation and reduced the presidential term to four years. Carlos E. Restrepo, a Conservative who headed the bipartisan Republican Union Party, assumed the presidency in 1910. The increased social polarization that marked his rule and that of his successors represented the diverging interests of conservative church reformers, organized labor, peasants, and an emerging middle class. The Liberal Rafael Uribe Uribe symbolized some of these sentiments, abandoning his party's commitment to dogmatic theory in his call for state socialism. The assassination of Uribe Uribe in 1914 blunted this tendency within his party until the emergence of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in the 1930s. More traditional Conservatives came to dominate the party and most national offices until 1930.


Coffee is central to an understanding of twentieth-century Colombia. For most of the century, it dominated the export economy and helped to redefine several regions of the country. Production boomed after the War of the Thousand Days as Antioqueño colonization pushed the coffee frontier southward. One million 60-kilogram (132-pound) bags were exported in 1913: 32.8 percent from Santander, 20.0 percent from Cundinamarca, and 16.1 percent from Antioquia. By the early 1930s, exports surpassed 3 million bags and constituted almost 70 percent of the country's exports, with the new zones of production in the departments of Caldas, Risaralda, Quindío, Tolima, and Valle del Cauca accounting for well over half of the exports. National exports topped 5 million bags in 1943 and 6 million bags ten years later—a level of production maintained through the 1990s. By the 1990s the price of coffee had fallen dramatically, as had its importance in the export economy, when it accounted for less than 10 percent of the value of exports.

Family-owned-and-operated farms accounted for three-fourths of the 150,000 to 200,000 coffee farms in the 1930s to 1950s. These small farmers tended toward economic and social conservativism in defense of their relative social autonomy; they generally resisted efforts to mobilize their collective energies in labor struggles, and they aligned themselves with either local Conservative or Liberal patrons. Although they produced the vast majority of the country's coffee, the product has been marketed since 1927 by the National Federation of Coffee Growers (Fedecafe), which itself is dominated by large producers. Large producers supplanted the output of small producers in the 1950s through the planting of a type of coffee tree more conducive to large-scale labor and harvesting, and came to dominate the industry through their control of marketing, credit, and distribution systems.

Coffee produced large quantities of capital that helped stimulate rapid changes in the Colombian economy and polity. Annual export earnings increased from an average of $26 million during the Reyes period to an average $200 million in the late 1920s. Industrial entrepreneurs, especially in the Medellín region, created an industrial base, most significantly in textiles. A $25 million indemnification from the United States for its role in the separation of Panama (stipulated by the 1922 Urrutia-Thomson Treaty) opened the way for $260 million in foreign loans, much of which was invested in infrastructural and municipal development. Foreign loans accompanied foreign investment, which included the establishment of a United Fruit Company banana enclave near Santa Marta, oil extraction and refining by the Tropical Oil (Jersey Standard, now Exxon) Company near Barrancabermeja, and the Barco concession to Gulf and Socony (now Mobil) south of Lake Maracaibo. Railways, highways, maritime traffic, and other infrastructural improvements knitted much of central-western Colombia into a single economic unit.

Urbanization and population growth transformed Colombia into a "nation of cities" over the course of the twentieth century. Only 5 percent of the nation's 3.89 million people in 1900 lived in cities, but thereafter both population and urbanization figures increased dramatically. The national population reached 17.5 million (54 percent urban) in 1964, 33 million (70 percent urban) in 1990, and approximately 43 million (77 per cent urban) in 2006. Bogotá led the urban increase, from about 150,000 in 1918 to 355,000 in 1938; 1,697,311 in 1964; just under 3 million in 1973; 4.2 million in 1985; and perhaps 6.8 million in 2006. Estimates from 2006 show that Cali (2.3 million), Medellín (2 million), Barranquilla (1.3 million), and Cartagena (900,000) experienced similar rates of urbanization, as have smaller provincial cities such as Manizales, Cucutá, Ibagué, and Bucaramanga.

Coffee and urbanization helped to transform the nation's labor force. Slightly over one-half of the 8.7 million people counted in the 1938 census were considered "economically active," with 75 percent of them involved in the production of primary materials, including coffee. Barely 10 percent of the population labored in industrial activities, three-quarters of which were cottage industries of fewer than five people that produced just over one-third of all manufacturing output. Although numbering only 3 percent of the total laboring population, larger industrial shops doubled the output of the smaller establishments. The larger shops received significant import-substitution support during the Great Depression. Oil workers, transportation workers, and industrial laborers were numerically few but of critical economic importance. Urbanization, increased commercial activity, and industrialization created service and professional occupations that provided the foundation for the middle class, which became increasingly important after World War II.

Changing social and economic realities affected the character of Colombian politics. Protests by transportation and dock workers on the coast shook the nation in 1918. The initial government response to labor militancy was to institute a right-to-work law, force mediation, and ban strikes in strategic sectors, including transportation. Strikes in the oil zone of Barrancabermeja (1924 and 1927) and in the banana enclave of Santa Marta (1928) resulted in mass arrests and violent repression. Fledgling left-wing groups such as the Socialist Revolutionary Party (PSR) attempted to mobilize these social forces under the leadership of dynamic orators such as María de los Ángeles Cano, the "Revolutionary Red Flower." However, most workers tended to channel their political energies into the Conservative or Liberal Parties. The young Liberal Jorge Eliécer Gaitán emerged as a prominent national figure in leading the investigation of the 1928 "banana massacre," which revealed the intimate relationship between Conservative politicians and foreign investors. Foreign loans began to dry up in 1927 and government revenues declined, undermining the Conservative presidency of Miguel Abadía Méndez. The economic foundation of the Colombian state suffered a serious blow with the 1929 collapse of the world economy. The resulting conditions enabled the Liberal Enrique Olaya Herrera to win the 1930 presidential election as Conservatives split their votes between two of their own candidates.


The administration of Olaya Herrera proved to be the calm before the partisan political storm. The Liberal president appointed Conservatives to both national and regional offices, resuming a pattern of bipartisan representation and dialogue. Nevertheless, armed strife broke out between local Liberals and Conservatives over the spoils of office. Gaitán used the short-lived Unión Izquierdista Revolucionaria (UNIR) Party to rail against the país político in favor of the país nacional—populist rhetoric that disturbed many in the upper class. UNIR and Communist organizers attempted to mobilize disgruntled coffee farmers in favor of assertive land and labor reforms.

The presidency of Alfonso López Pumarejo (1934–1938) moderated the tensions surrounding land, labor, and foreign investment by asserting the role of the state in social management in the Revolution on the March. The constitutional reform of 1936 stipulated that property had a social function and that ineffective use of property could lead to its expropriation by the state. Law 200 of the same year applied this principle to land, favoring squatters and others who had occupied land as opposed to landlords with dubious and unverifiable titles. The López regime tended not to use the power of the state in support of capital in disputes and favored labor in the establishment of the Federation of Colombian Workers (CTC), the first such nationwide organization. The state expanded its support for education, removing its control from local officials and lessening the influence of the church. Finally, taxes were increased somewhat and collection improved, especially taxes on foreign firms.

The effects of these reforms were generally more symbolic than revolutionary, but they called Conservative opponents to action, even as they drew new workers and the urban middle class into the Liberal ranks. Even Liberal leaders such as President Eduardo Santos (1938–1942) found the resulting tenor to be unsettling, and assumed a more moderate stance. A decidedly less reformist López returned to office in 1942, reversing some of the land and labor policies initiated in his first administration.

The Conservative Laureano Gómez Castro served as the intellectual and political counterweight to these Liberal leaders. Gómez seized control of the party in the early 1930s, using it as forum to analyze the failures of Liberalism in favor of traditional, principled Conservativism. Gómez criticized the reduction of Catholic authority in the 1936 constitutional reform and the role of Communists in the first López government. Gaitán, too, criticized López, but in the name of the small capitalist and members of the middle class who lacked political authority. The weakened López resigned in favor of Alberto Lleras Camargo in 1945.

The presidential election of 1946 spurred a wave of partisan bloodshed that initiated La Violencia (The Violence). Gaitán and the moderate Liberal Gabriel Turbay split the Liberal vote, enabling the moderate Conservative Mariano Ospina Pérez, an Antioqueño industrialist and former head of Fedecafe, to emerge victorious. The first stage of the violence began in rural areas with the transfer of power, just as it had in 1930, even though the president named Liberals to his regime. Ospina Pérez shifted government support of organized labor to the newly founded and more conservative Union of Colombian Workers (UTC). When Gaitán gradually convinced moderate Liberals of the futility of their cooperation with Ospina Pérez, they withdrew from the government in March 1948.

Gaitán's assassination on 9 April 1948, led to a massive riot that ravaged Bogotá, leaving hundreds of people dead and much physical damage, and initiated the second stage of La Violencia. Liberals throughout the country joined in the outrage against Conservatives, so frightening the party leadership that they rejoined the Ospina Pérez regime to calm partisan tensions. Indeed, violence soon ebbed, but it did not disappear. Gómez won the uncontested presidential election in late 1949, sparking a sharp increase in violence, to which his regime reacted with brutal repression. Partisan civil war soon ravaged the countryside. Gómez responded in 1952 with an unsuccessful attempt to create a corporatist constitution to impose his ideology upon the Colombian polity. By 1953, with an estimated 160,000 people killed in the violence since 1946, the Colombian political framework was in shambles.

General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla came to power in a coup sponsored by moderate Conservatives in June 1953. Partisan violence had scarred most of rural Colombia, especially the coffee zones and llanos, sparing only the coast and the department of Nariño. An amnesty reduced the level of violence temporarily, but it had resumed by 1954 in widespread political banditry with greater social and class undertones. An additional 17,000 people died during the Rojas regime (1953–1957) and some 16,000 more before 1966, the unofficial end of La Violencia.


As Rojas Pinilla became more popular and less reliant on the traditional parties, Conservative and Liberal leaders set aside their differences to form the Frente Nacional (National Front), a bipartisan effort to dominate the political landscape. In mid-1956 Lleras Camargo and Laureano Gómez initiated a power-sharing formula that eventually stipulated that the presidency would alternate between the Conservative and Liberal Parties for sixteen years, during which time appointed and elective positions would be shared on an equal basis. A national plebiscite approved these terms by an overwhelming majority. Lleras Camargo once again assumed the presidency in August 1958.

The National Front put an end to partisan violence and facilitated modernization of the nation's economy; it did not, however, end violence or expand democratic politics. The Conservative Guillermo León Valencia (1962–1966) and Liberal Carlos Lleras Restrepo (1966–1970) both took office according to the National Front formula without incident. In 1970 the Conservative Party split its votes for the last guaranteed Conservative presidency of the National Front among several candidates in an election that was complicated by the presidential candidacy of Rojas Pinella. Drawing strength from his Conservative roots and dissident Liberal supporters, Rojas Pinella had helped the Popular National Alliance Party (ANAPO) to win one-fifth of the congressional seats in 1966. The extremely close election on April 19, 1970, generated charges of vote fraud by the government, which allowed the Conservative Misael Pastrana Borrero (1970–1974) to emerge victorious. The urban guerrilla Movement of 19 April (M-19) emerged to challenge the oligarchic control of the government in 1973, a year before Alfonso López Michelsen, the former head of the dissident Movement of Revolutionary Liberals, became the first non-National Front president in sixteen years (1974–1978).

The National Front governments brought various producers' associations into the government to coordinate national economic development. The National Association of Industrialists (Andi), Fedecafe, the Colombian Bankers Association (Asobancaria), and other producers' groups, all bipartisan in nature and elite in leadership, supported the new regimes. So, too, did international bodies such as the World Bank, the Agency for International Development (AID), and the Rockefeller Foundation, which served the anti-Communist agenda of the Alliance for Progress.

Despite some differences, most domestic and international groups supported development and political reform initiatives. These included the implementation of an agreement with Renault to develop a national automobile industry, the establishment of the Andean Common Market, and further import-substitution industrialization. The Colombian Agricultural Society (SAC), by contrast, opposed the 1961 land-reform program of Lleras Camargo, leaving Lleras Restrepo the task of putting some power (however small) into land reform. Restrepo, however, did help organize the National Association of Peasants (ANUC), which asserted itself quite forcefully in the 1970s. He also oversaw reforms that strengthened the executive's hand in economic development and allowed for the gradual dismantling of shared offices in the National Front, which eventually ended in 1978. President Misael Pastrana Borrero helped launch Operation Colombia, which stimulated housing construction, promoted nontraditional exports, increased agricultural productivity, and supported effective taxation. But Pastrana Borrero capitulated to land-owning groups by undercutting the strength of earlier land-reform measures.

The National Front, though effective at ending partisan violence, did not sponsor political demo-cratization. Numerous guerrilla groups rose to challenge the oligarchic control of politics during this period, including the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), the Fidel Castro-inspired National Liberation Army (ELN), the Maoist Popular Liberation Army (ELP), and the M-19. Though the guerrillas were contained by an increasingly professionalized military, persistent social inequality, popular support, and inhospitable terrain have prevented their elimination. Guerrilla groups attracted considerable national attention as a possible alternative to bipartisan rule, but none gained sufficient power to challenge the Colombian state effectively.


After the end of the National Front in 1978, Colombia departed significantly from its historic roots. In the early 2000s coffee is now the sixth most important export product. The country has entered a strategic alliance with U. S. foreign policy. Some things have not changed: Colombia still lacks a political culture that responds to the popular sector. Drug lords, guerrillas, and paramilitary forces have added to the violence that still plagues the country. Still, regular elections take place, even while there is much to suggest that the bipartisan heritage might be eroding. Colombia's internal and external economies continue to "muddle through," while recent high commodity prices, especially for oil and coal, offer a promise for the future.

Colombia's export economy is historically one of the more balanced and profitable in Latin America. While most Latin American economies stagnated in the 1980s, Colombia's export-led economy grew at an annual rate of 3.5 percent. In the period 1995 to 2004, Colombian exports increased by 5 percent annually, a significant factor in the nation's 17-percent GDP increase in the same period. Colombia is Latin America's largest producer of coal and its third-largest producer of petroleum, with newly discovered fields of more than two billion barrels yet to be put into production. The World Trade Organization reported that in 2004, petroleum and mining products constituted some 40 percent of Colombia's exports, manufactured products just over 38 percent, and agricultural products just over 20 percent. Coffee, which dominated the nation's exports for most of the twentieth century, has seen a dramatic decline in importance, from 80 percent in the 1920s to 50 percent in the 1970s, and about 6 percent in 2003. The production of cut flowers, a semi-industrialized agricultural product from the high plains around Bogotá, employs about 140,000 people, mostly women. African palms, cacao, sorghum, and bananas are increasingly important exports. The United States continues to absorb the largest percentage of Colombian exports (42%), but its exports to Colombia have declined to barely 28 percent, down from 45 percent in 1990.

Political and drug-related violence ravaged the country in the 1980s. The Conservative Belisario Betancur Cuartas (1982–1986) offered FARC, M-19, and ELN guerrillas the opportunity to lay down their arms and enter into the political arena. In a positive response, FARC created the Patriotic Union Party (UP) as its political front in 1985, placing candidates in local and departmental elections. Right-wing paramilitary organizations, many of them linked to the military, declared de facto war upon the UP. Hundreds of UP candidates were assassinated in a bloodbath that drove the FARC back into overt warfare against the state. In November 1985 members of the M-19 seized the Supreme Court's Palace of Justice; the assault by the Colombian military left the building in flames and eleven of the twelve justices dead. Faced with the public outcry, the M-19 stopped its military activity and entered the political process.

Violence and the fragmentation of the political process created the environment in which Colombians reconsidered their constitutional structure. Highlighting the violence were the assassinations in 1989 and 1990 of three presidential candidates, "New Liberal" Luis Carlos Galán (1943–1989), UP Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa (1956–1990), and M-19 Carlos Pizarro Leongómez (1951–1990). The mainstream Liberal César Agusto Gaviria Trujillo (1990–1994) eventually won the election. An overwhelming popular vote in December 1990 led to a constituent congress that produced a new constitution in 1991. Under the new constitution the executive lost considerable power to the legislature, which itself was democratized and less beholden to regional party bosses. The judicial system was overhauled and extradition to foreign states banned. Elections to the first congress revealed a fundamental schism in the venerable Conservative Party, and saw the decline of the Liberal Party to a mere plurality. The short-term emergence of Democratic Alliance M-19 as the country's second-largest political association suggested the destabilization of the historic bipartisan political culture.

The tremendous demand for marijuana and cocaine from drug-consuming societies (chiefly the United States and Europe) has had profound and mostly negative impacts upon Colombia. High-quality marijuana, grown mostly on small farms on the northern coast in the early 1970s, stimulated regional economic activity and increased the standard of living before U.S. pressure on the Julio César Turbay Ayala regime (1978–1982) led to extensive spraying of defoliants that the United States had banned in its own country. The processing of cocaine by a limited number of producer cartels resulted in widespread social and political violence as well as an influx of U.S. dollars to the Medellín and Cali regions. The administration of U.S. president Ronald Reagan (1981–1989) demanded the extradition of drug barons for trial in the United States, prompting drug lords such as Pablo Escobar (1949–1993) to develop social programs and forge political ties to forestall extradition. When New Liberal politicians Luis Carlos Galán and Rodrigo Lara Bonilla (among others) assumed a decidedly antitrafficking stance, there was a wave of assassinations, including the minister of justice, Lara Bonilla, in 1984. President Belisario Betancur Cuartas then enforced the extradition treaty, setting off all-out war between Escobar and the government. Complicating the situation was the movement into the drug trade by FARC and ELN guerrillas. Scores of bombings, assassinations, and finally the murder of the favored presidential candidate, Luis Carlos Galán, in 1989, led the government to attack the Medellín cartel, by first killing the drug lord Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha in late 1989. By the time the government finally killed Escobar in 1993, the violence of the drug trade had further destabilized the political process.

The economic importance of cocaine and the violence associated with its production increased during the 1990s. The Liberal president Ernesto Samper (1994–1998), despite having been wounded in a drug attack in 1989, was widely thought to have received money from the Cali cartel in support of his campaign. Samper proved unable—or unwilling—to curb production or distribution networks. In addition, coca production moved from Bolivia and Peru to Colombia during the 1990s, so that by 2000 70 percent of the world's coca was being grown in the country by some 300,000 farmers. Guerrilla and paramilitary organizations became actively involved in both production and protection rackets, bringing violence to new areas of the country. Between 1985 and 2000 an estimated two million people were displaced by violence, leading to the rapid growth of many regional urban centers and an increase in urban poverty.

The Conservative Andrés Pastrana Arango (b. 1954) came to the presidency in 1998 with promises to attack the basic problems of political instability and the misdistribution of economic resources. Returning to the policies of Betancur, Pastrana opened negotiations with the FARC and ELN, offering the former a 40,000-square-kilometer demilitarized zone as an inducement to serious dialogue. The next year, his government proposed a Plan Colombia to achieve political peace and economic development. The United States significantly revised Plan Colombia to emphasize security concerns, enhancing the power of the military and potent antidrug initiatives, including the widespread use of defoliants on coca fields. After four years of frustrating and unsuccessful talks, Pastrana ordered the army to retake the zone.

The dissident Liberal Álvaro Uribe Vélez rode public sentiment in favor of a stronger position against guerrillas to victory in the 2002 presidential election. Though critics blasted his alleged relations with paramilitary organizations, Uribe fits well within the pattern of Colombian presidents assuming extraordinary powers with little regard to the niceties of civil power. Uribe has forged close relations with the government of U.S. president George W. Bush (2001–2009), which offered Colombia almost $4 billion in aid under Plan Colombia to combat "terrorism" and narcotraficantes. Considerable progress has been made in limiting drug trafficking, with Colombian cocaine production falling almost 40 percent from an estimated annual peak of 700 metric tons in 2001, the year Plan Colombia was initiated, to 430 metric tons in 2004. The amount of land dedicated to coca production, however, has not declined, despite energetic efforts on the part of the government. Although fighting between guerrilla, paramilitary, and state forces continues to ravage areas of the countryside, urban Colombia has been spared the violence it experienced in the 1980s. After the Congress changed the constitution allowing Uribe to run for a second term, 62 percent of the voting population preferred Uribe in the May 2006 presidential contest. In the electoral process, traditional Conservative and Liberal candidates fared very poorly, another indication of the changing political landscape

See alsoBanana Industry; Coffee Industry; Drugs and Drug Trade.


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                                        David Sowell

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