The Constitutional history of Colombia is the process of formation and evolution of the different constitutions that Colombia has had since its formation.
The indigenous nations that inhabited the present territory of Colombia did not have written registries, therefore there is no evidence of constitutions prior to the arrival of the Spaniards in the territory.
During the Colonial times, the Spaniards were supposed to behave according to the Laws of Burgos of 1512 that defined the rights of the indigenous people but most importantly legalised the right of the Spaniards over them. These were replaced by the New Laws of Indies of 1542. The Spanish Royal Crown tried to enforce these laws but revolts by the Spaniards benefitting from the natives forced Charles V to suppress them in 1545..
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, translated and published by Antonio Nariño in 1794 and distributed in Santa Fe de Bogotá, could be considered the first draft of a political constitution in the New World. At present, the modern version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights conforms the central part of the political constitutions of many countries. The Constitution of Canada, for example, is quite short and is almost limited to the human rights and basic freedoms. Those rights and liberties were not an integral part of the initial Colombian constitutions, but some of those were slowly introduced until they were definitively and explicitly included in the Constitution of 1991.
The first written constitution as such with jurisdiction in Colombia was the Spanish Constitution of 1808. The Spanish Constitution of 1812 also had theoretical jurisdiction during the Reconquista of the Spanish America until Independence in 1819.
During the colonial time, the Catholic Church was the most powerful institution after the Spanish Royal Crown. The Church had control over the press, education, alphabetisation and access to professions. It was the decisive authority in matters of public and private morality and the government would turn to it to obtain civil servants when lay men were not available.
During Independence, and after, the Church was losing its influence, but it continued being a decisive part in the decision making. In particular, the federalists wanted to conform a constitution without clerical influence, whereas the centralists leaned towards the Church not only to preserve the faith but as a political means. It is important to mention that the minimum geographic area able to send voters to the congresses were the parishes, a clerical term used to talk about most of the towns and municipalities. In larger urban areas there could be several parishes.
In 1809, before the events of the Flower vase of Llorente (Florero de Llorente) took place, the Town hall of Santafé reckoned advisable to send a "Representation" to the Supreme Central Board of Spain located in Seville. It commissioned Camilo Torres and Tenorio to draft the famous document known in Colombian history with the name Memorandum of Offenses. For reasons that are unknown, the Town hall did not accept this document. Jose Maria Cárdenas, descendant of Camilo Torres, commented that "the Town hall was intimidated when shown the Representation project and decided to archive it". Right after the July 20 political events, the Town hall thought once more about printing it but difficulties at the moment prevented it. It was kept unpublished for six years, until 1832.
Socorro was the capital of the province of Santander at the time, where 30 years before the second Revolt of the Comuneros took place.
The Constituent Electoral College of the State of Cundinamarca can be considered simultaneously the first Constituent National Assembly and Congress. It met in Santa Fe de Bogotá in March 1811and, with many difficulties due to disagreements between centralists and federalists, promulgated the first constitution with national scope: the Constitution of the state of Cundinamarca on April 4, 1811. The document was inspired on the constitution of the United States of North America. This assembly-congress appointed the second Chief of State, Jorge Tadeo Lozano for a period of three years. However, because of internal pressures and frays, the assembly-congress forced him to resign on September 19, 1811 and chose Antonio Nariño instead.
The second Sunday of October 1811 they held the first elections in Tunja. For each 2000 inhabitants there was a representing elector; and one for each municipality even if it did not have a population of this size. Any man 20 years old or older or anybody 15 or older and with 'a modest occupation' could vote. The first name for the republic was established officially on November 27: United Provinces of the New Granada .
Constituent Electoral College of the State of Cundinamarca elected Pedro Groot as first president on December 23, and the following day Antonio Nariño as temporary president. In the meeting of October 4, 1812, the United Provinces elected Camilo Torres y Tenorio as president (position he exerted until October 5, 1814) and declared the union federalist in opposition to centralism. Simón Bolivar and Antonio Nariño were in favor of Centralism that was becoming more popular in Santa Fe de Bogotá. This difference threw the United Provinces into an armed confrontation at the end of 1812, and a second one, without Nariño, in 1814 .
Federalists (partisans of Santander, who saw centralism as a restriction of freedom) would later evolve into the Liberal Party of Colombia. Centralists (partisans of Nariño and Bolivar, who wanted to see the nation centralized) would evolve into the Colombian Conservative Party.
Once Ferdinand VII recovered from the Peninsular War, the royal forces led by Pablo Morillo defeated the independentist forces. In August, September and October 1816 Morillo executed most constitutional leaders, including Camilo Torres, and restored the Royal Hearing in Santa Fe de Bogotá in March 1817 .
Nariño had been arrested in Pasto in May 1814 and imprisoned in Spain. He remained so until 1821.
Although in 1819 some large areas were still under Spanish control, the urge for independence reactivated the constitutional climate. On February 15, 1819, six months before the Battle of Boyacá, representatives of Venezuela (now Venezuela), New Granada (now Colombia and Panama) and Quito (now Ecuador) met in Angostura, Venezuela. This meeting, historically called Congress of Angostura worked on the development of a "Fundamental Law" (constitution). Representatives from Quito were few since the province was still under Spanish control.
These were the decisions taken initially:
At the end of the sessions the Congress decided that it would meet again in Cúcuta, in January 1821, in order to publish the new constitution.
During his six years in captivity, Antonio Nariño had drafted a constitution project. After The Precursor was released in Spain on March 23, 1820 he presented his constitution in Cúcuta, but he did not get much attention.
The Battle of Carabobo, on June 24, 1821, officially brought independence to Venezuela and on July 18 the congress restarted with greater impetus in Cúcuta to include the regions recently liberated: Caracas, Cartagena, Popayán and Santa Marta.
The Constitution of Cúcuta was proclaimed on August 30, 1821 and published on July 12. This has been considered the first Constitution of Colombia that was effective during the Gran Colombia until its dissolution in 1831. It consisted of 10 chapters and 91 articles, but the most important points are:
On May 24, 1822 the province of Quito sealed its independence in the Battle of Pichincha; and on December 9, 1824 the Battle of Ayacucho sealed Peru's (what today is Peru and Bolivia). Peru and Bolivia never comprised the Gran Colombia but they share with Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia the title of Bolivarian Countries being republics liberated by Simón Bolivar to whom the congress bestowed the title of Libertador and was considered the first official president of each one of them.
The members of the army had been allowed to vote in the elections since the constitution of Cúcuta in special as a recognition to the effort made in the liberating campaigns. In 1827 the congress decided to reduce that right and made a constitutional change to exclude the ranks below sergeants, since excluding higher ranks was very bold.
In April 1828 the representatives of the municipalities (parishes) met in Ocaña to choose the constituent congress that would reform the constitution of Cúcuta. The Santanderists (federalists) obtained a great representation. The displeasure of the Bolivarians was such, that they decided to leave the deliberations, thus not allowing the quorum to be obtained. This incapacity to exert the democracy and solve the conflicts with dialogue, negotiation and vote, deciding on abandonment instead, was a behavior that the traditional parties would maintain during XIX and XX centuries and would generate violence. Nevertheless the members in the elections of July 1, 1828 were appointed.
Bolivar was eager to see the Great Colombia united and decided to impose his will in a dictatorial fashion as a last resort. In August 1828, he presented a constitution in which he included Peru and Bolivia (by then, Bolivia had already separated from Peru), with a strong central government and a presidency for life in which the president could have the faculty to appoint his successor. That was the final spark that set afire the Santanderistas because they saw in that proposal a backward movement towards monarchy and reached the point of trying to assassinate the liberator in September 25. Additionally, the Venezuelan leaders saw Bolivar's intentions with enough distrust and in November 1829 they decided to separate from the Great Colombia. They let this know in the convention of January. Bolivar finally resigned to his position during the constitutional convention in January 1830 held in Bogotá (also called the Admirable Congress), additionally, he started to feel ill.
The Inhabitants of Quito, knowing that Venezuela had separated and that Bolivar retired completely, decided to separate as well. Thus the Great Colombia vanished after 11 years of existence.
The displeasure of the military and liberal groups was accentuated and entailed General Rafael Urdaneta's dictatorship. Finally in December 1830 Simón Bolivar the liberator died.
This reform eliminated the free press, gave the monopoly of education to the Catholic Church and allowed the Jesuits, who had been expelled, to return.
Between 1849 and 1853 the number of provinces, now renamed departments, increased from 22 to 36.
Elections to choose the solicitor and the Supreme Court of Justice took place in September 1853. In October 3, 1853 the governor of Bogotá was chosen counting the votes by parochial district.
During 1848 and 1849 the traditional parties, Liberal and Conservative finally coined their names. Their ideological differences became solid and the emphasis on personal characters waned.
As of 1849, during the government of General Jose Hilario Lopez the country had a strong political and economic transformation because the colonial structure started shifting towards Capitalism.
The Vice-presidency was abolished and it was replaced with one designate appointed by the congress. The president and the senators would be elected for a period of 4 years and the camera for 2.
In 1859 an electoral law conferred the president of the confederation the power to replace state presidents and to take part in questions of public order, and conferred the congress the faculty to judge the elections of the states.
The congress approved on February 3, 1863 the name United States of Colombia for the country.
It liberalized the social and economic policies, proclaiming the freedom to express one's ideas orally or in written, freedom to work or to organize any business, freedom of press, freedom to travel through the territory, to enter or to leave it, freedom of education, freedom of cult, freedom of association, freedom to have arms and ammunition, and to deal with them.
It established a federal system with a central presidency (presidency of the union) weak for two years and without the possibility of immediate re-election. The election of the president of the union was indirect: each one of the nine states (Panama, Antioquia, Magdalena, Bolivar, Santander, Boyacá, Cundinamarca, Tolima and the Cauca) would choose their candidates following particular electoral procedures for each state; then, each one of the nine states would deposite a vote to elect the president of the union. The winning candidate was that who had the absolute majority of votes, if the absolute majority was not obtained, the congress would be the one to choose him from the same group of candidates.
Under this decentralized regime, regionalistic feelings reached their ultimate expression.
On May 12, four days after having proclaimed the constitution, the 61 delegates chose Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera to govern for two years until April 1, 1864, moment at which the new regulations to name president would start. Mosquera had the anticlerical tone of liberalism and the conservatives the pro clerical tone that would continue for many decades.
The coalition of moderate Liberals and Conservatives that ended the liberal hegemony and placed Rafael Núñez in power, repealed the Constitution of Rionegro with the constitution of 1886. From now on, the country was called officially Republic of Colombia.
The Constituent Assembly was conformed by 18 delegates, two from each of the nine states.
Rafael Núñez announced a national Regeneration program and changed the country from a decentralized federal system to a centralized system with a strong central presidency. The presidential period changed from two to six years. The president of the Republic was elected by the Congress. The president of the state was appointed governor who from that moment on was appointed by the president of the Republic. The governor would choose the mayors of his department, except the mayor of Bogotá who was chosen by the president himself. Thus the president in turn had the monopoly of the executive at all levels.
In addition, the re-election of the president in immediate periods was authorized.
The chamber, the departmental assemblies and the municipal counsils were chosen by popular vote. The Senate was chosen by the departmental assemblies. The suffrage for elections in the national scope was limited the greater men of 21 than they knew to read and to write. The restriction of knowing how to read and to write did not apply in the regional elections.
The figure of the vice-president recreated who was initially occupied by Eliseo Payán.
The catholic religion became the official religion. In 1887 president Núñez settled down a concordato with Santa Sede who gave to the Catholic church the powers him and privileges who was lost in the previous constitution.
The constitution of 1886 remained effective by more than one hundred years guiding the mandate of twenty-three presidents of the Republic.
This continuous method of implementing constitutional changes based on the partisan wind of the moment, without having to be the result of the agreements of the different national forces was one of the causes of bipartisan polarization and violence. The population followed the patterns of conflict of the parties and began to identify themselves more with the party concept than with the nation concept. The ultraliberal ones never gave up to the loss of the power and in three occasions, from 1885 to 1895, they tried to gain it by force. It took 44 years (up to 1930) for the liberal party to regain power.
On November 3, 1903 Panama separated from Colombia with support from the United States. On November 6 United States recognized the sovereignty of Panama. On November 11 United States informed Colombia they would oppose Colombian troops trying to recover Panama. The War of the Thousand Days had left Colombia too weak to impede the separation. On November 18 United States signed theHay-Bunau-Varilla agreement with Panama for the construction of the channel.
The Assembly suppressed the vice-presidency, two of the designaturas and the Council of State. It also defined that the magistrates of the Supreme Court of Justice would be for life, recognized the right of representation of minorities and the possibility to reform the Constitution by means of the National Assembly.
The National Assembly demonstrated its support to the government with dictatorial character when it established a presidential period of 10 years only for General Reyes (from January 1 of 1905 to January 31 of 1914) with the possibility to appoint a successor. In case the president were another person the period would be for four years However General Reyes quit in 1909.
Ramon González summoned a National Assembly in 1910 (elected through the municipal counsils) to reform the Constitution of 1886, which started sessioning on May 15 and informed the results from May 25 onwards. This important reform, inspired by the members of the Republican Union (that actually were a third party with bipartisan principles of free elections and religious tolerance), banned the participation of the military in politics, established the direct popular election of the president of the republic, departmental assemblies and municipal council; it reduced the presidential period from 6 to 4 years, prohibited the immediate re-election of presidents, eliminated the figure of the vice-president and replaced it by one appointee that would be chosen by the congress; it established the system of proportions for the appointment of the members of public corporations according to the votes obtained, assuring a minimum of one third for what then was called the minority party: the opposite party; it granted the congress the faculty to choose the magistrates of the Supreme Court of Justice, consecrated the constitutional control to the Supreme Court of Justice and the diffuse control by the judicial route. So with these reforms the presidential powers were reduced.
Before this reform, the president was chosen by intermediation of the electoral schools that represented the electoral districts, and the president who won the elections had the control to ensure the power for the following period.
This reform kept the conditions for voting. These were: to know how to read and write, to have an annual rent of at least 300 pesos or to have real estate by a nonsmaller value of 1,000 pesos.
The president kept the power to name governors who in turn would appoint mayors, corregidores, administrators, directors of post offices, heads of jails, managers of banks, and some others. The Colombian society continued accepting this as something natural.
It was not until August 27, 1932, during the government of Olaya Herrera that the number of positions in the congress was regulated with the law no. 7. This number would be proportional to the number of votes obtained by each list. Nevertheless, guaranteeing one third part for the opposition had indirect undesired effects for promoting democracy. During the conservative governments, the liberal party got accustomed to leaving the electoral process as a means of protest in several cases knowingly that in any case it would obtain one third of the positions in congress, even in one occasion not even the third part was accepted.
Finally, to begin the period of transition, the Constituent National Assembly made an exception in the popular election of presidents and chose the first president of the Republican Union Carlos Eugene Restrepo on July 15 by voting, and also it chose the first and second designates.
Women were granted the right to occupy most of the public positions, although they were not considered citizens for effects of suffrage, because they had already begun to attended University; and the control of the Catholic Church over education started to wane.
Three attempts to recognize the right of voting for women had failed before: First in 1934 during the government of Alfonso Lopez Pumarejo where a law project was presented to the congress which did not approve, neither in the constitutional reform of that year. The second was the proposal presented by liberal Alberto Lleras Camargoin 1944 but it was postponed under the excuse that this regulation would not be approved before 1948. The third was the proposal presented by the liberal Alfonso Romero Aguirre in 1948 which was supported but implemented in a gradual fashion, which in reality was another postponement.
The plebiscite of December 1, 1957, approved, with almost 94% of votes the constitutional reform for the parity in Public Corporations between both traditional parties, the Liberal and the Conservative, for a term of 12 years and determined that the elections for President of the Republic, Congress, Departmental Assemblies, and Municipal Councils would take place during the first semester of 1958.
With the purpose of regulating the electoral competition between parties, the reforms eliminated the distribution by halves for departmental assemblies and municipal councils, because it was already stipulated that the one for the congress would end in 1974. They also included some measures to recognize minority parties. In some other areas of the constitution the required reforms were postponed, in some cases indefinitely, as it was the case with the ordinal one of the article 120 of the Constitution in which "the right and fair participation of the second party in votation" that limited the participation of the minority parties and therefore the citizen participation remained. It established that later reforms to the constitution could be made by the congress, as long as the reform was approved by the absolute majority (two thirds) of all the members of the Senate and the Camera voting in two consecutive ordinary legislative sessions.
The Constitution of 1991 is also called the Constitution of the Rights, inasmuch as it recognizes and it consecrates not only the fundamental rights, (the same classic rights the French Revolution for which Antonio Nariño had fought about 200 years), but also the economic and social rights of the Social State of Right, consecrated in the 1st article of the Constitution and the so called third generation of rights of collective character, from which important ones are, among others, the public morality, a free market and the Environmental justice. In addition it creates the necessary mechanisms to ensure and protect those rights.
A student movement conformed in 1989, summoned in 1990 a Constituent National Assembly elected by direct popular vote, which promulgated in Bogotá one year later the Colombian Constitution of 1991. The denomination "República of Colombia" remained.
During the peace negotiation process with different rebel groups during mandate of president Virgilio Barco Vargas, the guerrilla detachment M-19 had insisted that one of the main requirements to lay down arms was the creation of a Constituent National Assembly in order to modify the constitution which until then did not guarantee the creation and development of other political parties different from the two traditional ones, nor gave representation to the minorities.
Before the refusal of the government to make a popular consultation to authorize the constitutional change including an option in the ballots for president. The students, in particular those of the universities, decided to make a national level movement so that the population at the polls included a 'Seventh Paper Ballot ordering the executive to conforme a Constituent National Assembly. More than 50% of the voters included the "Seventh Paper Ballot" with which the president in turn, Cesar Gaviria Trujillo, was himself forced to fulfill the popular mandate by the Supreme Court. Thus it was possible not only to obtain a constitutional change, but also that the guerrilla detachment M-19 laid arms and were integrated into the political national life, and that the indigenous communities had guaranteed representation in the Congress.
Being Uribe and Gaviria from independent parties, this is, different from the traditional Liberal and Conservative ones, highlights an important era of ideological transformation in the history of Colombia, even to the point that some mass media announced that bipartisanism had been hurt of death.
It is also evident the maturity that the electoral process had reached, which had earned the confidence of the population and opponent parties. The speed in the delivery of the electoral data from the National Registration Office stood out as well, as even Colombians abroad listening Colombian internet radio stations knew less than two hours before the ballot boxes had closed the results of 85% of the ballots.