The History of Colombia has been characterized by the interaction of rival civilian elites. The political elite, which overlaps with social and economic elites, has shown a marked ability to retain the reins of power, effectively excluding other groups and social institutions, such as the masses and the military, from significant participation in or control over the political process. Members of the lower classes have found it difficult, although not impossible, to challenge or join the established elite in the political and economic spheres. Their subordination dates to the rigid colonial social hierarchy that placed the Spanish-born above the nativeborn . Elite control of the military is the result of the "civilian mystique" that developed along with Colombian independence. That mystique has successfully restricted the military to nonpolitical functions, with three exceptions--1830, 1854, and 1953. Thus Colombia has a history rare for Latin America in that the country has been dominated more by civilian than by military rule. Because military forces have been denied political power, the civilian elites have had only themselves, divided into rival groups, to contend with in the political arena.
Some analysts have divided the political elite along economic lines between the landed and the nonlanded. The agricultural export sector, the backbone of the Colombian economy, has supplied the two main economic groups that also have been the most powerful in the political sphere: the landed aristocracy, who are devoted to the large-scale production of agricultural crops, and the merchants, who are engaged in the trade of these export goods and imported consumer goods. Lesser economic groups, such as the emerging manufacturing sector, have allied themselves with one of the two dominant groups, most often the merchants. Differences within the allied groups on issues such as trade created factions within the alliances even before they officially became established political parties. In addition, the nation's economic development opened up new economic opportunities, and new forces increasingly expressed their views through the political factions.
Elite members of the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party alternately competed and cooperated with each other throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Often the nature of relations between the two parties depended on whether moderates or extremists dominated the ruling party. During the periods when moderate factions of both parties were in power, the parties were able to work together in coalitions; when extremist factions prevailed, however, conflict often resulted. During the competitive periods, one party usually sought to limit or eliminate the rival party's participation in the political process, attempts that often resulted in political violence. The most notorious of these periods were the War of a Thousand Days (1899-1902) and la violencia (1948-53). At the end of these civil wars, the elite inaugurated the cooperative governments of the Period of Reconciliation (1903- 30) and the National Front (1958-74), respectively, the former catalyzed by the Rafael Reyes presidency (1904-09) and the latter by the Gustavo Rojas Pinilla dictatorship (1953-57). The replacement of the discredited extremist factions by the more conciliatory moderate factions in each case made it possible for the two parties to share power and to achieve a consensus on what policies were appropriate for Colombian society at the time.
Although the elite dominated the masses, the different classes were bound to each other through personalistic patron-client relationships, especially in rural areas where peasants relied on the propertied upper class for access to the land they farmed. These patron-client relationships also tied the masses into the political system as the numerical votes or bodies mobilized and controlled by local political bosses. The affiliation adopted by the members of the lower classes was determined largely by the affiliation of their patrons and their families; these affiliations, as much for a party as against the opposing party, became what Robert H. Dix termed "inherited hatreds," elements of one's identity handed down from generation to generation. The emotional bond to the party carried individual members not only to the polls but also into violent conflict with adherents of the opposing party during those times when political conflict could not be controlled. In this way, the peasants and urban masses were recruited by the party elite to participate in the civil wars that riddled the nation's history.
Colombia's economic life has been based consistently on exports of primary goods, especially coffee. In the sixteenth century, the conquistadors and early colonialists, who often exploited Indian and slave labor, mined precious metals and gems for export to Spain under a mercantile system that inhibited the development of domestic industries. Throughout the preindependence and postindependence periods, agriculture on large landholdings, known as latifundios, became the predominant mode of production for export crops such as sugar and tobacco. By the 1860s, coffee had emerged as the key export crop. At the turn of the century, tariffs on coffee exports were the main source of government revenues, and profits from the coffee trade were the major source of investment in the newly emerging industrial sector that was beginning to produce basic consumer goods. Although the industrial sector grew sufficiently to induce urbanization and economic modernization in the first half of the twentieth century, industrial exports remained relatively minor compared with coffee, which in the late 1980s still accounted for almost 60 percent of all export earnings.
Economic modernization, supported by the coffee industry, became significant at the turn of the century. Modernization brought social changes and growing demands that produced various challenges to the dominant position of the traditional elite: the populist movements of the 1940s and 1970s, the military dictatorship of the 1950s, the rise of guerrilla activity in the 1960s through the 1980s, and the emergence of drug traffickers as a major economic and social element in the 1970s and 1980s. The increase in industrialization and the migration of peasants to the cities accelerated the rate of urbanization and the formation of urban working and lower classes. The heightened need for infrastructure, both within a given city and among urban areas, spurred the growing involvement of the state in the economy, especially during the reformist period in the 1930s and 1940s. By the 1980s, the state had become an important investor in and manager of strategic sectors of the economy, such as energy resources, transportation, and communications.
The emergence of the National Front marked a significant break in the traditional political and economic patterns in Colombian society. Interparty conflict receded and was replaced in the 1960s by leftist subversion, which continued through the 1980s. The illicit narcotics industry emerged in the 1970s as a dominant economic force, altering the structure of the national economy and disrupting existing social and political relations. The leadership in both parties proved unable to address inflation, unemployment, and a skewed distribution of income. The post-National Front Liberal tenure bequeathed a triple legacy to the incoming Conservative government in 1982: guerrilla activity, the corruptive drug trade, and an inequitable economy.
Approximately 10,000 years BC hunter-gatherer societies existed near present-day Bogotá (at El Abra and Tequendama), and they traded with one another and with cultures living in the Magdalena River valley. Beginning in the first millennium CE, groups of Amerindians developed a political system, the cacicazgo, a pyramidal power structure headed by a cacique. Within Colombia, the two cultures with the most complex cacicazgo systems were the Tayronas in the Caribbean region, and the Muiscas in the highlands near Bogotá, both of which belonged to the Chibcha language family. The Muisca people had one of the most developed political systems in South America, surpassed only by the Incas.
The Spanish settled along the north coast of today's Colombia as early as the 1500s, but their first permanent settlement, at Santa Marta, was not established until 1525. In 1549, the institution of the Audiencia in Santa Fe de Bogotá gave that city the status of capital of New Granada, comprised in large part of what is now territory of Colombia. In 1717 the Viceroyalty of New Granada was originally created, and then it was temporarily removed, to finally be reestablished in 1739. The Viceroyalty had Santa Fé de Bogotá as its capital. This Viceroyalty included some other provinces of northwestern South America which had previously been under the jurisdiction of the Viceroyalties of New Spain or Peru and correspond mainly to today's Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama. So, Bogotá became one of the principal administrative centers of the Spanish possessions in the New World, along with Lima and Mexico City, though it remained somewhat backward compared to those two cities in several economic and logistical ways.
The period between 1810 and 1816 was marked by intense conflicts over the nature of the new government or governments. Constant fighting between federalists and centralists gave rise to a period of instability, which came to be known as la Patria Boba (the Foolish Fatherland). Each province, and even some cities, set up its own autonomous juntas, which declared themselves sovereign from each other.
With the arrival of news in May 1810 that southern Spain had been conquered by Napoleon's forces, that the Spanish Supreme Central Junta had dissolved itself, declarations of independence in Quito (1809), Gran Colombia (1810), Venezuela and Paraguay (1811) and other territories, established their own governments . Cartagena de Indias established a junta on May 22, 1810, followed others, including the viceregal capital, Bogotá, on July 20 (today Colombia's Independence Day). Although the Bogotá junta called itself a "Supreme Junta of the New Kingdom of Granada," it failed to provide political unity, and battles broke out between cities and towns as each tried to defend its sovereignty. There were two fruitless attempts at establishing a congress of provinces in the subsequent months.
By March 1811 the province of Bogotá had transformed itself into a state called Cundinamarca. Cundinamarca convened a "Congress of the United Provinces," which first met in Bogotá, but later moved to Tunja and Leyva to maintain independence from the capital city. It established a confederation called the United Provinces of New Granada on November 27, 1811, but Cundinamarca did not recognize the new federation. The dispute over the form of government erupted into civil war by the end of 1812, and once again in 1814. By mid-1815 a large Spanish expeditionary force under Pablo Morillo had arrived in New Granada. Cartagena fell in December, and by May 1816 the royalists had control of all of New Granada.
From then on the long independence struggle, was led mainly by Bolívar and Francisco de Paula Santander in neighboring Venezuela. Bolívar returned to New Granada only in 1819 after establishing himself as leader of the pro-independence forces in the Venezuelan llanos. From there he lead an army over the Andes and captured New Granada after a quick campaign that ended at the Battle of Boyacá, on August 7, 1819. For more information, see Bolivar's War.
That year, the Congress of Angostura established the Republic of Gran Colombia, which included all territories under jurisdiction of the former Viceroyalty of New Granada. Bolívar was elected first, president of Gran Colombia and Santander, vice president.
As the Federation of Gran Colombia was dissolved in 1830, the Department of Cundinamarca (as established in Angostura) became a new country, the Republic of New Granada.
Two political parties grew out of conflicts between the followers of Bolívar and Santander and their political visions -- the Conservatives and the Liberals -- and have since dominated Colombian politics. Bolívar's supporters, who later formed the nucleus of the Conservative Party, sought strong centralized government, alliance with the Roman Catholic Church, and a limited franchise. Santander's followers, forerunners of the Liberals, wanted a decentralized government, state rather than church control over education and other civil matters, and a broadened suffrage.
Throughout the 19th century and early 20th century, each party held the presidency for roughly equal periods of time. Colombia maintained a tradition of civilian government and regular, free elections. The military has seized power three times in Colombia's history: in 1830, after the dissolution of Great Colombia; again in 1854 (by General José María Melo); and from 1953 to 1957 (under General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla). Civilian rule was restored within one year in the first two instances.
Notwithstanding the country's commitment to democratic institutions, Colombia's history has also been characterized by widespread, violent conflict. Two civil wars resulted from bitter rivalry between the Conservative and Liberal parties. Thousand Days War (1899-1902) cost an estimated 100,000 lives, and up to 300,000 people died during "La Violencia" (The Violence) of the late 1940s and 1950s, a bipartisan confrontation which erupted after the assassination of Liberal popular candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. United States activity to influence the area (especially the Panama Canal construction and control) led to a military uprising in the province of Panama in 1903, which resulted in the establishment of it as a nation.
A military coup in 1953 toppled the right-wing government of Conservative Laureano Gómez and brought General Gustavo Rojas to power. Initially, Rojas enjoyed considerable popular support, due largely to his success in reducing "La Violencia." When he did not restore democratic rule and occasionally engaged in open repression, however, he was overthrown by the military in 1957 with the backing of both political parties, and a provisional government was installed.
In July 1957, former Conservative President Laureano Gómez (1950-1953) and former Liberal President Alberto Lleras (1945-1946, 1958-1962) issued the "Declaration of Sitges," in which they proposed a "National Front," whereby the Liberal and Conservative parties would govern jointly. The presidency would be determined by an alternating conservative and liberal president every 4 years for 16 years; the two parties would have parity in all other elective offices.
The National Front ended "La Violencia", and National Front administrations attempted to institute far-reaching social and economic reforms in cooperation with the Alliance for Progress. In the end, the contradictions between each successive Liberal and Conservative administration made the results decidedly mixed. Despite the progress in certain sectors, many social and political injustices continued.
The National Front system itself eventually began to be seen as a form of political repression by dissidents and even many mainstream voters, especially after what was apparently later confirmed as the fraudulent election of Conservative candidate Misael Pastrana in 1970, which resulted in the defeat of the relatively populist candidate Gustavo Rojas. The M-19 guerrilla movement, "Movimiento 19 de Abril" (19th of April Movement), would eventually be founded in part as a response to this particular event.
Although the system established by the Sitges agreement was phased out by 1974, the 1886 Colombian constitution—in effect until 1991—required that the losing political party be given adequate and equitable participation in the government which, according to many observers and later analysis, eventually resulted in some increase in corruption and legal relaxation. The current 1991 constitution does not have that requirement, but subsequent administrations have tended to include members of opposition parties.
By 1974, another challenge to the state's authority and legitimacy had come from the 19th of April Movement (M-19), a mostly urban guerrilla group founded allegedly in response to an electoral fraud during the final National Front election of Misael Pastrana (1970 -1974) and the defeat of former dictator Gustavo Rojas. Initially, the M-19 attracted a degree of attention and sympathy from mainstream Colombians that the FARC and National Liberation Army (ELN) had found largely elusive earlier due to extravagant and daring operations, such as stealing a sword that had belonged to Colombia's Independence hero Simon Bolívar. At the same time, its larger profile soon made it the focus of the state's counterinsurgency efforts.
The ELN guerrilla had been seriously crippled by military operations in the region of Anorí by 1974, but it managed to reconstitute itself and escape destruction, in part due to the administration of Alfonso López Michelsen (1974-1978) allowing it to escape encirclement, hoping to initiate a peace process with the group.
By 1982, the perceived passivity of the FARC, together with the relative success of the government's efforts against the M-19 and ELN, enabled the administration of the Liberal Party's Julio César Turbay (1978-1982) to lift a state-of-siege decree that had been in effect, on and off, for most of the previous 30 years. Under the latest such decree, president Turbay had implemented security policies that, though of some military value against the M-19 in particular, were considered highly questionable both inside and outside Colombian circles due to numerous accusations of military human rights abuses against suspects and captured guerrillas.
Citizen exhaustion due to the conflict's newfound intensity led to the election of president Belisario Betancur (1982-1986), a Conservative who won 47% of the popular vote, directed peace feelers at all the insurgents, and negotiated a 1984 cease-fire with the FARC and M-19 after a 1982 release of many guerrillas imprisoned during the previous effort to overpower them. The ELN rejected entering any negotiation and continued to recover itself through the use of extortions and threats, in particular against foreign oil companies of European and U.S. origin.
As these events were developing, the growing illegal drug trade and its consequences were also increasingly becoming a matter of widespread importance to all participants in the Colombian conflict. Guerrillas and newly wealthy druglords had mutually uneven relations and thus numerous incidents occurred between them. Eventually the kidnapping of drug cartel family members by guerrillas led to the creation of the 1981 Muerte a Secuestradores (MAS) death squad ("Death to Kidnappers"). Pressure from the U.S. government and critical sectors of Colombian society was met with further violence, as the Medellín Cartel and its hitmen, bribed or murdered numerous public officials, politicians and others who stood in its way by supporting the implementation of extradition of Colombian nationals to the U.S. Victims of cartel violence included Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara, assassinated in 1984, an event which made the Betancur administration begin to directly oppose the druglords.
The first negotiated cease-fire with the M-19 ended when the guerrillas resumed fighting in 1985, claiming that the cease-fire had not been fully respected by official security forces, saying that several of its members had suffered threats and assaults, and also questioning the government's real willingness to implement any accords. The Betancur administration in turn questioned the M-19's actions and its commitment to the peace process, as it continued to advance high profile negotiations with the FARC, which led to the creation of the Patriotic Union (Colombia) (UP), a legal and non-clandestine political organization.
On November 61985, the M-19 stormed the Colombian Palace of Justice and held the Supreme Court magistrates hostage, intending to put president Betancur on trial. In the ensuing crossfire that followed the military's reaction, scores of people lost their lives, as did most of the guerrillas, including several high-ranking operatives. Both sides blamed each other for the outcome.
Meanwhile, individual FARC members initially joined the UP leadership in representation of the guerrilla command, though most of the guerrilla's chiefs and militiamen did not demobilize nor disarm, as that was not a requirement of the process at that point in time. Tension soon significantly increased, as both sides began to accuse each other of not respecting the cease-fire. Political violence against FARC and UP members (including presidential candidate Jaime Pardo) was blamed on druglords and also on members of the security forces (to a much lesser degree on the argued inaction of Betancur administration). Members of the government and security authorities increasingly accused the FARC of continuing to recruit guerrillas, as well as kidnapping, extorting and politically intimidating voters even as the UP was already participating in politics.
The Virgilio Barco (1986-1990) administration, in addition to continuing to handle the difficulties of the complex negotiations with the guerrillas, also inherited a particularly chaotic confrontation against the druglords, who were engaged in a campaign of terrorism and murder in response to government moves in favor of their extradition overseas. The UP also suffered an increasing number of losses during this term (including the assassination of presidential candidate Bernardo Jaramilla), which stemmed both from private proto-paramilitary organizations, increasingly powerful druglords and a number of would-be paramilitary-sympathizers within the armed forces.
The M-19 and several smaller guerrilla groups were successfully incorporated into a peace process as the 1980s ended and the 90s began, which culminated in the elections for a Constituent Assembly of Colombia that would write a new constitution, which took effect in 1991. The new Constitution, brought about a considerable number of institutional and legal reforms based on principles that the delegates considered as more modern, humanist, democratic and politically open than those existent under the previous 1886 constitution. Practical results were mixed and controversies emerged (such as the debate surrounding the constitutional prohibition of extradition, which later was reversed), but together with the reincorporation of some of the guerrilla groups to the legal political framework, the new Constitution inaugurated an era that was both a continuation and a gradual, but significant, departure from what had come before.
Contacts with the FARC, which had irregularly continued despite the generalized de facto interruptions of the ceasefire and the official 1987 break from negotiations, were temporarily cut off in 1990 under the presidency of César Gaviria (1990-1994). The Colombian Army's assault on the FARC's Casa Verde sanctuary at La Uribe, Meta, followed by a FARC offensive that sought to undermine the deliberations of the Constitutional Assembly, began to highlight a significant break in the uneven negotiations carried over from the previous decade.
President Ernesto Samper assumed office in August 1994. However, a political crisis relating to large-scale contributions from drug traffickers to Samper's presidential campaign diverted attention from governance programs, thus slowing, and in many cases, halting progress on the nation's domestic reform agenda. The military also suffered several setbacks in its fight against the guerrillas, when several of its rural bases began to be overrun and a record number of soldiers and officers were taken prisoner by the FARC (which since 1982 was attempting to implement a more "conventional" style of warfare, seeking to eventually defeat the military in the field).
On August 7, 1998, Andrés Pastrana was sworn in as the President of Colombia. A member of the Conservative Party, Pastrana defeated Liberal Party candidate Horacio Serpa in a run-off election marked by high voter turn-out and little political unrest. The new president's program was based on a commitment to bring about a peaceful resolution of Colombia's longstanding civil conflict and to cooperate fully with the United States to combat the trafficking of illegal drugs.
While early initiatives in the Colombian peace process gave reason for optimism, the Pastrana administration also has had to combat high unemployment and other economic problems, such as the fiscal deficit and the impact of global financial instability on Colombia. During his administration, unemployment has risen to over 20%. Additionally, the growing severity of countrywide guerrilla attacks by the FARC and ELN, and smaller movements, as well as the growth of drug production, corruption and the spread of even more violent paramilitary groups such as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) has made it difficult to solve the country's problems.
Although the FARC and ELN accepted participation in the peace process, they did not make explicit commitments to end the conflict. The FARC suspended talks in November 2000, to protest what it called "paramilitary terrorism" but returned to the negotiating table in February 2001, following 2 days of meetings between President Pastrana and FARC leader Manuel Marulanda. The Colombian Government and ELN in early 2001 continued discussions aimed at opening a formal peace process.
The main stated objectives of the original Plan Colombia were to promote peace, combat the narcotics industry, revive the Colombian economy, improve respect for human rights, and strengthen the democratic and social institutions of the country. Colombia planned to finance US$4 billion of the estimated US$7.5 billion overall cost, most of which would go towards the social portion of the project, but was ultimately unable to do so due to the state's 1997-1998 economic crisis.
The United States approved a US$1.3 billion assistance package, mostly of military and counternarcotics nature, but also including a small amount of social aid. The Colombian Government sought additional support from the IFIs, the European Union, and other countries, with the intention of financing the social component of the original plan, but met with little cooperation as the would-be donors considered that the U.S. approved aid represented an undue military slant and additionally lacked the will to spend such amounts of money.
After the eventual breakup of the peace negotiations, which had been stalled numerous times and finally ended due to a guerrilla kidnapping of a congressman and other political figures, the Caguán demilitarized zone was terminated by the Pastrana administration.
Soon after that, in May 2002, the former liberal politician of conservative leanings Álvaro Uribe, whose father had been killed by left-wing guerrillas, was sworn in as Colombian president. He immediately began taking action to crush the FARC, ELN, and AUC, including the employment of citizen informants to help the police and armed forces track down suspected members in all three armed groups.
In the fall of 2002, the administration released the much-awaited Colombian national security strategy, entitled Democratic Security and Defense Policy. The Plan would fit within the broader social, economic, and political goals of Plan Colombia. Though much attention has been focused on the security and military aspects of Colombia's situation, the administration also is spending significant time on issues such as expanding international trade, supporting alternate means of development, and reforming Colombia's judicial system.
Some critical observers consider that Uribe's policies, while admittedly reducing crime and guerrilla activity, might be too slanted in favor of a military solution to Colombia's internal war, neglecting grave social and human rights concerns to a certain extent. They ask for Uribe's government to change this position and make serious efforts towards improving the human rights situation inside the country, protecting civilians and reducing any abuses committed by the armed forces.
Uribe's supporters in turn believe that increased military action is a necessary prelude to any serious negotiation attempt with the guerrillas and that the increased security situation will help to, in the long term, focus more actively on reducing most wide-scale abuses and human rights violations on the part of both the armed groups and any rogue security forces that might have links to the paramilitaries. In short, that the security situation must be stabilized in favor of the government before any other social concerns can take precedence.
With such conflicting perspectives, it can be argued that a certain polarization between both supporters and opponents of President Uribe seems to be forming both inside and outside the country. Uribe was reelected in 2006 after a change in the constitution allowed presidents to be reelected.