Following Colombia's independence from Spain in 1819, the social structures of the former colony remained largely intact. A small number of predominantly white, locally born, upper-class landowners continued to dominate a majority of mestizo labourers, artisans, ranch workers, and peasant farmers. Much of the nineteenth century was characterized by regional and interest group struggles for supremacy, under the broad rubric of centralism versus federalism. By the mid-nineteenth century, Colombia's familiar two-party political structure had been established. The Conservative Party ( Partido Social Conservador) have traditionally favoured centralized, authoritarian government and Roman Catholicism, and has represented landed interests and been wary of political and economic reform. The Liberal Party ( Partido Liberal) has supported free trade, competition, secularism, and a federal system of government. Party affiliation has tended to be strongly regional and family based. This bipartisanship functioned reasonably well for many decades and did not spark the military coups that characterized politics in other parts of Latin America. Nonetheless, there was continual political violence and social unrest in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a result of regional, factional, and personal rivalries. In the 1940s, the two political parties established themselves as the institutional vehicles for local and class rivalries, and became effective means of mobilizing mass political participation, which sometimes spilled over into armed conflict. (See Politics)
For most observers, the roots of the current armed conflict and much of the violence in Colombia today stems from the transition from a Liberal to a Conservative hegemony in 1946. This sparked a period of civil unrest which exploded violently in 1948 and continued through the 1950s and 1960s (particularly 1948-1953): a period known as La Violencia. In this undeclared civil war, it is estimated that some 300,000 people were killed. A further 2 million people were uprooted by violence during this period. The left-wing Liberal uprising rallied around Liberal politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who, having failed to secure his party's nomination in the 1946 elections, ran as an independent candidate. With the Liberal Party votes divided, the Conservative Party returned to power.
But conflict and violence between extremist elements of the Conservative Party and left-leaning Liberals only intensified. There was already a good deal of tension and violence in many rural areas, such as the coffee-growing regions of Antioquia and Old Caldas. There was particular resentment about the large number of seasonal coffee-pickers being used - landless labourers who travelled from farm to farm supplementing existing labour supply. A significant population of rootless people continues to be a feature of rural Colombia today. The various armed groups, whether Conservative pájaros, Liberal guerrillas, or Communist comandantes, recruited members from these unstable groups and from the rapidly growing slums of the cities. Discussion and debate about the causes and consequences of this period in Colombian history continue to this day.
As the revolutionary armed guerrilla groups emerged in the 1960s, violence between Conservatives and Liberals was brought to an end through the establishment of a so-called National Front pact. This was essentially a pact between the two parties, in which they agreed to share power exclusively amongst themselves. Thereafter the party officially in power was simply the one that happened to be taking its turn in office, and government positions were assigned evenly between the Liberal and Conservative parties. The absence of legal channels for opposition parties or civil society as a whole served to fuel the armed insurrection. Although the National Front officially came to an end in 1974, there continued to be an understanding until 1986 that the losing side would be given a share of power. Indeed, even today many perceive an unofficial continuance of this system, at least at some level.
- Colombia Human Rights Network
- Chronology of recent Colombian history: http://www.igc.org/colhrnet/timeline.htm
The Republic of Colombia is a constitutional, multi-party democracy. It has a democratically elected representative system of government. Two political parties dominate - the Conservatives and the Liberals - and one or the other has always held power. (See Historical background)
Presidential elections are held every four years and are limited to a single term in office. The legislature is a two-chamber Congress consisting of one house of nationally-elected senators and one of regionally-elected representatives. Congressional elections are also held every four years. The distribution of power in Congress is in the hands of the two traditional parties. Currently the president is Alvaro Uribe of the Liberal Party, who was elected in February 2002.
Both parties have always been multi-class institutions, and both have been dominated by local politicians, whether merchants, landowners, or professionals. Traditionally, the Liberal Party has tended to have more support in urban areas while the Conservative Party has a stronger support base in the countryside, with regional differences. However, with increased urbanization and social dislocation in recent decades, these distinctions have become much less relevant.
Colombia's current Constitution, approved in 1991, introduced important and progressive reforms, including curbing powers of the executive, providing legal guarantees for individuals and minorities, and curtailing the military's power in issues of public order. All political offices were made subject to elections and the two main parties' stranglehold on power was loosened.
- Colombian President's Office http://www.presidencia.gov.co/
Colombia has a diverse ethnic make-up with peoples of indigenous Indian, Spanish, and African origins. Some 60 per cent of the population is classified as mestizo (mixed race), 20 per cent of European origin ,and 18 per cent of African origin. About 2 per cent of the population are classified as originating from one of the indigenous communities. The indigenous population has declined dramatically since the Spanish Conquest through a combination of war, disease, ill-treatment, and intermarriage. Currently, there are some eighty-two distinct ethnic groups in Colombia, numbering some 800,000 people in total. The only groups of highland Indians remaining in substantial numbers are the Páez and Guambiano Indians in the region of Cauca and Nariño, south of Cali. Other Indian regions include the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the Gaujira peninsula.
Most of Colombia's black population lives on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. Many of these are descendants of slaves originally brought from Africa to work in the mines. Many escaped slavery to form free communities, although others were not freed until slavery was abolished in 1851. There are approximately 2 million black people in Colombia. Despite their constitutional protection, they have increasingly been forced further into the mountains by the slash and burn methods employed by colonos (colonizers), as well as by the activities of those exploring for oil and minerals.
Colombia's official language is Spanish, but many indigenous languages are also spoken. The principal religion is Roman Catholic although there are also large numbers of Protestant evangelicals.
Geography, society, and economy
Colombia is the fourth largest country in Latin America and has the third highest population, at some 41 million. It has a GDP of about US$90 billion. Colombia has a large and relatively stable economy. It was the only country in Latin America to experience continuous economic growth during the 1980s. However, in recent years Colombia has been enduring a deep and prolonged recession. It has experienced massive urbanization in recent decades, and some 75 per cent of the country's population currently live in urban areas. The capital, Bogotá, has a population of around 6 million (1996), and is politically and culturally the most important city in the country. It has expanded dramatically in recent decades as a consequence of migration, both economic and forced. Lawless shanty towns have sprawled upwards and outwards on the slopes surrounding Bogotá, and comprise some three-quarters of the city's population. All this has been damaging environmentally, destroying the trees and severely polluting the river.
Colombia's landscape and climate vary greatly from region to region. The country is heavily defined by three roughly parallel mountain ranges: the western, central, and eastern cordilleras of the Andes. This geography has made regionalism a powerful force in Colombia. A number of cities have grown into important focal points for the region surrounding them. Many displaced people eventually end up in these cities. This is particularly the case in Bogotá as well as Medellín, the country's second largest city, located high in the Antioquia mountains.
Colombia has substantial oil reserves and is also a major producer of gold, silver, emeralds, platinum, and coal. Its other main exports are coffee, bananas, cut flowers, chemicals, cotton products, sugar, and livestock. Most of the coffee crop is grown in the temperate valleys around the centre of the cordilleras. The valley of the Cauca in the south-west of the country is one of its richest agricultural and sugar-producing regions. The tropical Caribbean coastal region is mainly used for cattle ranching, with banana production dominating Urabá in the north-west. To the east of the cordilleras, the llanos provide the main oil-producing region. The massive jungle areas to the south became economically important with the emergence of the cocaine trade.
Health care has improved in recent decades but the differences between urban and rural areas are marked. Rural areas suffer from a lack of sanitation, access to safe water, and basic health care, and an incapacity to deal with diseases endemic in some areas, such as cerebral malaria and leishmaniasis.
Infant mortality rates have fallen from 74 per 1,000 live births in 1970 to 24 per 1,000 live births in 1997. The average number of children born per woman fell from 5.3 to 2.8 during the same time period. Average life expectancy in 1990 was 70 years compared with 57 years in 1960, and over 40 per cent of the population is under 18 years of age. However, life expectancy is significantly affected by violence. In 1995, 92 per cent of violent deaths were among males and the life expectancy of men was only 66 years compared with 72 years for women (EIU 2001a) .
Over 90 per cent of the population is literate, and in 1997 Colombians had received an average of seven years of schooling. However, there are large differences between urban and rural areas. In the countryside only three-quarters of children receive primary education and only a third any secondary education. In 1995 some 42 per cent of the country's children did not attend school after the age of 10.
- Colombia Background Note, April 2002, US Department of State http://www.state.gov/r/pa/bgn/index.cfm?docid=1831
- CIA World Factbook 2002 http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/co.html
- Country Overview, Project Counselling Service http://www.infotext.org/pcs/country/index.htm