Long before the arrival of the first Spanish explorers, Indian groups had settled in the area of present-day Colombia. The Mesoamericans (Indians originally inhabiting Central America), who arrived in approximately 1200 B.C., introduced the cultivation of corn. They were followed by a second wave of Mesoamericans in 500 B.C. Artifacts from a number of distinct cultures, such as those in the areas around San Agustín (in present-day Huila Department), Tierra Dentro (Cauca Department), and Tumaco (Nariño Department), are believed to date from this period. Between 400 and 300 B.C., the Chibchas traveled from Nicaragua and Honduras and reached Colombia, shortly before the Arawaks arrived from other parts of South America, such as Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Near the end of the first millennium A.D., the Caribs migrated from the Caribbean islands. These warlike newcomers supplanted the Chibchas in the lowlands and forced them to move to higher elevations.
By the 1500s, the most advanced of the indigenous peoples were the Chibchas, who were divided into two principal tribes: the Muisca, located in the plateaus of Cundinamarca and Boyacá, and the Tairona, who settled along the northern spur of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (in present-day La Guajira Department). The Muisca were the more prominent of the two groups and based their economy on agriculture, especially the cultivation of corn and potatoes. The Muisca centered their social organization on the cacicazgo, a hereditary form of leadership following matrilineal succession. Two large Muisca confederations existed at the time of the Spanish conquest: Bacatá/Bogotá and Hunsa/Tunja. A chieftain known as a zipa headed Bacatá/Bogotá, whereas a zaque governed Hunsa/Tunja.
The Tairona formed two groups, one in the Caribbean lowlands and the other in the Andean highlands. The lowlands Tairona fished and produced salt, which they traded for cotton cloth and blankets with their counterparts in the highlands. The Tairona of both groups lived in numerous, well-organized towns connected by stone roads.
The group of Spaniards that first came to the New World consisted of conquistadors, administrators, and Roman Catholic clergy. The adventurous conquistadors were risk-taking entrepreneurs, financing their own expeditions in the expectation of being able to get rich quick. The administrators were appointed by and represented the crown in the colonies and sought to maintain the New World colonies as a source of wealth and prestige for the Spanish Empire. The clergy sought to save the souls of the native Indians, and in the process they acquired land and wealth for the church. The conquistadors, who felt they owed nothing to the crown, often came into conflict with the latter’s attempts to centralize and strengthen its authority over the colonies.
In what became present-day Colombia, the conquistadors explored and began to settle the coastal areas. The first explorers to round the coast of the Guajira Peninsula and enter Colombian territory were Alonso de Ojeda in 1499 and Rodrigo de Bastidas in 1500. In 1510 Ojeda founded Santa María la Antigua de Darién (present-day Acandí) on the western side of the Golfo de Urabá. Bastidas established Santa Marta in 1525. In 1533 another explorer, Pedro de Heredia, organized Cartagena after pacifying the Indians in the area. These coastal cities served as havens from Indian attacks and as bases for exploratory expeditions into the interior. In addition, Cartagena linked the colonies with the motherland and became a focal point of intercontinental travel.
Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, Nikolaus Federmann, and Sebastián de Belalcázar figured prominently in the exploration of the interior. In 1536 Jiménez de Quesada set out in search of a path to Peru. During the course of his journey, he encountered the Muisca in the Sabana de Bogotá and in 1538 founded the city of Santa Fe de Bogotá (present-day Bogotá)–the eventual power center for the colony of New Granada. Federmann explored the eastern plains, crossed the Cordillera Oriental, and arrived at Bogotá in 1539. Traveling northward from Peru, Belalcázar established the cities of Popayán and Santiago de Cali
(present-day Cali). Other members of his group traveled northward and founded Cartago and Anserma. In 1539 Belalcázar arrived in Bogotá, where the three conquistadors negotiated the division of the newly explored territory.
The expeditions that these men led provided the basis for the settlement of the highlands interior that played a significant role in the future life of the colony. To an even greater extent than in Peru and New Spain (present-day Mexico), many of the population centers established during the conquest were located in remote intermontane valleys and plateaus. This contributed to New Granada’s becoming one of the most isolated of all the colonies of the Spanish Empire in the New World.
Colonial society relied on "purity of blood" as a basis for stratification. The elites at the top of the social pyramid were peninsulares, persons of Spanish descent born in Spain. Peninsulares held political power and social prestige in the society. Below them were the criollos, those of Spanish descent born in the colonies. This group had limited access to the higher circles of power and status. For generations the criollos accepted a position of inferiority to the peninsulares, but in the late eighteenth century their acquiescence was transformed into a resentment that ultimately led to their fight for independence. Next in importance and the most numerous were the mestizos, persons of mixed Spanish and Indian descent who were free but relegated to positions of low prestige. Most Indians gradually became absorbed linguistically or lost their identity through mixture with other peoples; by the late 1980s, Indians constituted only 1 percent of the Colombian population. Black African slaves and zambos, persons of mixed African and Indian descent, were at the bottom of the social
scale and were important only as a source of labor.
The administrative structure paralleled the social pyramid in that peninsulares appointed by the crown generally controlled the higher jurisdictional levels, and criollos could compete only for the lower posts. Two councils in Spain presided over the colonies. The House of Trade (Casa de Contratación) controlled all overseas trade. The Supreme Council of the Indies (Consejo Supremo de las Indias) centralized the administration of the colonies and had legislative, executive, and judicial functions. As the king delegated increasingly more authority to this council, it effectively became the ruler of the colonies.
The viceroyalty, headed by a viceroy, was the highest authority in the colonies. The next level of jurisdiction was the audiencia, a regional court consisting of various judges and a president. The Real Audiencia de Santa Fe, which presided over present-day Colombia, was instituted in 1550. The audiencia had jurisdiction over the governorships, which in turn controlled the cities. Governors, appointed by the crown, had administrative and judicial functions and, in areas considered dangerous, military duties. Cities, the lowest jurisdictional level, were run by city councils, or cabildos.
Cabildos initially were elected by popular vote, but later seats were sold by the crown, and positions on the council thus lost their democratic character. Despite their low position on the administrative pyramid, cabildos had the greatest impact on the day-to-day lives of citizens in the local municipalities.
The cabildos became the first effective agency of civil government, regularizing the processes of government and tempering the authority of the governor, even though their membership was composed of his subordinates. They included a varying number of magistrates or aldermen, depending on the size of the community, and two mayors. The mayors on the cabildo were elected annually and initially acted as judges in courts of first instance with criminal and civil jurisdiction. Appeals from their decisions could be taken to the local governor or to a person functioning as his deputy and finally to the royal court of jurisdiction. During times of crisis, the town citizens of importance might be invited to sit with the cabildo in what was called the open council. By increasing criollo participation in government, the open council contributed to the movement leading to the war for independence.
The royal courts in the colonies, unlike their counterparts in Spain, performed administrative and political as well as judicial functions. The courts were empowered to limit the arbitrary use of power by the viceroy or any subordinate official in the New World. Major courts existed in the higher jurisdictions, such as the viceroyalty; subordinate courts existed at lesser administrative levels. Under the Supreme Council of the Indies, the viceroys, as the direct representatives of the sovereign, exercised royal authority in all civil and military affairs, in the secular aspects of church affairs, and in the supervision of the administration of justice. Subject to the overall supervision of peninsular authorities, the executive officers also exercised a degree of legislative power.
Two additional governmental practices designed to oversee the colonial authorities were the residencia (public judicial inquiry) and the visita (secret investigation). The residencia was performed at the end of an official’s term of office by a judge who went to the chief seat of the jurisdiction of the official in question to hear anyone who wished to make charges or to offer testimony concerning the official’s performance in office. The visita could take place at any time without warning during an official’s tenure and was performed by an inspector who might, in the performance of his task, sit with a court in public hearings.
The Spanish system encompassing the audiencia was extractive and exploitative, relying heavily on cheap native labor. Domestic industry was constrained during the colonial period because the audiencia was bound to Spain as part of a mercantile system. Under this arrangement, the colony functioned as the source of primary materials and the consumer of manufactured goods, a trade pattern that tended to enrich the metropolitan power at the expense of the colony.
Because Spaniards came to the New World in search of quick riches in the form of precious metals and jewels, mining for these items became the pillar of the economy for much of the colonial period. Indeed, the extraction of precious metals–such as gold and copper–in the American colonies formed the basis of the crown’s economy.
Spain monopolized trade with the colonies. The crown limited authorization for intercontinental trade to Veracruz (in presentday Mexico), Nombre de Dios (in present-day Panama), and Cartagena. Direct trade with other colonies was prohibited; as a result, items from one colony had to be sent to Spain for reshipment to another colony. The crown also established the routes of transport and the number of ships allowed to trade in the colonies. Merchants involved in intercontinental trade had to be Spanish nationals. Finally, the crown circumscribed the type of merchandise that could be traded. The colony could export to Spain only precious metals, gold in particular, and some agricultural products. In return, Spain exported to the colonies most of the agricultural and manufactured goods that the colonies needed for survival. Domestic products supplemented these items only to a minor degree.
Agriculture, which was limited in the 1500s to providing subsistence for colonial settlements and immediate consumption for workers in the mines, became a dynamic enterprise in the 1600s and replaced mining as the core of the Colombian economy by the 1700s. By the end of the 1700s, sugar and tobacco had become important export commodities. The growth in agriculture resulted in part from the increasing exhaustion of mineral and metal resources in the seventeenth century, which caused the crown to reorient its economic policy to stimulate the agricultural sector.
As commercial agriculture became the foundation of the Colombian economy, two dominant forms of agricultural landholdings emerged–the encomienda and the hacienda. These landholdings were distinguishable by the manner in which the landholders obtained labor. The encomienda was a grant of the right to receive the tribute of Indians within a certain boundary. In contrast, the hacienda functioned through a contract arrangement involving the owner–the hacendado–and Indian laborers. Under a typical arrangement, Indians tilled the land a specified number of days per week or per year in exchange for small plots of land.
The encomendero, or recipient of the encomienda, extended privileges to de facto control of the land designated in his grant. In effect, the encomendero was a deputy charged by the crown with responsibility for the support of the Indians and their moral and religious welfare. Assuming that the land and its inhabitants were entirely at its disposal, the monarchy envisioned the encomiendas as a means of administering humane and constructive policies of the government of Spain and protecting the welfare of the Indians. The encomenderos, however, sought to employ the Indians
for their own purposes and to maintain their land as hereditary property to be held in perpetuity. Most encomenderos were private adventurers rather than agents of the empire. The remoteness of the encomiendas from the center of government made it possible for the encomenderos to do as they pleased.
Under the influence of church figures such as Bartolomé de las Casas, the crown promulgated the New Laws in 1542 for the administration of the Spanish Empire in America. Designed to remove the abuses connected with encomiendas and to improve the general treatment of Indians, the laws called for strict enforcement of the existing regulations and freedom for the enslaved Indians, who were placed in the category of free subjects of the crown. They further provided that encomiendas would be forfeited if the Indians concerned were mistreated; that the tribute paid by Indians being instructed in religion should be fixed and in no case required in the form of personal service; and that public officials, congregations, hospitals, and monasteries could not hold encomiendas. Additional provisions– especially resented by the encomenderos–prohibited the employment of Indians in the mines, prevented
encomenderos from requiring Indians to carry heavy loads, forbade the granting of any future encomiendas, ordered a reduction in size of existing encomiendas, and terminated the rights of wives and children to inherit encomiendas.
Encomenderos opposed the royal government’s attempts to enforce these regulations. A formula was adopted according to which the laws would be "obeyed but not executed." The encomenderos also had the opportunity to send representatives to Spain to seek modifications of the laws– modifications that the crown eventually granted. The tensions between the royal authority and the colonists in the new empire were never entirely removed.
The institution of the hacienda with its associated mita (ancient tribute) system of labor began in the late sixteenth century. After 1590 the crown started to grant titles of landownership to colonists who paid the crown for the land and reserved the right to use Indian labor on their haciendas. Under an agrarian reform in 1592, the crown established resguardos, or reservations, for the Indians to provide for their subsistence; the resulting concentration of Indians freed up land to be sold to hacendados. The purchase of land as private real estate from the crown led to the development of
The new hacendados soon came into conflict with the encomenderos because of the ability of the latter to monopolize Indian labor. The Spanish authorities instituted the mita to resolve this conflict. After 1595 the crown obliged resguardo Indians to contract themselves to neighboring hacendados for a maximum of fifteen days per year. The mitayos (Indians contracted to work) also were contracted for labor as miners in Antioquia, as navigational aides on the Río Magdalena, and as industrial workers in a few rare cases. Although the mitayos were considered free because they were paid a nominal salary, the landowners and other employers overworked them to such an extent that many became seriously ill or died.
Because the mitayos could not survive their working conditions, the crown sought an alternate source of cheap labor through the African slave trade. The crown sold licenses to individuals allowing them to import slaves, primarily through the port at Cartagena. Although the crown initially restricted licenses to Spanish merchants, it eventually opened up the slave trade to foreigners as demand outstripped supply. The mining industry was the first to rely on black slaves, who by the seventeenth century had replaced mitayos in the mines. The mining industry continued to depend on slave labor into the
eighteenth century. Despite the decline of the mining industry, slavery remained the key form of labor; from the second half of the seventeenth century through the eighteenth century, plantation-style agriculture rose in prominence and raised the demand for slave labor on sugar plantations and ranches. Minor segments of the economy also supported slavery and used slaves as artisans, domestic servants, and navigational aides.
Slaves had no legal rights in the colonial system. The crown enacted laws to separate the slaves from the Indians so that the two groups would not join against the Spanish and criollo ruling classes. Slaves, however, often revolted against their subhuman living conditions, and many escaped to form palenques (towns) high in the mountains where they could maintain their African customs. These palenques separated themselves from colonial society and thus were among the first towns in Spanish America to be free of Spanish authority. The palenque movement was strongest in the eighteenth century. At this time, there was a crisis in the institution of slavery as it existed in the Spanish colonies. By the end of the 1700s, the high price of slaves along with increasing antislavery sentiment in the colony caused many to view the system as anachronistic; nonetheless, it was not abolished until after independence was achieved.
The Roman Catholic Church served as both agent and opponent of the colonial government. The church desired a system, supported by the state, within which it might proselytize; at the same time, it opposed many of the secular aims of
government that appeared to be in conflict with Christian morality. The church acted to restrain secular excesses and despotism, particularly those of the early conquistadors.
From the outset, the clergy became a vital element of colonial life. Missionaries and conquistadors arrived simultaneously in the New World during the late 1400s. From 1520 to 1550, the church began methodical evangelization among the Indians. The Franciscans, Dominicans, Capuchins (members of the Order of Mercy), and later the Jesuits and Augustinians were all important in the country’s colonial history. The first two orders arrived in Bogotá with the first judges: the Franciscans established monasteries in Vélez and Cartagena, and the Dominicans established them in Bogotá, Pamplona, and Popayán. In 1534 the church established the dioceses of Santa Marta and Cartagena, and in 1546 it established the diocese of Popayán–the first such dioceses in the New World. The church organized further between 1550 and 1620, creating the diocese of Bogotá in 1562. The Tribunal of the Inquisition, installed in Cartagena in 1611, sought to ensure that African culture did not contaminate Spanish culture in the colonies as a result of the importation of African slaves. The Jesuits, who formally were allowed to enter the colonies in 1604, sought to improve the economic standing of the Indians with whom they worked and established self-sufficient villages for Indians in the eastern plains.
In addition to bringing the Christian religion to the Indians, the church spread the ideas and institutions of Western civilization and had responsibility for establishing and maintaining almost all of the schools of the colonial period. In 1580 a monastery founded the University of General Studies, the first in the territory. The Jesuits established two additional universities in 1622 and 1653.
In its role as the patron of education, the church made an unintended but significant contribution to developing a local spirit of independence among the colonists. Church and state attempted to control the intellectual life of the New World. Throughout the eighteenth century, the church engaged in controversy with the country’s leading intellectuals, who were influenced by the political ideas of the Enlightenment in Europe and by the concepts of positivism and empirical scientific investigation. The education system also fostered opposition to Spain’s sovereignty over its American empire and provided the groundwork for the intellectuals whose activities the church opposed.
Although the Roman Catholic Church influenced educational and intellectual development in the colonies, the crown ensured its own influence over the colonial church. Several papal bulls in the 1490s and in the first decade of the 1500s strengthened the ability of the Spanish kings to influence church affairs in the New World. In addition, the Holy See granted to the Spanish state the papal rights governing the administration and the personnel of the church and of bishoprics being created in the New World. In addition to common economic interests, this closely bound the church to the state during the colonial period.
Throughout the colonial period, events in Spain affected the political, economic, and intellectual state of the colonies. One such event was the ascension of the Bourbons to the Spanish throne in 1700. Upon the death of Charles II–the last in the line of the Spanish Hapsburgs–the Austrian Hapsburgs and Charles’s nephew Philip of Anjou, a Bourbon and the grandson of French king Louis XIV as well the designated heir to the Spanish throne, contended for the Spanish throne. The War of the Spanish Succession (1702-14) ended in the triumph of the Bourbons over the Austrians, and the Treaty of Utrecht recognized the Bourbon succession in Spain on the condition that Spain and France would never be united under one crown.
Beginning with Philip of Anjou, now known as King Philip V (reigned 1700-46), the Bourbon kings placed themselves in more direct control of their colonies, reducing the power of the Supreme Council of the Indies and abolishing the House of Trade. In 1717 Philip V established the Viceroyalty of New Granada (present-day Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador), and in 1739 Bogotá became its capital. Other Bourbon kings, particularly Charles III (reigned 1759-88), tried to improve the profitability of the American colonies by removing restrictions that had hindered Spain’s economic development in the 1500s and 1600s. Such measures included the liberalization of commerce with the colonies and the establishment of additional authorized ports. In 1774 the crown allowed free exchange among the colonies of Peru, New Spain, New Granada, and Guatemala. These reforms allowed the crown control over the de facto trade among the colonies that previously had been illicit. When Charles III declared war on Britain in 1778, he levied taxes on the colonies to fund the war. These fiscal decrees affected imports and exports, the sale of general items–especially tobacco and alcohol–and the production of silver and gold. The crown demanded tribute from Indians and the church and expected the general population to fund the naval fleet that patrolled the Spanish American coast. Excessive and increasing taxation in the late 1700s contributed to the discontent of the criollos with the Spanish administration, which manifested itself in the Comunero Revolt of 1781, the most serious revolt against Spanish authority before the war for independence. The rebellion was a spontaneous but diffuse movement involving many towns. The most important uprising began among artisans and peasants in Socorro (in presentday Santander Department). The imposition of new taxes by the viceroy stimulated the revolt further.
Almost without exception, the rebels expressed their loyalty to the king and the church while calling for a repeal of new taxes and a modification of government monopolies. The rebels succeeded in getting government representatives to abolish the war tax, taxes for the maintenance of the fleet, customhouse permits, and tobacco and playing-card monopolies; to reduce the tribute paid by the Indians and the taxes on liquor, commercial transactions, and salt; and to give preference to those born in the New World for appointments to certain posts. Later, however, government negotiators declared that they had acted under duress and that the viceroy would not honor the agreements. The leaders of the rebellion were subjected to severe punishments, including death for the more prominent among them. The rebels had not sought independence from Spain, but their revolt against the king’s administration and administrators, despite protestations of loyalty to the king himself, was not far removed from a fight for independence. In this light, the rebellion was a prelude to the struggle for freedom.
In the late 1700s, the Enlightenment served as a second major influence in the struggle for independence. After the Comunero Revolt, the outlook of the local upper-class and middle-class criollos changed as the ideas of the Enlightenment strengthened their desire to control their own destiny. This movement criticized the traditional patterns of political, economic, and religious institutions and as such was a threat to both the central state and the religious authorities. The North American and French revolutions also contributed intellectual foundations for a new society, as well as examples of the possibilities for change.
A third major event of the late colonial period that may have led to the struggle for independence was the Napoleonic invasion of the early 1800s. In 1807 Napoleon Bonaparte made his brother Joseph the king of Spain, forcing Charles IV to abdicate and his son Ferdinand VII to renounce the throne. In exile, Ferdinand VII organized royalist supporters under the Central Council Junta Central) of Seville, later called the Council of the Regency (Consejo de Regencia). This council constituted a provisional government for Spain and the colonies.
Both Napoleon and the royalists competed for support of Spain’s colonists in the New World. Napoleon wrote a liberal constitution for Spain in which he recognized the colonies as having rights equal to those of Spain. In competition for the colonies’ loyalties, the Central Council offered them certain privileges, such as participation in Spanish courts. Colonists, however, were not satisfied with the council’s measure because of the larger representation accorded the representatives from Spain. Despite conflict with the peninsulares holding colonial authority in the viceroyalty, additional concessions to criollos to win their support resulted in the creation of a criollo governing council in Bogotá on July 20, 1810. The new local government passed reforms favoring power-sharing by the criollos and peninsulares and loosened the economic restrictions previously placed on the colony. Most of the old Spanish laws remained in effect, however. The establishment of other criollo governing councils laid the basis for the first attempts at independence from Spain.
Even with the initial steps to unify against Spanish authority, the colonial elites argued among themselves. Both before and after the granting of independence, elites disagreed as to whether the national structure should be federalist or centralist. This crucial disagreement, exacerbated by Colombia’s extreme regional differences, was the first to separate the political elites into rival groups. The differing opinions of these groups concerning the appropriate relationship between the church and state further emphasized the disagreement. The separate groups followed leaders representing their views and identified with the individuals as much as with the ideologies. By the time of the new nation’s foundation, these two groups had become clearly divided and dominated the political scene, excluding others from their competition for control of the country. The force of their ideals carried the nation back and forth between political extremes– absolute liberty and repression.
Leaders in the various localities that had formed criollo councils sought to unite the colony of New Granada. From the beginning of their attempts, however, conflict emerged over the form the new government should take. The provincial councils did not want the centralist, authoritarian type of government advocated by the Bogotá council, preferring a federal type of government more in keeping with the liberal principles of the Enlightenment and the example of the North American revolution. This represented the first ideological split between groups of leading criollos. Federalists rallied behind Camilo Torres; Centralists rallied behind Antonio Nariño. To avoid a civil war between the two factions, the provincial councils sent representatives to Bogotá in 1811 to draft a constitution for the territory. In November 1811, a congress was installed, and the provinces formed the United Provinces of New Granada. The federal union consisted of autonomous provinces joined only in common interest; the national army was subordinate to Bogotá.
Starting in 1812, individual provinces began declaring absolute independence from Spain. That year, Simón Bolívar Palacio, considered the liberator of South America, tried for the first time to gain independence for New Granada. The absence of united support from the various provinces, however, frustrated him. Bolívar left New Granada in 1815 and went to Jamaica. The continuing tension between federalist and centralist forces led to a conflict that left New Granada weak and vulnerable to Spain’s attempts to reconquer the provinces.
At the time of Bolívar’s departure, the independence cause in New Granada was desperate. Ferdinand VII had been restored to the Spanish throne, and Napoleon’s forces had withdrawn from Spain. A pacification expedition led by Pablo Morillo on behalf of the king proceeded from present-day Venezuela to Bogotá, and those who laid down their arms and reaffirmed their loyalty to the Spanish crown were pardoned. Morillo also granted freedom to slaves who helped in the reconquest of the colonies. Because of dissension between the upper class and the masses and inept military leadership, Cartagena fell to the royalists by the end of 1815.
In early 1816, Morillo moved to reconquer New Granada and changed his tactics from pardons to terror; Bogotá fell within a few months. Morillo repressed antiroyalists (including executing leaders such as Torres) and installed the Tribunal of Purification, responsible for exiles and prisoners, and the Board of Confiscations. The Ecclesiastical Tribunal, in charge of government relations with the church, imposed military law on priests who were implicated in the subversion. The Spanish reconquest installed a military regime that ruled with violent repression. Rising discontent contributed to a greater radicalization of the independence movement, spreading to sectors of the society, such as the lower classes and slaves, that had not supported the previous attempt at independence. Thus the ground was laid for Bolívar’s return and ultimate triumph.
At the end of 1816, Bolívar returned to New Granada, convinced that the war for independence was winnable only with the support of the masses. In the earlier attempt at independence, large segments of the population had been lured to the royalist side by promises such as repartition of land and abolition of slavery. When the masses saw that the promises were unfulfilled, however, they changed their allegiance from Spain to the independence movement.
Two significant military encounters led to the movement’s success. After having won a number of victories in a drive from the present-day Venezuelan coast to present-day eastern Colombia via the Río Orinoco, Bolívar gave Francisco de Paula Santander the mission of liberating the Casanare region, where he defeated royalist forces in April 1819. After the decisive defeat of royalist forces at the Battle of Boyacá in August 1819, independence forces entered Bogotá without resistance.
The merchants and landowners who fought against Spain now held political, economic, and social control over the new country that encompompassed present-day Venezuelan, Colombia, and Panana. The first economic reforms that they passed consolidated their position by liberalizing trade, thereby allowing merchandise from Britain (New Granada’s major trading partner after Spain) freer entry into the area. As a result, the artisan class and the emerging manufactguring sector, who previously had held only slight economic and political power, now lost stature.
As victory over Spain became increasingly apparent, leaders from present-day Venezuela, Colombia, and Panana convened a congress in February 1819 in Angostura (present-day Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela) and agreed to unite in a republic to be known as Gran Colombia. After Bolívar was ratified as president in August 1819, he left Santander, his vice president, in charge of Gran Colombia and traveled south to liberate present-day Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. When present-day Ecuador was liberated in 1822, it also joined Gran Colombia. In 1821 the Cúcuta Congress wrote a constitution for the new republic. The Cúcuta political arrangement was highly centralized and provided for a government based on popular representation with a bicameral Congress, a president, and a Supreme Court consisting of five magistrates. The constitution also guaranteed freedom for the children of slaves; freedom of the press; the inviolability of homes, persons, and correspondence; the codification of taxes; protectionist policies toward industry and agriculture; and the abolition of the mita system of labor.
Nonetheless, political rivalries and regional jealousies progressively weakened the authority of the new central state. Venezuelan leaders especially were resentful of being ruled by Santander, a native of present-day Colombia, in the absence of their president and fellow Venezuelan, Bolívar. In 1826 General José Antonio Páez led a Venezuelan revolt against Gran Colombia. Outbreaks and disturbances also occurred elsewhere.
On his return from Peru in 1827, Bolívar was barely able to maintain his personal authority. In April 1828, a general convention was convened in Ocaña to reform the constitution of Cúcuta, but the convention broke up as a result of conflicting positions taken by the followers of Santander and Bolívar. Those backing Santander believed in a liberal, federalist form of government. Bolívar’s followers supported a more authoritarian and centralized government, and many, especially those in Bogotá, called on Bolívar to assume national authority until he deemed it wise to convoke a new legislative body to replace Congress.
In August 1828, Bolívar assumed dictatorial powers and attempted to install a constitution that he had developed for Bolivia and Peru. Unpopular with a large portion of the New Grenadine populace, this constitution called for increased central authority and a president-for-life who could also name his own successor. During a constitutional convention held in January 1830, Bolívar resigned as president, naming José Domingo Caicedo as his successor. That same year, the divisive forces at work within the republic achieved a major triumph as the Venezuelan and Ecuadorian portions of the republic seceded.
New Granada lay in a depressed state after the dissolution of Gran Colombia. None of the country’s three principal economic bases–agriculture, ranching, and mining–was healthy. The import trade was limited to a small group, the banking industry was inadequate, and craftsmen and small manufacturers could supply only enough for local consumption. Despite the desire and need for change, New Granada retained slavery, the sales tax, and a state monopoly on the production and trade of tobacco and alcohol. The problems facing the country, the discontent of liberal groups who saw the constitution as being monarchical, and the military’s desire for power culminated in the fall of the constitutional order and the installation in 1830 of the eight-month dictatorship of General Rafael Urdaneta. After Bolívar’s death in December 1830, however, civilian and military leaders called for the restoration of legitimate authority. Urdaneta was forced to cede power to Caicedo as the legitimate president.
In October 1831, Caicedo convened a commission to write a new constitution for New Granada. Finished in 1832, the new constitution restricted the power of the presidency and expanded the autonomy of the regional administrative subdivisions known as departments (departamentos). Santander assumed the presidency in 1832 and was succeeded in 1837 by his vice president, José Ignacio de Márquez. Personalism and regionalism remained key elements in national politics in a country with small cities, a weak state, and a semifeudal population that was bound to the large landowners in patron-client relationships.
During the Márquez administration, the political divisions in the country reached a breaking point. In 1840 the political ambitions of some department governors, the constitutional weakness of the president, and the suppression of some Roman Catholic monasteries in Pasto combined to ignite a civil war that ended with the victory of the government forces led by General Pedro Alcántara Herrán. This triumph brought Herrán to the presidency with the next election in 1841. In 1843 his administration instituted a new constitution, which stipulated a greater centralization of power.
In 1845 Tomás Ciprianode Mosquera succeeded Herrán. Personalism as an important element in politics abated during his administration. The Mosquera government also saw the economic and political ascendancy of merchants, artisans, and small property owners. Mosquera liberalized trade and set New Granada on the path of exporting primary goods.
The election of General José Hilario López as president in 1849 marked a turning point for Colombia both economically and politically. Capitalism began to replace the old colonial structure, and the ideological differences between the established political parties overshadowed the previous emphasis on personalism. In 1850 the López administration instituted a socalled agrarian reform program and abolished slavery. In order to allow landowners access to more land, the agrarian reform program lifted the restrictions on the sale of resguardo lands; as a result, Indians became displaced from the
countryside and moved to the cities, where they provided excess labor. In 1851 the government ended the state monopoly on tobacco cultivation and trade and declared an official separation of church and state. In addition, López took the education system from the hands of the church and subjected parish priests to popular elections.
The ideological split dividing the political elite began in 1810 and became solidified by 1850 after the official establishment of the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal–PL) and the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador–PC), the two parties that continued to dominate Colombian politics in the 1980s. The Liberals were anticolonial and wanted to transform New Granada into a modern nation. Those joining the PL primarily came from the more recently created and ascending classes and included merchants advocating free trade, manufacturers and artisans anxious to increase demand for their products, some small landowners and agriculturists endorsing a liberalization of state monopolies on crops such as tobacco, and slaves seeking their freedom. The Liberals also sought lessened executive power; separation of church and state; freedom of press, education, religion, and business; and elimination of the death penalty.
The Conservatives wanted to preserve the Spanish colonial legacy of Roman Catholicism and authoritarianism. They favored prolonging colonial structures and institutions, upholding the alliance between church and state, continuing slavery, and defending the authoritarian form of government that would eliminate what they saw as excesses of freedom. The PC grouped together slave owners, the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and large landholders. Campesinos were divided between the two parties, their loyalties following those of their employers or patrons–often the PC.
In contrast to the unity demonstrated by the PC, the PL developed factions from the start. Although they had most interests in common, the merchants differed from the artisans and manufacturers on the question of trade. Merchants favored free trade of imports and were called golgotas, whereas artisans and manufacturers demanded protectionism to support domestic industry and were known as draconianos.
Although divided, the PL soon achieved electoral victories. In the election of 1853, General José María Obando, who had led the revolutionary forces in the 1840 civil war and who was supported by the draconianos and the army, was elected and inaugurated as president. Congress remained in the hands of the golgotas. In May of the same year, Congress adopted the constitution of 1853, which had been written under López. A liberal document, it had significant provisions defining the separation of church and state and freedom of worship and establishing male suffrage. The new constitution also mandated the direct election of the president, members of Congress, magistrates, and governors, and it granted extensive autonomy to the departments.
Despite the victory that the constitution represented for the Liberals, tensions grew between golgota and draconiano forces. When the draconianos found Obando to be compromising with the golgotas,
General José María Melo led a coup d’état in April 1854, declared himself dictator, and dissolved Congress. Melo’s rule, the only military dictatorship in the nineteenth century, lasted only eight months because he proved unable to consolidate the interests of the draconianos; he was deposed by an alliance of golgotas and Conservatives.
In 1857 PC candidate Mariano Ospina Rodríguez was elected president. The next year, his administration adopted a new constitution, which renamed the country the Grenadine Confederation, replaced the vice president with three designates elected by Congress, and set the presidential term at four years. With the draconiano faction disappearing as a political force, the golgotas took over the PL in opposition to the Conservative Ospina. General Mosquera, the former president and the governor of the department of Cauca, emerged as the most important Liberal figure. A strong advocate of federalism, Mosquera threatened the secession of Cauca in the face of the centralization undertaken by the Conservatives. Mosquera, the golgotas, and their supporters declared a civil war in 1860, resulting in an almost complete obstruction of government.
Because civil disorder prevented elections from being held as scheduled in 1861, Bartolomé Calvo, a Conservative in line for the presidency, assumed the office. In July 1861, Mosquera captured Bogotá, deposed Calvo, and took the title of provisional president of the United States of New Granada and supreme commander of war. A congress of plenipotentiaries chosen by the civil and military leaders of each department met in the capital in September 1861 in response to a call by the provisional government. Meanwhile, the war continued until Mosquera defeated the Conservatives and finally subdued the opposition in Antioquia in October 1862.
Shortly after taking power, Mosquera put the church under secular control and expropriated church lands. The property was not redistributed to the landless, however, but was sold to merchants and landholders in an effort to improve the national fiscal situation, which had been ruined by the war. As a result, the amount of land held under latifundios increased.
In February 1863, a Liberal-only government convention met in Rionegro and enacted the constitution of 1863, which was to last until 1886. The Rionegro constitution renamed the nation the United States of Colombia. All powers not given to the central government were reserved for the states, including the right to engage in the commerce of arms and ammunition. The constitution contained fully defined individual liberties and guarantees as nearly absolute as possible, leaving the federal authority with little room to regulate society. The constitution also guaranteed Colombians the right to profess any religion.
The Rionegro constitution brought little peace to the country. After its enactment and before the next constitutional change, Liberals and Conservatives engaged in some forty local conflicts and several major military struggles. Contention persisted, moreover, between the moderate Liberals in the executive branch and the radical Liberals in the legislature; the latter went so far as to enact a measure prohibiting the central authority from suppressing a revolt against the government of any state or in any way interfering in state affairs. In 1867 the radical Liberals also executed a coup against Mosquera, leading to his imprisonment, trial before the Senate, and exile from the country.
With the fall of Mosquera and the entrenchment of radical Liberals in power, Conservatives found it increasingly difficult to accept the Rionegro constitution. Eventually Conservatives in Tolima and Antioquia took up arms, initiating another civil conflict in 1876. The Liberal national government put down the rebellion, but only with difficulty.
Golgotas controlled the presidency until 1884 and defended the Rionegro constitution’s provisions for federalism, absolute liberties, separation of church and state, and the nonintervention of the state in the economy. Their economic policies emphasized the construction of lines of communication, especially railroads and improved roads. These projects did not unify the country and increase internal trade but instead linked the interior with export centers, connecting important cities with river and maritime ports. By allowing easier access to imports, the projects thus favored the merchant class over the national industrialists.
Under the golgota policy of completely free trade, exports became a major element of the country’s economy. Three main agricultural exports–tobacco, quinine, and coffee–developed, especially after 1850 when international markets were more favorable and accessible. Nonetheless, all three crops suffered from cyclical periods of high and low demand. By the 1880s, it was clear that tobacco and quinine would not be reliable exports in the long term because of stiff international competition. Coffee also faced competition but nevertheless succeeded in dominating the economy after the 1870s. The coffee merchants used their profits as middlemen to invest in domestic industries, producing goods such as textiles for domestic consumption, particularly in the Medellín area. The emergence of coffee as an important export crop and the investment of profits from the coffee trade into domestic industry were significant steps in the economic development of the country.
It became obvious to many Liberals and Conservatives that the lack of governmental authority stipulated in the Rionegro constitution was allowing the country to run a chaotic course and that the situation needed to be corrected. The Regeneration movement sought a basic shift in Colombia’s direction. A key leader of the movement was Rafael Núñez, who was elected president in 1879 and held the office until 1882. Liberals and Conservatives who were disenchanted with the golgota governments joined to form the National Party, a coalition that in February 1884 brought Núñez to the presidency for a second term. The Nationalists authorized Núñez to take steps urgently required to improve economic conditions. As leader of the Regeneration movement, he attempted to reform the constitution with the agreement of all groups. The golgotas, however, were afraid that constitutional change would favor the Conservatives and dissident Liberals at their expense. In 1884 the golgotas in Santander started an armed rebellion, which spread throughout the country. Nationalist forces suppressed the revolution by August 1885, at which time Núñez also declared that the Rionegro constitution had expired.
The most important result of the conflict was the adoption of the Constitution of 1886 by a national council made up of two delegates from each state. The Nationalist leaders believed that ultraliberalism as practiced under the Rionegro constitution was not appropriate to the needs of the country and that a balance was needed between individual liberties and national order. Based on this philosophy, the Constitution of 1886 reversed the federalist trend and brought the country under strong centralist control. The Constitution renamed the country the Republic of Colombia and, with amendments, remained in effect in the late 1980s. The Constitution provides for a national rather than confederate system of government in which the president has more power than the governors, who head departments or two types of national territories known as intendencies (intendencias) and commissaryships (comisarias).
In 1887 Núñez consolidated the position of the church in the country by signing the Concordat of 1887 with the Holy See. Through the concordat, the church regained its autonomy and its previous preferential relationship with the republic. The agreement stipulated the obligatory teaching of Roman Catholicism as part of a child’s education and recognized Roman Catholic marriages as the only valid marriages in the country. It also acknowledged Colombia’s debt to the Holy See brought on by the uncompensated confiscation of church assets under Mosquera in the 1860s.
Political disorder did not cease with the adoption of the Constitution of 1886. The Nationalists, who had become an extremist branch of the PC after Núñez was elected, were opposed by the Historical Conservatives, the moderate faction of the PC that did not agree with the extent of antiliberalism taken by the new government. The bipartisan opposition of Liberals and Historical Conservatives sought to reform Nationalist economic and political policies through peaceful means. The Nationalists, however, denied the civil rights and political representation of the Liberals because differences of opinion concerning trade policy and the role of the state in society created a gulf between the Nationalists and their opponents. The PL split into Peace and War factions, the former seeking peaceful reform of economic policies and the latter advocating revolution as the only way to win political rights. The Peace faction controlled the party in the capital, whereas the War faction dominated the party in the departments–a response to the violent political exclusion that was characteristic of rural areas and small towns. The War faction staged unsuccessful revolts in 1893 and 1895.
In 1898 Nationalist candidate Manuel Antonio Sanclemente was elected president. In ill health, Sanclemente left much of the governing to his vice president, José Manuel Marroquín. The Sanclemente/Marroquín presidency faced increasing problems as the world price of coffee fell, which, because of reduced customs revenues, left the government bankrupt. The fiscal policy of issuing nonredeemable paper money, which had replaced the gold standard under Núñez, added to the increasing lack of confidence in the government.
In July 1899, in Santander, Liberals again attempted a revolution, known as the War of a Thousand Days. Historical Conservatives eventually cast their allegiance with the Nationalists, whereas the Peace and War factions of the PL remained split, thereby weakening the rebellion. Despite an initial victory in December 1899, the Liberal forces were outnumbered at Palonegro five months later. The defeat left the Liberal army decimated and demoralized and with little chance to succeed. The Liberal army changed its strategy from conventional tactics to guerrilla warfare, thus transforming the war into a desperate struggle that lasted for two more years.
In July 1900, Historical Conservatives, seeking a political solution to the war, supported Marroquín in a coup against Sanclemente. Contrary to what his supporters had expected, Marroquín adopted a hard line against the rebels and refused to negotiate a settlement. In November 1902, the defeated Liberal army negotiated a peace agreement with the government. The war took more than 100,000 lives and left the country devastated.
The War of a Thousand Days left the country too weak to prevent Panama’s secession from the republic in 1903. The events leading up to Panama’s secession were as much international as domestic. At the turn of the century, the United States recognized the strategic need to have access to a naval route connecting the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, such as a canal in the isthmus. The Hay Herrán Treaty of January 1903, which was to have been the basis for allowing the United States canal project to proceed, was rejected by the Colombian Congress. Because the proposed Panamanian route was preferred over the Nicaraguan alternative, the United States encouraged the Panamanian separatist movement, militarily assisted Panama in its movement for independence, and immediately recognized the independent Republic of Panama.
The devastation that resulted from the War of a Thousand Days discredited the factions of each party that had instigated the conflict. The moderates who assumed power in each party had similar economic interests; they recognized the need for the two parties to reconcile their differences and rule together in peaceful coexistence to ensure the survival of the country and the economy. For the first time in Colombian history, the Liberals and the Conservatives sought to share power rather than exclude the opposition party from it. Although Conservatives were nominally in control during this period, they formed coalition governments incorporating minority Liberals into the cabinet and other important political bodies. Rejecting the practice of excluding the Liberals from political participation, as had been done by the Nationalists, the moderate Conservatives removed the key element that had prompted so much political violence in the past and laid the foundation for economic progress in the country.
At the end of the civil war, the country needed a leader who was strong enough to rebuild the nation after the loss of Panama and the ravages of civil strife. General Rafael Reyes, elected president in 1904 with the support of moderate Conservatives, showed a determination to unify the republic, renew the nation’s economy, and prevent any obstacle–constitutional or otherwise– from standing in his way. Reyes’s policies were a contradictory combination of political reconciliation and authoritarianism, which forced minority Liberal representation in government on the elected Conservative majority in Congress. His economic programs included a protectionist trade policy, which represented a major intervention of the state into economic activity. This trade policy encouraged domestic industrial growth, which in turn led to the growth of cities and the need to develop an urban infrastructure.
To ensure the passage of his economic reforms, Reyes greatly strengthened the executive and thereby centralized power. He abolished Congress and replaced it with a National Assembly composed of three representatives from each department, selected by department officials appointed by Reyes. This action ensured the adequate representation of the Liberal support he needed in the legislative branch. This extraconstitutional body was designed to approve his decrees and to pass constitutional amendments. The National Assembly allowed Reyes to implement policies that sometimes were at odds with orthodox economic theory and therefore would not have been tolerated by a Conservative Congress. Through these measures, Reyes established a sound fiscal administration, stabilized the monetary system, initiated a return to the gold standard, restored Colombian credit abroad, attracted foreign capital, improved transportation, encouraged export agriculture, and aided domestic industry. At the same time, however, he aroused a great deal of political opposition.
Reyes realized that the soundest path to economic development– based on trade and foreign investment–required normalized relations with the United States, an unpopular idea at that time. In 1909 Reyes unsuccessfully tried to force legislative approval of the Thompson-Urrutia Treaty with the United States, which was to reestablish relations with that country and recognize the independence of Panama. The issue of the treaty’s ratification, however, provided a focal point for opposition against Reyes, even though the treaty was ratified under a subsequent administration. In June 1909, the Republican Union, a bipartisan group of Liberals and Historical Conservatives who opposed Reyes, won a majority in the congressional elections held to reestablish the Colombian Cngress. In acknowledgment of the political current against him, Reyes secretly resigned later that month and left the country.
Carlos E. Restrepo, a Conservative who had been instrumental in founding the Republican Union, assumed the presidency after Reyes. The Republican Union represented a transformation in Colombian politics. The Liberal merchants and Conservative agriculturists found a common interest in coffee exports, which was quickly beginning to dominate the Colombian economy. Their mutual economic interest allowed the moderate factions of each party to join in a bipartisan coalition that gained political control at the end of the civil war. Although Conservatives retained nominal control of political institutions until 1930, they accepted and applied the principle of Liberal representation and participation in government. Conservative presidents appointed Liberals to their bipartisan cabinets and thus included them in political decision making. Although party conflict and rural unrest remained, the coalitions that the two parties formed provided a basis for political stability.
As a result of domestic policies and the international situation, the Colombian economy diversified and developed at the turn of the century. In the early 1900s, the industrial sector became an increasingly important part of the economy. Between 1900 and 1910, textile industries developed in Bello and Medellín, pottery plants in Caldas, and breweries in Itagüi and Bogotá. New economic groups emerged with the development of import substitution industrialization and of a larger financial sector.
During the 1910s and 1920s, the Colombian economy became more integrated into the global financial and commercial markets. Renewed relations with the United States during the administration of Marco Fidel Suárez (1918-21) opened the door for foreign exchange and investment. The United States replaced Britain as Colombia’s key financial and commercial partner. Most of the foreign exchange came from the coffee trade, which at this time represented nearly 80 percent of exports. Foreign exchange also came in the form of loans and an indemnity paid by the United States for Colombia’s loss of Panama. Money coming into the country was invested in industry, consumption goods, and public works and enterprises. Public works, such as building communication networks, accelerated under the Conservative Pedro Nel Ospina administration (1922-26). Investment in industry came primarily from the private sector, including foreign interests. By 1929 private foreign investment totaled US$400 million, with some US$45 million having been invested by oil companies. The Nel Ospina administration also oversaw the reorganization of the banking and financial sectors, creating the Bank of the Republic (Banco de la República).
The growth in industry and construction, supported by both public and private funds, led to the emergence of a genuine working class that soon learned to unionize. In 1918 Colombia experienced its first major strikes. The union movement also came to be influenced by European syndicalism and socialism; in 1919 the first workers’ conference, which was fostered by socialist ideas, was held. These activities were a backdrop to the launching of the Colombian Socialist Party. During the 1920s, the union movement expanded and stimulated the growth of socialist-oriented groups. In 1928 a strike against the United Fruit Company was put down violently by armed forces. In the following year, Congressman Jorge Eliécer Gaitán criticized the rough handling of the strike and became a prominent speaker for the working class.
Growing popular discontent with the Conservative governments and divisions within Conservative ranks eventually resulted in the rise of the PL to power. The growth in the industrial and construction sectors that fueled the union movement also drained the countryside of agricultural workers, encouraging rural workers to petition for higher wages. In 1928 the government began importing food and as a result drew protests from agriculturists. Workers and artisans protested the rise in inflation that resulted from the influx of foreign loans and protectionist trade policies. Social tensions increased throughout the Conservative administration of Abadia Méndez (1926-30) and ultimately led to the fall of the PC after its forty-five years in power. The Liberals gained the upper hand in the political arena and retained it during the fifteen years (1930-45) of global crisis.
The economic modernization of the early 1900s unleashed social forces that resulted in the emergence of new urban classes. As the traditional elites failed to address the demands made by the new groups, tension was generated. The growing urban electorate tended to favor those politicians who advocated social reforms. The Liberals were better able than the Conservatives to benefit from this development, especially during the first administration of Alfonso López Pumarejo (1934-38). The populist movement of the 1940s, represented by the progressive faction of the PL, attracted the most support, however, and represented a threat to the more conservative traditional elites. For the first time, nonelites had a voice with which to express their interests.
Although a split in the PC over candidates for the 1930 presidential election aided in the ascension of the PL to power, both parties were divided into factions. The PC consisted of moderates (led by Mariano Ospina Pérez and known as ospinistas) who wanted to maintain the status quo and reactionary conservatives (led by Laureano Gómez Castro and known as laureanistas) who favored a restructuring of the state along corporatist lines. The PL also had its moderates who supported the status quo. The second faction of the PL consisted of reformists, who favored controlled social change. These factions represented different socioeconomic groups. In general, reformists included the new financial and capitalist groups. Reactionaries primarily were traditional latifundistas (owners of latifundios). Moderates of both parties tended to have interests that incorporated several economic activities and included groups such as export-oriented latifundistas.
As a result of the Liberal victory, many of the privileges that had been afforded to Conservatives through patronage politics were now denied. Because the president appointed the governors, who in turn appointed the municipal mayors, the transfer of power from the PC to the PL at the presidential level was felt at the municipal level. Because of the change in the political affiliation of the police force, the stricter application of the law was transferred to members of the opposition party. Clashes resulted between partisan groups among the lower classes, who sought either to gain or to maintain their privileges. One such clash involved the peasants, who, amidst the confusion, tried to attain greater control over small plots of land at the expense of members of the opposing party.
The first Liberal president of the twentieth century, Enrique Olaya Herrera (1930-34), was elected at a time when the price of coffee had dropped to about one-third of the 1928 price, loans from United States banks had stopped, and the country was gripped by an economic depression. Olaya endeavored to hold together the moderate Liberals and the moderate Conservatives, some of whom had worked for his election. Although Conservative control of the legislature and concern over the economy constrained Olaya’s ability to enact a comprehensive Liberal agenda, he succeeded in carrying out some reforms, notably in education. Nonetheless, some Liberals, disappointed by their party’s failure to carry out a "revolution," in 1932 organized a movement called the Revolutionary Leftist National Union (Unión Nacional Izquierdista Revolucionaria–UNIR). The movement came to an end after Gaitán, its leader, returned to the PL in 1935 when the party adopted many of his proposed reforms and offered him a congressional seat.
International disputes also confronted the Olaya administration, one of the most prominent being a boundary conflict with Peru. In 1932 Peruvians occupied Leticia, a Colombian outpost on the Amazon, and hand-to-hand combat ensued between small Colombian and Peruvian forces. The dispute was settled by direct negotiation in 1934, when Peru recognized Colombian sovereignty over the port.
The most important president in the reformist period was Olaya’s successor, López Pumarejo. Believing that the reformist faction of the PL had become strong enough to carry out its program, the López Pumarejo administration implemented extensive reforms, principally in agriculture, education, and the tax system. Known as the "Revolution on the March," these reforms included constitutional amendments that guaranteed the state’s role in developing the economy of the country and diversifying its exports, authorized the national government to expropriate property for the common good, provided special state protection for labor and the right for labor unions to strike, and stipulated that public assistance was a function of the state. Additional reforms included the strict enforcement of progressive income and inheritance taxes, the guarantee of rights granted to squatters on public and private lands, the reinforcement of credit institutions, and the renewed separation of church and state.
The reforms put in place by the López Pumarejo administration, combined with import substitution policies, helped to accelerate the capitalist development of Colombia. During the López Pumarejo administration, coffee prices and the volume of exports increased. Protectionist measures helped to increase domestic production and enlarge the domestic market. A surge in industrialization began in the 1930s, aided by various external and internal factors. The key external factor was the world economic crisis of the 1930s, which limited the availability of goods to be imported and limited markets for exports. Internal factors included domestic capital accumulation via the tobacco, gold, and coffee trade; the increased buying power of large groups, especially coffee growers; the construction of transportation and communication facilities that unified the internal market; and a continuation of protectionist policies begun by President Reyes in 1904. The increasing emphasis on growing and exporting coffee fostered industrial development and allowed a more equitable distribution of income because more skilled laborers were employed and received higher wages. As a result, the demand for domestically produced consumer goods increased further.
Reforms instituted under López Pumarejo reflected a variety of influences: the Mexican Constitution of 1917, which had set forth provisions relating to social welfare, labor, and government responsibility in education and economics; ideas of change favored by the Peruvian apristas–members of the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana–APRA); and the New Deal policies of United States president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45). Some Colombian intellectuals had become interested in socialist thought, and the establishment of a liberal republic in Spain during the early 1930s inspired Colombian Liberals.
The Liberals, recognizing the social changes that were under way, identified themselves with the growing demands of the masses. In contrast, the Conservatives favored a minimum of concessions, the greatest possible influence of the church, and continued control of the country by a small upper class; they saw López Pumarejo’s policies as communistic. Meanwhile, disagreement over the extent to which Liberal ideology should be applied led to a split between the pro-reform supporters of López Pumarejo and the pro-status quo followers of fellow Liberal Eduardo Santos, owner of the national daily El Tiempo.
In 1938 Santos became president with the support of moderate Liberals and of Conservatives opposed to López Pumarejo’s Revolution on the March. Santos retained some of his predecessor’s policies, such as protectionism, and oriented his policies toward capitalist industrial and agricultural development. The Santos administration improved the economic capabilities of the country to invest in industry. It also stimulated capital-intensive agriculture to convert traditional latifundios, which relied on cheap labor, into capitalist haciendas, which used advanced technology. The reduced demand for manual labor in the countryside caused many campesinos to migrate to the cities. This urban growth increased both the supply of labor and the demand for consumer goods, further contributing to industrial expansion. Santos also reduced taxes on machinery imports that were needed for industry.
In the later years of his administration, Santos turned his attention to relations with the church and the United States. In 1942 Santos reformed education by removing it from the control of the church. In the same year, he concluded a new agreement with the Vatican, requiring that bishops be Colombian citizens. During World War II, he cooperated with the United States in the defense of the Panama Canal, ousted German nationals from control of Colombia’s national airline, and broke diplomatic relations with the Axis governments. His administration also strengthened economic, commercial, and cultural relations with the United States.
Despite opposition from Conservatives, moderate Liberals, and a more progressive Liberal group led by Gaitán, López Pumarejo was elected president for a second term in 1942. He was not as successful in the second term in implementing reform, however, because of strong Conservative opposition and a split in the Liberal organization in Congress. Laureano Gómez exploited the Liberal division by attacking López Pumarejo’s foreign policy, including the declaration of war on the Axis Powers in 1943. Other effects of World War II were being felt at this time, including an unbalanced budget, unstable foreign trade, a decline in coffee prices, and an increase in import prices.
Discontent with López Pumarejo increased. Gómez made personal attacks on López Pumarejo and his family that were so inflammatory that Gómez was imprisoned in 1944. This triggered demonstrations and street fighting in Bogotá. In July 1944, during army maneuvers, López Pumarejo and some of his cabinet members were held prisoner for a few days by officers staging an abortive military coup in Pasto. Although most of the military supported the constitutional order, López Pumarejo lost prestige and power. In July 1945, he resigned in favor of his first presidential designate, Alberto Lleras Camargo, a Liberal who had distinguished himself as a writer and government official.
López Pumarejo’s resignation resulted in part from pressure by the political and economic forces that he had helped to strengthen through the reforms of his first term. By 1942 a new group of industrialists wished to perpetuate their gains and believed that reform should cease. During López Pumarejo’s first term, the interests of industrialists and those of other urban elements frequently coincided–for example, in reducing the power of the church and large landowners and in stimulating economic growth. In his second term, however, critics contended that the social reforms and development policies of the first term no longer were appropriate. Thus, the industrialists, looking for favorable tax policies and protection against the demands of labor, joined with the landowners in resisting reforms. Both groups helped block important portions of López Pumarejo’s legislative program, and the reformist trend of the PL was negated by more moderate elements within the party.
Lleras Camargo, who served as provisional president until August 1946, appointed representatives of all parties to his cabinet in an effort to establish a "national union." Nonetheless, his coalition policy was attacked by Gaitán, who had gained considerable support among the masses and among some intellectuals and industrialists. When Gabriel Turbay, a moderate Liberal, won the party’s nomination for the 1946 presidential election, Gaitán decided to run independently, and his forces shifted to a more militant stance. This serious split among Liberals resulted in the election of the Conservative candidate, Mariano Ospina Pérez, by a plurality of 42 percent of the electorate.
The transfer of power in 1946 ignited tensions between the two parties, resulting in violent political conflict, particularly in rural areas. The loss of peace foreboded the return to competitive and exclusionary politics, similar to the situation preceding the War of a Thousand Days. In the 1940s and 1950s, however, violence and exclusion more than threatened the political system; they ruptured it. A democratically elected administration became repressive and dictatorial, which led to its overthrow by the sole military coup in the twentieth century. Only by having the reins of power taken from both of their hands did the traditional elites recognize that the most effective way to avoid interparty civil wars and possible military dictatorships was to join forces and restrain their competitive tendencies.
In 1946 Ospina assumed office and was faced with the difficult task of ruling from a minority position, as Liberals had received the majority of all presidential votes and continued to control Congress. Ospina tried to confront this situation by incorporating Liberals into a coalition government. Meanwhile, the level of political rivalry intensified in the countryside, where Conservatives pursued a course of violence in an attempt to consolidate power after sixteen years out of office. Liberals retaliated and, under Gaitán’s leadership, became highly mobilized in their demands that the Ospina government confront the social needs of the modernizing and urbanizing nation.
Gaitanism, the populist social movement led by Gaitán as a faction of the PL, increased dramatically between 1946 and 1948. Gaitán supported the democratic rather than the revolutionary path to reforms. By advocating the passage of more socially liberal policies, he appealed to the masses and he united urban workers and campesinos. As the movement grew, observers believed that Gaitán would be elected president, which may have happened had he lived to see the next election.
Liberal victories in the 1947 congressional elections demonstrated the party’s strength among the electorate. Ospina became increasingly concerned with retaining Conservative control and provoked Liberals further by resorting frequently to police enforcement of Conservative privileges in the rural areas. The Liberal appointees in his government resigned in protest in March 1948.
The following month, the inevitable explosion occurred in the form of the most violent and destructive riot in the country’s long history of conflict. On April 9, Gaitán was assassinated at midday in the heart of Bogotá. An angry mob immediately seized and killed the assassin. In the ensuing riot, some 2,000 people were killed, and a large portion of downtown Bogotá was destroyed. The Bogotazo, as the episode came to be called, was an expression of mass social frustration and grief by a people who had lost the man who represented their only potential link to the decision-making process.
Although order was restored in Bogotá and Ospina remained in control, the tempo of rural violence quickened to a state of undeclared civil war known as la violencia. La violencia claimed over 200,000 lives during the next eighteen years, with the bloodiest period occurring between 1948 and 1958. La violencia spread throughout the country, especially in the Andes and the llanos (plains), sparing only the southernmost portion of Nariño and parts of the Caribbean coastal area. An extremely complex phenomenon, la violencia was characterized by both partisan political rivalry and sheer rural banditry. The basic cause of this protracted period of internal disorder, however, was the refusal of successive governments to accede to the people’s demands for socioeconomic change.
After the Bogotazo, the Ospina government became more repressive. Ospina banned public meetings in March 1949 and fired all Liberal governors in May. In November of that year, Ospina ordered the army to forcibly close Congress. Rural police forces heightened the effort against belligerents and Liberals, and eventually all Liberals, from the ministerial to the local level, resigned their posts in protest.
In the 1949 presidential election, the Liberals refused to present a candidate; as a result, Gómez, the only Conservative candidate, took office in 1950. Gómez, who had opposed the Ospina administration for its initial complicity with the Liberals, was firmly in control of the party. As leader of the reactionary faction, he preferred authority, hierarchy, and order and was contemptuous of universal suffrage and majority rule. Gómez offered a program that combined traditional Conservative republicanism with the European corporatism of the time. A neofascist constitution drafted under his guidance in 1953 would have enhanced the autonomy of the presidency, expanded the powers of departmental governors, and strengthened the official role of the church in the political system.
Gómez acquired broad powers and curtailed civil liberties in an attempt to confront the mounting violence and the possibility that the Liberals might regain power. Pro-labor laws passed in the 1930s were canceled by executive decree, independent labor unions were struck down, congressional elections were held without opposition, the press was censored, courts were controlled by the executive, and freedom of worship was challenged as mobs attacked Protestant chapels. Gómez directed his repression in particular against the Liberal opposition, which he branded as communist. At the height of the violence, the number of deaths reportedly reached 1,000 per month.
Despite the relative prosperity of the economy–owing largely to expansion of the country’s export markets and increased levels of foreign investment–Gómez lost support because of protracted violence and his attacks on moderate Conservatives and on the military establishment. Because of illness, in November 1951 Gómez allowed his first presidential designate, Roberto Urdaneta Arbeláez, to become acting president until Gómez could reassume the presidency. Although Urdaneta followed Gómez’s policies, he refused to dismiss General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, whom Gómez suspected of conspiring against the government. When Gómez tried to return to office in June 1953, a coalition consisting of moderate Conservatives who supported Ospina, the PL, and the armed forces deposed him and installed a military government. They viewed such action as the only way to end the violence. Rojas Pinilla, who had led the coup d’état, assumed the presidency.
Initial response to the coup was enthusiastic and widespread; only the elements at the two extremes of the political spectrum protested the action. Rojas Pinilla’s first goal was to end the violence, and to that end he offered amnesty and government aid to those belligerents who would lay down their arms. Thousands complied with the offer, and there was relative calm for several months after the coup. Other immediate steps taken by Rojas Pinilla included the transfer of the National Police to the armed forces in an effort to depoliticize the police, relaxation of press censorship, and release of political prisoners.
The government also started an extensive series of public works projects to construct transportation networks and hospitals and improved the system of credit for small farmers. Rojas Pinilla attempted to respond to demands for social reform through populist measures patterned after the policies of General Juan Domingo Perón (1946-55) in Argentina. The National Social Welfare Service, under the direction of his daughter María Eugenia Rojas de Moreno Díaz, was created to meet the most pressing needs of the poor, and the public works projects began to provide jobs for the masses of urban unemployed. The tax system was restructured to place more of the burden on the elite. Poorly administered, however, these reform programs met with little success. Rojas Pinilla was unable to restructure Colombian society.
Rojas Pinilla attempted to recruit political support from nontraditional sources. He courted the military by raising salaries and constructing lavish officers’ clubs, and he counted the church by espousing a "Christian" doctrine as the foundation of his government. Through the creation of a "third force," Rojas Pinilla attempted to fuse the masses of peasants and urban workers into a movement that would counter the elite’s traditional domination of the country’s politics; however, this served more to anger the elite than to create a populist political base.
Support for the Rojas Pinilla regime faded within the first year. Toward the end of 1953, rural violence was renewed, and Rojas Pinilla undertook strict measures to counter it. Following a substantial increase in police and military budgets, the government assumed a dictatorial and demagogic character. The government reversed its initial social reform measures and relied instead on repression. It tightened press censorship and closed a number of the country’s leading newspapers, both Liberal and Conservative. Under a new law, anyone who spoke disrespectfully of the president could be jailed or fined. Many were killed or wounded at the socalled Bull Ring Massacre in February 1956 for failing to cheer Rojas Pinilla sufficiently. The administration became increasingly corrupt, and graft in government circles was rampant. In addition, economic deterioration, triggered by a drop in coffee prices and exacerbated by inflationary government policies, seriously threatened the gains made since
World War II. Efforts of government troops to suppress the widespread violence degenerated into an enforcement of the president’s tenuous hold on power, and their methods became more brutal. Scorched-earth policies were introduced to confront the 20,000 belligerents estimated to be active in rural areas.
Rojas Pinilla tried to provide a legal facade for his dictatorship. A new constitution (the Constitution of 1886 was abolished in 1954) created a Legislative Assembly composed of fifty-nine Conservatives and thirty-three Liberals, twenty of whom were nominated by the president. The assembly elected Rojas Pinilla to the presidency in 1954 for four years; in 1957 it confirmed him as president until 1962, an action that consolidated mounting opposition to Rojas Pinilla and precipitated his subsequent fall from power.
By early 1957, most organized groups opposed Rojas Pinilla. Liberal and Conservative elites, to whom the populist and demagogic Rojas Pinilla had become a greater threat than their traditional party adversaries, decided to stop feuding and to join forces against the president under the banner of the National Front. Conservative and Liberal leaders had been negotiating an alliance since early 1956. In July 1956, Gómez–in exile in Spain–and Lleras Camargo signed the Declaration of Benidorm, a document that laid the foundation for the future institutionalization of a coalition government. The moderate Conservatives, supporting Rojas Pinilla until 1957, did not join in negotiations with the Liberals until that time.
Although factionalism between moderates and reactionaries slowed the process, all concerned parties signed a final agreement in San Carlos in 1957. Based on the Sitges Agreement signed between the reactionaries and the Liberals in Sitges, Spain, in 1957, the San Carlos Agreement stipulated that a Conservative, either moderate or reactionary, would be the first president under a National Front and that he would be elected by a National Congress previously elected by popular vote. The Sitges and San Carlos agreements, which sought to reduce interparty tensions and provide a basis for power-sharing between the parties, also called for the following: restoration of the Constitution of 1886, which had been abolished by Rojas Pinilla; the alternation of the presidency between the two parties every four years; parity between parties in all legislative bodies; a required two-thirds majority vote for the passage of legislation; the establishment of an administrative career service of neutral parties not subject to partisan appointment; women’s suffrage and equal political rights for women; and the devotion of at least 10 percent of the national budget to education.
As the party leaders laid the basis for a coalition government, the tides of discontent turned against Rojas Pinilla. When Rojas Pinilla ordered the arrest of Guillermo León Valencia, a Conservative leader involved in the formation of
the National Front, Rojas Pinilla was confronted with student demonstrations, massive strikes, riots, and finally the declared opposition of the church and the defection of top-ranking military officers. In May 1957, faced with a multitude of protesters and top military leaders requesting his resignation, Rojas Pinilla resigned and went into temporary exile in Spain. Power reverted to a five-man junta led by General Gabriel París, who promised the free election of a civilian president in August 1958.
In December 1957, Colombians voted overwhelmingly in a national plebiscite to approve the Sitges and San Carlos agreements as amendments to the Constitution of 1886. Congressional elections were held soon thereafter, with the result that the reactionary Conservatives emerged as the largest faction of the Conservative half of Congress. Gómez vetoed the proposed presidential candidacy of Valencia, who until then had been the strongest Conservative candidate. As a result of this division within the PC, faction leaders agreed to allow a Liberal to be the first president under the National Front and to extend the provision of the coalition government from twelve to sixteen years. These agreements were ratified by Congress as constitutional amendments in 1958. In August of that year, Lleras Camargo, a Liberal, was elected as the first president under the National Front.
The National Front agreement to share power between Liberals and Conservatives was a constructive effort to assuage the interparty strife and distrust that had contributed to both the violence and the collapse of the democratic system. Its inauguration marked the beginning of a gradual decline in the level of confrontation. Nevertheless, the necessity of securing bipartisan support for any policy or action produced several difficulties–most notably, stalemate and inaction in the governmental process, voter apathy, and the exacerbation of factionalism within the two parties–that were to plague National Front administrations.
When Lleras Camargo took office in August 1958, he faced not only the problems of rivalry between Liberals and Conservatives but also factional controversies within the two parties. He succeeded, however, in demonstrating that the National Front program could point the way to a restoration of constitutional government. His administration adopted vigorous measures to reduce banditry and rural violence.
Lleras Camargo introduced an austerity program to improve economic conditions, with the result that in 1958 Colombia recorded its most favorable balance of trade in twenty years. The government cut imports, stabilized the peso, and established the National Planning Department. It handled labor troubles with firmness. The Lleras Camargo government also instituted a series of programs to improve the living conditions of the masses, including expansion of the water supply, sewers, housing, and education. An agrarian reform law passed in 1961 provided for a new agency, the Colombian Institute of Agrarian Reform (Instituto Colombiano de Reforma Agraria–Incora). Lleras Camargo’s government made only limited progress in land reform, however, in the face of opposition from Liberals, who denounced the plan as inadequate, and from Conservatives, who called it communistic and revolutionary. Nevertheless, at the end of his term in 1962, despite a difficult political situation, Lleras Camargo had done much to stabilize the economy, stimulate increased output of industrial and agricultural products, and bring the people a renewed confidence in the future.
Although he was strongly opposed by Gómez and his supporters among the reactionary Conservatives, Valencia became the next official Conservative candidate of the National Front and was elected for the 1962-66 presidential term. Only half the eligible citizens voted, but Valencia received more than 62 percent of the votes, which perhaps confirmed the voters’ belief in the principle of alternating the presidency between the two leading parties. Valencia took only modest steps to continue the programs initiated by his predecessor. He ignored, for example, the National Planning Department and failed to fill vacancies as they occurred. Incora’s land reform program also ran into opposition from large landholders. In addition, Valencia’s finance minister, Carlos Sanz, devalued the peso and proposed new taxes, thereby arousing the hostility of Congress.
Declining economic conditions contributed to growing social unrest. Increasing prices, the printing of growing quantities of paper money, and a drop in the price of coffee affected the economy adversely and contributed to increased inflation. Drains on the economy were generated by contraband trade with neighboring countries. The equivalent of some US$64 million in foreign loans promised in 1964 had been withheld, and the government was faced with a serious deficit. Rumors of plots against the government circulated, students protesting high prices rioted in Bogotá, and kidnappings occurred frequently. Valencia declared a state of siege in May 1965 and, having lost additional congressional support, was forced to rule by decree. The war minister, General Alberto Ruiz Novoa, succeeded in reducing civil disorders; Ruiz was dismissed in January 1965, however, after he openly criticized the president and made it known that he considered himself a leader who might bring order out of the confusion that plagued the nation.
In mid-1965 the state of siege enabled Valencia and his new finance minister, Joaquín Vallejo, to enact reforms by decree. They raised taxes, collected delinquent taxes, limited imports, and applied other austerity measures. The United States and international lending agencies then agreed to make loans to Colombia with the understanding that the government would take vigorous action to improve its financial situation. Inflation leveled off, and rumors of plots to remove the president died down.
Despite the constitutional amendment stipulating that only the PL and PC were authorized to participate in elections, dissident groups opposing the National Front arrangement formed "movements" to challenge the establishment by presenting candidates under the Liberal and Conservative labels. In 1959 Liberal dissidents formed the Liberal Recovery Movement (Movimiento de Recuperación Liberal)- -subsequently renamed the Liberal Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Revolucionario Liberal–MRL)–under the leadership of Alfonso López Michelsen, son of ex-President López Pumarejo. The more serious challenge to the National Front arrangement came from the populist National Popular Alliance (Alianza Nacional Popular– Anapo), which was founded in 1961 by Rojas Pinilla after his return from exile. The potential popular support for these dissident movements was manifest in the congressional elections of 1964, when 70 percent of the voters failed to cast ballots and 10 percent voted against Valencia’s candidates. Congressional victories by Anapo and MRL reduced Valencia’s support in the legislature to a narrow majority.
During the mid-1960s, the embers of la violencia were dying out, but guerrilla activity was increasing. In 1964 the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional–ELN) was formed by students who were disenchanted with the pro-Soviet Communist Party of Colombia (Partido Comunista de Colombia–PCC) and inspired by the Cuban Revolution. The ELN gained
its greatest notoriety when Father Camilo Torres, a Roman Catholic priest, joined the guerrilla group in 1966 and was killed in an armed conflict with government forces shortly thereafter. In 1966 another guerrilla movement–the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia–FARC)–began operating and was officially designated as a branch of the PCC.
Carlos Lleras Restrepo, the third president under the National Front, proved to be an effective leader. He was opposed in the 1966 election by the Liberal Anapo candidate, who won almost 30 percent of the vote. Aided by an especially competent group of cabinet members, Lleras Restrepo enacted a number of reforms during his tenure in office. He swiftly announced the creation of a series of presidential task forces to draw up national development plans, which included the establishment of exchange controls to combat the mounting foreign exchange difficulties; an increased state role in economic development; and funding for new housing, infrastructure, and industrial development projects. These proposals drew support from international lending agencies, which helped ease the fiscal problems that had beset the Valencia administration.
The effectiveness of the government was increased by the sweeping constitutional reforms of December 1968, which abolished the requirement of a two-thirds majority for Congress to pass major bills and gave greater authority to the executive in economic decision making. In addition, the reforms provided for the gradual phasing out of the National Front arrangement during the coming decade. Having discarded major obstacles that had stalemated previous National Front administrations, Lleras Restrepo built on the efforts of Lleras Camargo in economic and social reform. The government revised tax laws and rationalized tax collection through more rigid enforcement. Wage and price controls helped stabilize the currency, and inflation was held to a moderate 7 percent per year. The Lleras Restrepo administration improved the balance of payments situation through a program of export diversification, through which exports other than coffee more than doubled between 1966 and 1970. The government reorganized the Ministry of Agriculture and gave it increased resources to finance investments in the agricultural sector. Incora intensified
agrarian reform efforts and issued more than 60,000 land titles to tenants and sharecroppers in 1968 and 1969 alone. The creation of the Andean Common Market in 1969 further stimulated economic expansion through the integration of the economies of Colombia and its neighbors.
The policies of the Lleras Restrepo administration resulted in an increased rate of economic growth. Nevertheless, an explosive population increase continued to add some 200,000 young Colombians to the labor force each year, and the problems of poverty and unemployment persisted. A system of family planning was launched, in spite of considerable church opposition, in an attempt to slow the population growth that was largely nullifying the economic gains.
Unrest in the late 1960s assumed a more urban and more nearly class-oriented base as rural and interparty violence receded. Rural disorders declined markedly as a consequence of optimism on the economic front and the capture of some of the most prominent guerrilla leaders. In 1968, however, a new guerrilla group–the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación–EPL)–was formed as the armed branch of the Communist Party of Colombia– Marxist-Leninist (Partido Comunista de Colombia–MarxistaLeninista –PCC-ML), a pro-Chinese group. In December 1968 Lleras Restrepo lifted the state of siege that had been imposed under Valencia in 1965. Sporadic incidents of violence occurred, however, especially among dissident students and labor union members, and the government reinstated its emergency powers on several occasions.
Dissidence within the PL was lessened through the reintegration of the MRL and its leader, López Michelsen, who came to play a valuable role in the Lleras Restrepo government. In the 1968, congressional elections, those elements of both the PL and PC that supported the National Front arrangement gained a strong majority in the legislature. Voter apathy persisted, however, and less than 40 percent of eligible voters participated.
Under the banner of Anapo, Rojas Pinilla continued his appeal to the urban masses and the peasantry, promising solutions to the problems of unemployment and inflation and advocating free education and health care for the poor. Anapo challenged the National Front by presenting Rojas Pinilla as a Conservative candidate for the presidency in 1970. The election took place in an atmosphere of escalating violence, and the public received with widespread skepticism the official announcement that the Conservative candidate of the National Front, Misael Pastrana Borrero, had won by a narrow margin of 65,000 votes. The outpouring of support for Rojas Pinilla indicated significant voter dissatisfaction with the National Front’s response to Colombia’s persistent social and economic problems.
Pastrana was the last president to be elected under the provisions of the National Front. In 1970 the government began to dismantle the structure of the National Front in accordance with the 1968 constitutional amendments. The parity provision for elective legislative bodies and the exclusion of nontraditional parties from participation in elections no longer applied on the local level. These changes also went into effect on the national level in 1974, in time for the election of Pastrana’s successor.
The liberalization of the political system in effect undercut support for the bipartisan movements that had challenged the traditional parties during the National Front. Although Anapo declared itself an official party in 1971, it declined in popularity and electoral strength. María Eugenia Rojas–the Anapo candidate in the 1974 presidential election–received less than 10 percent of the vote. After General Rojas Pinilla’s death in 1975, the party continued to lose strength, eventually allying itself with other marginal movements that, by themselves, drew insignificant results at the polls.
Pastrana termed his administration the "Social Front" and followed most of the policies of his predecessor. In two areas of economic policy, however, he differed: land reform and the status of the construction sector. Pastrana’s proposals for land reform included promises of redistribution; however, the large landowners objected to the government’s proposal to base taxation on potential rather than actual income from the land. In the course of negotiations between the agricultural interests and the different party factions, productivity replaced redistribution as a priority. The government granted major concessions to the large agriculturists concerning the bases for assessing income and real estate taxes. It also guaranteed that new sources of credit be made available for modernizing the agricultural sector along capitalintensive lines.
In industrial policy, Pastrana selected construction as the "leading sector." The administration advocated public investment in construction projects as the engine of growth for the economy because it created employment and increased income and, by extension, increased demand for domestically produced items. Pastrana also encouraged private investment in the leading sector through the establishment of the Units of Constant Purchasing Power (Unidades de Poder Adquisitivo Constante–UPAC), a system by which an investment not only accrued interest but also was adjusted for inflation. The UPAC system of adjusting for inflation extended to many elements of the economy, including life insurance, wages, and prices. The combination of the UPAC system and the huge investment in construction overstimulated the economy and fueled inflation, which reached 27 percent by 1974.
Guerrilla activity continued during the Pastrana administration. In 1972 another guerrilla group–the 19th of April Movement (Movimiento 19 de Abril–M-19)–emerged. The M-19 took its name from the date on which Rojas Pinilla was narrowly and, in their minds, fraudulently, defeated by Pastrana. Although the M-19 claimed to be the armed branch of Anapo, the Rojas Pinilla organization disavowed any connection to the guerrilla group.
The PL and PC were weak, divided into factions, and inadequately organized at the end of the existence of the National Front. Because the political parties were not eager to engage in intense competition, Colombia achieved a peaceful transition to an open system. The principle of power-sharing was retained, although a president was allowed to select appointees from whatever sources he chose if the opposition refused to participate in his government.
The experience of the National Front, the lack of organizational efforts by the parties, and the massive migrations from rural to urban areas weakened party affiliations, which also decreased the likelihood of interparty violence. This
weakening of party identification emerged as an unforeseen consequence of the nonpartisan structure of the National Front, in which party loyalty was less important than support for a particular faction. In addition, rapid urbanization and industrialization eroded the traditional bases of partisan support because Liberal supporters were transplanted to Conservative communities. The period after the National Front also reflected a growing gap between the issues and agendas of the political elite and the demands, concerns, and expectations of the populace.
The erosion of the bond between the elites and the masses also was manifested in the high rates of electoral abstentionism, rising levels of mass political apathy and cynicism, the emergence of an urban swing vote, and widespread distrust of the nation’s political institutions and leadership. The image the masses held of the elite was tarnished by the failure of the elite as a whole to institute promised reforms and by suspected links between some leaders and the drug trade. The traditional mechanisms of political control, such as inherited party affiliation, patrimonialism, and clientelism, lost their effectiveness,
especially in the growing urban areas.
The government’s failure to accommodate the new social groups and classes that had emerged during Colombia’s modernization generated the increasing alienation of the masses from the political leadership and caused some elements among the masses to resort to militancy. Thus, Colombia experienced a radicalization of peasant movements, an increase in urban protests, a growing restlessness within the urban labor movement, and a surge in rural and urban guerrilla activity.
Popular discontent with the government’s management of the economy continued despite steady economic growth and high primary export revenues in the mid-1970s. The post-National Front period began in the midst of inflation and unemployment that fueled social unrest and prompted the government to institute unpopular antiinflationary austerity measures. Subsequent moves to increase employment by raising public spending on construction and infrastructure projects did more to augment the national debt than to alleviate the unemployment problem. As the coffee boom receded, growth rates declined steadily through the 1978-82 period. The massive underground economy, fueled by drug trafficking and marijuana cultivation, undermined the government’s efforts to control inflation and contributed to the rise of a parallel financial market, placing a large part of the national economy beyond the control of legitimate authority.
The first president elected in the post-National Front period, López Michelsen (1974-78), faced difficult situations in three areas: the economy, the guerrilla movement, and the drug trade. Subsequent governments inherited these same problems. The influx of foreign exchange from the coffee boom and the illicit drug trade created a glut of money in the financial sector that increased the rate of inflation. To counteract this, López Michelsen immediately instituted a stabilization program that included austere measures, such as cutting back on public investment and social welfare programs and tightening credit and raising the interest rate. By declaring a state of economic emergency, López Michelsen was able to pass unpopular yet necessary economic measures without legislative action.
Another key component of López Michelsen’s economic policy was designed to improve income distribution. The cornerstone of this effort was the "To Close the Gap" program. This program addressed the rural sector by proposing to increase productivity and employment in the countryside and integrate the rural sector into the monetary market with the support of the Integrated Rural Development program.
The "To Close the Gap" plan had its greatest impact, however temporary, in the tax reform of 1974. The tax reform, instituted two months after López Michelsen took office, made changes in the sales tax, export taxes and incentives, import surcharges, the tax treatment of government agencies, and personal and corporate income taxes. The reform had four general goals: to make the tax system more progressive, to reduce the distorting effects of the tax system on resource allocation, to promote economic stability by increasing revenues on a one-time basis and by enhancing the built- in response of the tax system to growth in the national income, and to simplify tax administration and compliance and thereby reduce evasion and increase yields. The government recorded a short-term fiscal improvement; nevertheless, inflation and a failure to improve administrative procedures allowed for continued large-scale tax evasion and an ultimate drop in revenues.
The austerity that the López Michelsen administration forced on the country had unpopular consequences. Inflation outstripped wage increases, nontraditional exports faced unfavorable trade conditions, and the industrial sector entered into a slump. Students and labor groups engaged in periodic protests and strikes. In October 1976, López Michelsen imposed a state of siege following two months of strikes by social security employees. The continuing discontent with the government erupted again in September 1977 when the four major labor unions joined in a strike to protest the high cost of living. Under the state of siege measures still in effect, the administration declared the strike illegal. Riots following the government’s attempt to suppress the strike resulted in twenty deaths. Several cabinet ministers resigned in protest over the way the strike had been handled.
Guerrilla activity resurged during the López Michelsen administration, although some groups actually became less active. The FARC was the most active, operating in rural areas in the departments of Antioquia, Tolima, Magdalena, Boyacá, Caquetá, and Meta. The M-19 kidnapped and held more than 400 people for ransom. The ELN, especially active in southern Bolívar Department, kidnapped several prominent people and ambushed army patrols. The EPL, however, declined in importance after the death of its founder, Pedro León Arboleda, in 1975.
Although López Michelsen did not view drug trafficking as a serious threat at the beginning of his administration, by 1978 he recognized the ruinous impact that the drug industry was having on the political and economic structure of Colombian society. Corruption financed by the drug rings permeated all levels of the political system. Those in office or campaigning for office who spoke out against the major drug traffickers rightfully feared for their lives. In some areas, prominent drug traffickers were so powerful that they were able to get themselves elected to local or state offices.
Although the narcotics industry contributed to a foreign exchange surplus and generated employment, its overall impact was detrimental to the national economy. The influx of dollars contributed to the increase in the money supply and the creation of a parallel economy that competed with the official economy for financial resources. The industry created "boom towns" in rural Colombia that rose and fell within short periods of time. The income provided by the drug industry was used primarily for conspicuous consumption rather than for productive investment. The slash-and-burn method of cultivating marijuana
destroyed fertile land that could have been used for legal food production, resulting in both a damaged environment and a national need to import food. The parallel economy contaminated the official economy through the laundering of narcodollars, often through the "side windows" of government banks and the real estate industry. Drug traffickers also purchased legitimate businesses, such as banks, textile mills, and sports teams. The drug traffickers’ control over a large portion of the illicit economy and a significant amount of the official economy undercut government efforts at national economic planning. In addition, government efforts to combat drug trafficking drained funds that could have been used more productively elsewhere.
In late 1977, observers mistakenly predicted that the Conservative Belisario Betancur Cuartas would win the 1978 presidential election because of the division of the PL into rival factions that supported Lleras Restrepo and Julio César Turbay Ayala. Turbay became the nominee of the PL after his faction won the most seats in the February 1978 congressional elections. The presidential campaign was largely personalistic in that neither candidate took specific positions on major issues. The candidates differed, however, in their reliance on partisan machinery. Turbay stressed the party connection, whereas Betancur, representing the minority party, claimed to be a candidate of its National Movement (Movimiento Nacional), which joined together Conservatives, dissident Liberals, remnants of Anapo, and members of the Christian Social Democratic Party (Partido Social Democrática Cristiano– PSDC). Turbay won the presidential election by a narrow margin; approximately 60 percent of all voters abstained.
The Turbay administration (1978-82) inherited a slightly improved financial situation because the austerity measures instituted under López Michelsen and declining coffee revenues had produced a lower rate of inflation by 1978. Turbay focused his economic policy on reducing unemployment and avoiding an impending recession. A main goal was the decentralization of
fiscal resources and the promotion of regional autonomy, which made public investment in infrastructure a priority. His National Integration Plan (Plan de Integración Nacional–PIN) of 1979-82 foresaw growth in public investment to reach 19 percent in real terms. Because government revenues from coffee exports were declining at this time, Turbay had to finance the growth in public spending by turning to foreign loans. The increased public spending thus contributed both to a renewed rise in inflation and to a massive increase in foreign debt. Attempting to avoid a recession, Turbay also encouraged foreign investment in Colombia and promoted domestic investment in labor-intensive industries to reduce high urban unemployment. In spite of increased government spending, Colombia experienced a recession caused by tight credit and high interest rates, a reduction in protectionist tariffs, grants of import licenses for industrial goods, smuggled imports, and a decreased world demand for industrial goods produced in Colombia.
Shortly after taking office, Turbay gave top priority to combating guerrilla activity and narcotics trafficking. Although designed ostensibly to counteract drug trafficking, the institution of a state of siege and the National Security Statute of 1978 substantially enhanced the government’s ability to act against guerrillas.
Critics charged that the military and police forces used the security statute to detain indiscriminately "cultural subversives"- -including prominent journalists, artists, and scholars–who were suspected of being associated with left-wing elements. Threats to invoke the security statute in nonpolitical cases, such as protests for a better water supply, suppressed popular unrest. Persons arrested on political charges alleged that the armed forces had resorted to torture during interrogation. Although the government claimed that tough measures were needed to counter leftist subversion, critics asserted that
repression resulted from the worsening economic situation. The deteriorating human rights situation drew criticism from leaders of both parties and from international organizations such as Amnesty International. Turbay lifted the state of siege and nullified the security statute in June 1982, shortly before leaving office.
Despite the severe measures taken against leftist subversion, guerrilla activity increased and reached a peak during the Turbay administration. Although the ELN was less active than during the López Michelsen administration, the FARC expanded its operations, especially in Cauca and Caldas departments.
The M-19 emerged as the most active guerrilla group during this period. In January 1979, members of the M-19 tunneled into a military arsenal in Bogotá and took 5,000 guns. Within a few weeks, however, most of the weapons were recovered, and many of the participants were arrested. In October 1979, more than 200 accused M-19 members were brought to trial in Bogotá. The delay of other military trials of M-19 members probably led to the movement’s takeover of the embassy of the Dominican Republic in February 1980, in which fourteen diplomats, including the ambassador of the United States, were held hostage. The seizure ended peacefully when the kidnappers received safe conduct out of the city and a promise that the Inter-American Human Rights Commission would be permitted to investigate allegations of human rights abuses. By the end of 1981, the M-19 had shifted from purely urban to mostly rural operations and had formed a tenuous union with the other three guerrilla groups. In March of that year, Turbay proposed–and the Senate approved–a limited four-month amnesty for those guerrillas already detained if a sufficient number in the field were to lay down their arms. A second limited amnesty for those guerrillas who surrendered peacefully was approved for the period from February to June 1982.
Turbay also took a strong stance against drug traffickers. In 1978 the president gave the army a key role in the main operation to control drug trafficking and marijuana cultivation in the department of La Guajira, including allowing a military occupation of the region. Two years later, the government transferred responsibility for the antidrug campaign in La Guajira to units of the National Police. Combined efforts with the United States produced some success; for example, the joint Operation Tiburón, which began in December 1980, resulted in the seizure of more than 2,700 tons of marijuana. Despite some impressive victories, however, the drug traffickers continued to wield increasing economic and political power in the country.
In the early 1980s, evidence came to the fore linking some Colombian drug traffickers with both Cuba and the M-19. In 1982 a federal grand jury in Miami indicted four close aides of Cuban president Fidel Castro Ruz on charges of smuggling narcotics into the United States. According to the indictment, the aides assisted the operations of Colombia drug trafficker Jaime Guillot Lara, who, in turn, funneled arms and money on Cuba’s behalf to the M-19.
A contradictory episode in the relationship between the guerrillas and the drug trade was the December 1981 founding of the right-wing "paramilitary" group Death to Kidnappers (Muerte a Secuestradores–MAS) by prominent drug lords Carlos Ledher Rivas and Jorge Luis Ochoa Vásquez. MAS apparently was established to intimidate and punish those guerrilla groups, especially the M-19, that had engaged in the ransom of key members of the drug community in order to finance their operations. MAS subsequently became a death squad, targeting left-wing politicians, students, and party members.
The post-National Front Liberal presidencies proved unable to stem the growth in guerrilla activity and narcotics trafficking. A divided PL thus lost support and the presidency to the PC, effecting a peaceful alternation of power between the two parties. In 1982 the PL presented López Michelsen for reelection, supported by the Turbay faction of the party. Opposing him from the LP was Luis Carlos Galán Sarmiento, a member of the Lleras Restrepo faction. In 1979 Galán had formed the New Liberalism Movement (Movimiento Nuevo Liberalismo–MNL) and accused the Turbay-López Michelsen forces of opportunism, clientelism, and corruption. The PC coalesced again behind Betancur and his National Movement. López Michelsen employed the partisan campaign style that Turbay had used in the previous election, counting on the Liberal majority to remain loyal to the party. Betancur retained his minority strategy of stressing coalition over party affiliation and received endorsements from Gloria Eliécer Gaitán, daughter of Jorge Gaitán, and from María Eugenia Rojas. With the voter abstention rate reduced to 54 percent, Betancur won a decisive victory, receiving support from some traditionally Liberal areas. The election represented the first peaceful exchange of power between the two parties since the end of the National Front.
Upon taking office, Betancur confronted the economic and social conditions bequeathed by his predecessors: economic recession, fiscal deficit, foreign debt, inflation, and unemployment. The parallel economy remained a major concern, as did the growing strength of drug traffickers. On the social front, Betancur sought to negotiate a peace with the guerrillas, offering them unconditional amnesty and legitimate participation in the political system.
By 1998, the country was in the grip of the struggle between the government, traffickers, right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas. Leftist guerrillas created ‘liberated areas’, within which government forces were unable or unwilling to operate. The US administration became infuriated and, in 2000, the US Clinton administration unveiled ‘Plan Colombia’, a massive military support programme for the Colombian armed forces.
Although portrayed as the latest phase of the ‘war on drugs’, it is clear that the programme is essentially political and strategic – the objective is to destroy FARC and its allies. The Bush administration inherited ‘Plan Colombia’ and endorsed the plan with some modifications. Its first effects became apparent the following year, when military forces retook part of the former ‘liberated zone’. The new hard line adopted by the government was confirmed in May 2002, when the right-winger Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who favours all-out war against the left-wing guerrillas, won a comfortable victory at the presidential election. Uribe immediately declared a partial state of emergency, allowing him to impose security measures by decree. In early 2003, American special forces troops became directly engaged for the first time in the eastern province of Arauca. The ELN has reportedly sent a note to the FARC proposing a union, following the death of FARC leader and ideological guru Manuel Marulanda on March 26,2008, Colombian newspaper Emol reported June 6, 2008.