Colombia has a long history of habitation by indigenous people like Tairoma, Quimbaya, and Muisca civilizations. However, the Spaniards arrived in early 1500 and colonized the local population. The capital of this new colony was Bogota but four centuries later, the indigenous people won independence, thus resulting in the establishment of Gran Colombia. Eventually, the new leaders declared the Republic of Colombia in 1886, prior to Panama’s cessation in 1903. There was relative peace for the first half of the 20th Century but since the 1960s, rivaling factions entered into a gradually escalating armed conflict. Between 1990 and 2005, the war intensified and the economy suffered. Today, most countries in the world have keenly observed Colombia’s historical legacy and its rich cultural heritage. Still, the conflicts that marked the 20th Century led to the establishment of strong regional identities.
Conservative and Liberal Conflict
The country adopted the name “Republic of Colombia” in the year 1886. Immediately, the regional conflicts led to the development of two rival political parties under the leadership of Santander and Bolivar. One party was liberal and the other had conservative policies. Since the beginning of the 20th Century, the two political visions dominate Colombia’s political landscape. Some of Bolivar’s conservative supporters’ demands were the formation of a centralized governance system, limited franchise, and the establishment of a strong alliance with the Roman Catholicism. On the other hand, Santander’s liberal people demanded a broad suffrage and a decentralized system of governance under minimal or no religious influence.
As the 20th Century dragged on, both the Conservative and Liberal parties had equal presidency opportunities, since Colombian people maintained free and fair elections and a civilian governance system. However, it is important to note that the country’s military rose to power on three occasions in its modern history. The first time briefly after the dissolution of Gran Colombia in 1830. In 1854, Jose Maria Melo’s Army secured the government buildings, making him the de facto leader. Gustavo Rojas Pinilla established the last military rule from the year 1953 to 1957. Each time, the Colombian people restored civilian rule after the first year.
As the country commits to establishing democratic institutions, violent widespread conflicts characterize its 20th Century history. For example, there were two main civil wars due to bitter disagreements between Conservatives and Liberals. Between 1900 and 1902, The Thousand Days’ War led to a loss of more than 100, 000 lives. In addition, La Violencia that started in the early 1940s and ended in late 1950s resulted in deaths of approximately half a million people (Kline 84). Even worse, millions more were displaced to neighboring countries and the United States. The United States has also played a role in the conflict. For instance, in 1903, the American government expressed interest in establishing a trade route through Panama. Therefore, its intention to control this Colombian region resulted in a public uproar and triggered a conflict. Consequently, Panama seceded and established itself as a sovereign state with the help of Western powers.
The National Front
Both Laurino Gomez and Alberto Lieras (representing Conservatives and Liberals respectively) released the Declaration of Sitges (Echeverry 118). The two leaders jointly proposed a National Front where the country’s two main parties will share governance responsibilities and influence. According to a joint statement, they agreed to alternate the presidency in a four-year term between the Liberals and Conservatives for 16 years. However, contradictions emerged in when each successive government delayed time for shifting or honoring the contract terms. Over the years, political and social injustices peaked due to uncertainty regarding the country’s future. Most political analysts argue that the National Front system encouraged political repression rather than solving the main problems affecting Colombia’s political stability and economic development.
In 1970, mainstream voters and dissidents confirmed that the elections were fraudulent in favor of Misael Pastrana, a mainstream candidate. As a result, a widely popular candidate (Gustavo Rojas) lost hence triggering the M-19 Guerrilla movement. The foundation of Movemento 19 de Abril was a resounding response to a skewed governance system. In addition, Manuel Velez founded the FARC movement after the government attacked Marquetalia community (Pearce 32). The Stiges agreement expired in 1974 but the country’s constitution mandated equitable and adequate participation of the losing political party in the government. However, this clause is the main cause of legal relaxation and rampant corrupt practices in the 1990s.
The main focus of the presidents that ruled between 1974 and 1982 was to end multiple regional insurgencies. In was clear that the Colombia’s traditional political system was under threat. Ideally, both the Conservatives and Liberals claimed to be representatives of the weak, poor and marginalized communities. They deceptively labeled themselves as the opposers of the powerful and rich classes in Latin America. Further, both the parties demanded political and land reform so that the country can smoothly transition from communism to capitalism.
By the year 1974, the main challenge for the legitimate government and its authority, especially in the remote regions, was M-19. During its early years, M-19 received an overwhelming support and sympathy of the mainstream population. It was easy for the new resistance group to appeal to the public, unlike ELN (National Liberation Army) and FARC. They conducted daring but extravagant operations and failed to yield the desired outcome. As a result, they waned over the years, minimizing their operation to the strongholds.
Even though ELN was defeated in 1974, it reconstituted in Anori region but refocused its attention on fostering peace with the legitimate government. By the year 1982, the FARC had taken a passive stance since the government had weakened the influenced of ELN and M-19. Resultantly, Julio Ceasar’s Liberal Party lifted the State-of-Siege decree that it had partially implemented for three decades. At this time, the US government and other Western nations questioned the government’s security policies and suppression of dissidents. They pressurized President Turbay’s government to strengthen the opposition for national political stability. Nevertheless, the subsequent administrations continued human rights abuses, specifically against the captured guerrillas and suspects.
The election of President Betancur in the year 1982 ushered in a new era of negotiations with the FARC rebels and other insurgent groups. Consequently, the government released most of the prisoners of war detained for more than 20 years. Still, ELD bluntly rejected any efforts to settle scores with the government. It strongly opposed the establishment of US and European oil firms in the country.
Despite the significant progress, illegal drug trade rose sharply during Betancur’s leadership. The wealthy drug lords and rebel groups maintained vast areas and often conflicted with each other. As a result, the country witnessed another period of violence, crimes, and deaths (Stanford and Palacios 14). The levels of corruption soared since the drug cartels murdered or bribed the public officials. Drug lords assassinated three presidents prior to the Cesar Gaviria’s election in1990. However, the publicized assassination of Pablo Escobar (one of the most prominent drug cartels in Colombia) resulted in smaller manageable fractions of gang units. After a successful incorporation of M-19 into the government, the new administration wrote and subsequently passed a new constitution in 1991. Eventually, the country implemented legal reforms and modern form of leadership.
- Echeverry, Juan Carlos. “Oil in Colombia: History, Regulation, and Macroeconomic Impact.” Universidad De Los Andes-Cede (2009): 92-181. Print.
- Kline, Harvey F. Colombia: Democracy under Assault. Boulder: Westview Press, 2015. Print.
- Pearce, Jenny. Colombia: Inside the Labyrinth. London: Latin America Bureau, 2011. Print.
- Safford, Frank and M Palacios. Colombia: Fragmented Land, Divided Society (Latin American Histories). Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011. Print.