San José State University
Department of Economics

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Political and Economic History of Colombia

Introduction

In contrast to many other Latin American countries Colombia has not been plagued with military takeovers of the government. Colombia has had its share of violence but typically the battles have been between different civilian political factions. In the 19th century and much of the 20th century the division was between the Liberal and Conservative Parties. The terms liberal and conservative in the Latin American context means something quite different than they do in the United States. Outside of 20th and 21st century U.S. the term liberal means what conservative means in the U.S. What is meant by conservative is outside of the U.S. political spectrum. In Latin America conservative means preserving a special role for the Catholic Church in the society and the economy. It means preserving the distribution of land ownership even if the land was acquired by dispossessing previous occupants. Coupled with the political division on those issues there is the division between the centrists and the federationists. The centrists want the central government to have complete control politically even to the point of requiring state and city officials to be appointed by the central government instead of being elected by their constituents. The federationists want a degree of autonomy for the state and city governments. They see the government as being a convening of elected representatives. The federationists want some strict limitations on the power of the central government.

Both the Liberal Party (PL) and the Conservative Party (PC) became organized parties around 1850 after Colombia had been a sovereign nation for about thirty years. The support for the PL came from the merchants, artisans and manufacturers. The odd thing is that the merchants of the PL (las golgotas) favored free trade and the artisans and manufacturers in the PL( los draconianos) supported protectionism. The PC was supported by the large landowners and the clergy of the Catholic church. The small landowners tended to support the Liberal Party. The peasants tended to identify with the political party of their patrons.

In the early 1850's a liberal constitution was adopted which separated church and state and gave substantial autonomy to the subregional political units and limited the power of the central government. There was a military takeover of the PL-dominated government in 1854 and later a civil war in which the Liberals won. The Liberal Party controlled the government which later enacted a new constitution that placed more restrictions on the power of the central government. The PL expropriated church lands but when those lands were sold they went to merchants and the wealthy so the concentration of ownership of land was not reduced but instead was increased. A radical faction within the PL took power in 1867 and further reduced the legal power of the central government. The central government was to have only those powers which were explicitly given in the constitution.

In a backlash against the radicals in the PL the electorate of Colombia in 1884 voted for the Conservatives. The Conservative president Rafael Núñez led the legislature to adopt a new constitution in 1886 which gave the presidency strong powers including the appointment, rather than the election, of departmental (provincial) governors. It was a major victory for the centrists.

Liberals chafed under the concentration of power in the central government and eventually split into two factions, the War faction which advocated armed rebellion against the centrists and the Peace faction which did not. The War faction of the Liberal Party rebelled three times; in 1893, in 1895 and finally in what was called the War of a Thousand Days, from 1899 to 1902. The War of a Thousand Days cost a hundred thousand lives but ultimately failed to overthrow the Conservative Party government.

The horror of the War of a Thousand Days convinced the Conservatives that cooperation with the Liberals would be necessary and Liberals were included in the cabinets of the government.

The conservatives continued in power until 1930 when the effects of the worldwide Great Depression convinced the Colombian electorate of the need for change. The PL government of Alfonso López Pumarejo enacted legislation for land reform, recognition of labor unions and public welfare assistance.

The Liberals continued in power until 1946 when a moderate Conservative named Mariano Ospina Pérez was elected. Both parties had their moderate and extremist factions. Pérez was perceived to become more authoritarian in office and raised fears of what the future would bring.

In 1948 a prominent Liberal leader, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, was assassinated in Bogotá. Riots broke out in Bogotá that the government was able to suppress only with the deaths of 2,000 and the destruction of much of the city. The riots and rebellion spread to the countryside where the government could not contain it and continued for eighteen years. This period of 1948-1966, known as la violencia, resulted in two hundred thousand deaths.

Long before the end of la violencia the leaders of the Liberal and Conservative Parties recognized the need for some political solution to the problems of Colombia. In 1958 the PC and PL agreed to share political power in what was called the National Front. Under this arrangement the two parties would alternate in the control of the presidency every four years and equally share the numbers of the appointed and elected offices in government. The National Front arrangement continued from 1958 to 1974.

Not everyone was happy with the National Front arrangement. Under it the office of president went not to the choice of the electorate but instead to the candidate of the party, PC or PL, whose turn it was to rule. Supporters of third parties, particularly leftist, felt excluded under the arrangement.

In the 1960's three organization initiated guerilla operations and in the 1970's they were joined by a fourth:

(To be continued)

The Geography of Colombia

The geography of Colombia if not unique is quite unusual. The eastern 60% of the country is lowlands that are part of the Amazon Basin. This territory is undeveloped and largely unpopulated. Only 2 percent of the population of Colombia live in this eastern portion. The western 40% is divided north to south by three major mountain chains (cordilleras) and one minor one (serrania).

The three cordilleras constitute the Andean Highlands region and contains almost eighty percent (78%) of the population. The ridge lines of these three cordilleras are depicted in the above map as white lines. White is appropriate because some of the peaks a permanently covered with snow. Between the cordilleras flow two major rivers: the Cauca and the Magdalena. On west of Cordillera Occidental there flow another river, the Atrato.

Besides the Andean Highlands in the western 40% of the country there are two other regions: the Caribbean Lowlands and the Pacific Lowlands. The Caribbean Lowlands is where the conjoined Cauca and Magdalena Rivers empties into the Caribbean. The Caribbean Lowlands contain about 17 percent of Colombia's population. The Pacific Lowlands, which are not entirely on the Pacific Coast, contain only 3 percent of the population.

The terrain of Colombia make it relatively costly for the separate regions to communicate, interact and trade.


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