Colombia History


During the pre-Columbian period, the area now known as Colombia was inhabited by indigenous people who were primitive hunters or nomadic farmers. The Chibchas, who lived in the Bogota region, dominated the various Indian groups.

Spaniards first sailed along the north coast of Colombia as early as 1500, but their first permanent settlement, at Santa Marta, was not established until 1525. In 1549, the area was established as a Spanish colony with the capital at Santa fe de Bogota. In 1717, Bogota became the capital of the Viceroyalty of New Granada, which included what is now Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. The city became one of the principal administrative centers of the Spanish possessions in the New World, along with Lima and Mexico City.

On July 20, 1810, the citizens of Bogota created the first representative council to defy Spanish authority. Total independence was proclaimed in 1813, and in 1819 the Republic of Greater Colombia was formed.

The Republic

After the defeat of the Spanish army, the republic included all the territory of the former viceroyalty. Simon Bolivar was elected its first President and Francisco de Paula Santander, Vice President. Two political parties that grew out of conflicts between the followers of Bolivar and Santander--the Conservatives and the Liberals--have dominated Colombian politics. Bolivar's supporters, who later formed the nucleus of the Conservative Party, advocated a strong centralized government, alliance with the Roman Catholic Church, and a limited franchise. Santander's followers, forerunners of the Liberals, wanted a decentralized government, state rather than church control over education and other civil matters, and a broadened suffrage.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, each party held the presidency for roughly equal periods of time. Colombia, unlike many Latin American countries, maintained a tradition of civilian government and regular, free elections. The military has seized power three times in Colombia's history: in 1830, when Ecuador and Venezuela withdrew from the republic (Panama did not become independent until 1903); in 1854; and in 1953-57. In the first two instances, civilian rule was restored within 1 year.

Notwithstanding the country's commitment to democratic institutions, Colombia's history has been characterized by periods of widespread, violent conflict. Two civil wars resulted from bitter rivalry between the Conservative and Liberal parties. The War of a Thousand Days (1899-1902) cost an estimated 100,000 lives, and up to 300,000 people perished during "La Violencia" (The Violence) of the late 1940s and 1950s.

A military coup in 1953 brought Gen. Gustavo Rojas Pinilla to power. Initially, Rojas enjoyed considerable popular support, due largely to his success in reducing "La Violencia." When he did not restore democratic rule, however, he was overthrown by the military in 1957 with the backing of both political parties, and a provisional government was installed.

The National Front

In July 1957, former Conservative President Laureano Gomez (1950-53) and former Liberal President Alberto Lleras Camargo (1945-46) issued the "Declaration of Sitges," in which they proposed a "National Front" whereby the Liberal and Conservative parties would govern jointly. Through regular elections, the presidency would alternate between the two parties every 4 years; the parties also would have parity in all other elective and appointive offices.

The National Front ended "La Violencia." National Front administrations instituted far-reaching social and economic reforms in cooperation with the Alliance for Progress, an inter-American program of economic assistance which began in 1961 with major financial backing by the United States. The National Front government made efforts to resolve problems of inflation, unemployment, and inequitable income distribution while cutting government expenses.

Although the parity system established by the Sitges agreement was terminated in 1978, the 1886 Colombian constitution (in effect until 1991) required that the losing political party be given adequate and equitable participation in the government. Although the 1991 constitution does not have that requirement, subsequent administrations have included opposition parties in the government.

Post-National Front Years

Between 1978 and 1982, the government focused on ending the limited, but persistent, Cuban-backed insurgency that sought to undermine Colombia's traditional democratic system. The success of the government's efforts enabled it to lift the state-of-siege decree that had been in effect for most of the previous 30 years.

In 1984, President Belisario Betancur, a Conservative who won 47% of the popular vote, negotiated a cease-fire that included the release of many guerrillas imprisoned during the effort to overpower the insurgents. The cease-fire ended when Democratic Alliance/M-19 (AD/M-19) guerrillas resumed fighting in 1985.

A vicious attack on the Palace of Justice in Bogota by the AD/M-19 on November 6-7, 1985, and its violent suppression by the Army, shocked Colombia and the entire world. Of the 115 people killed, 11 were Supreme Court justices. Although the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest guerrilla group, renewed their truce in March 1986, peace with the AD/M-19 and dissident factions of other guerrilla groups seemed remote as Betancur left office.

The next administrations had to contend both with the guerrillas and with the narcotics traffickers, who operated with relative impunity within Colombia. Narco-terrorists assassinated three presidential candidates before Cesar Gaviria Trujillo was elected in 1990. Since the death of Medellin cartel leader Pablo Escobar in a shoot-out in December 1993, indiscriminate acts of violence associated with that organization have abated.

President Ernesto Samper assumed office in August 1994. Samper vowed to continue many of the economic and foreign policy goals of the Gaviria Administration, while also placing greater emphasis on addressing social inequities and eliminating poverty. However, a political crisis relating to contributions from drug traffickers to Samper's 1994 presidential campaign diverted attention from these social programs, thus slowing, and in some cases, halting progress.

source: U.S. State Department Background Notes 1999

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