History of Colombia

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THE HISTORY OF COLOMBIA is characterized by the interaction of rival civilian elites. The political elite, which overlaps with social and economic elites, has shown a marked ability to retain the reins of power, effectively excluding other groups and social institutions, such as the masses and the military, from significant participation in or control over the political process. Members of the lower classes have found it difficult, although not impossible, to challenge or join the established elite in the political and economic spheres. Their subordination dates to the rigid colonial social hierarchy that placed the Spanish-born above the nativeborn . Elite control of the military is the result of the "civilian mystique" that developed along with Colombian independence. That mystique has successfully restricted the military to nonpolitical functions, with three exceptions--1830, 1854, and 1953. Thus Colombia has a history rare for Latin America in that the country has been dominated more by civilian than by military rule. Because military forces have been denied political power, the civilian elites have had only themselves, divided into rival groups, to contend with in the political arena.

Since gaining independence from Spain in the early nineteenth century, Colombia has experienced only three intervals of military government. In 1830 General Rafael Urdaneta led a military dictatorship for eight months. In 1854 General José María Melo staged a successful coup against an elected government controlled by the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal--PC) but was himself replaced within a year by an alliance of Liberals and members of the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador--PL). In 1953 General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla overthrew a Conservative government that had proved incapable of addressing widespread rural violence. Although the coup initially had extensive popular support, civilians soon became disenchanted with the regime and sought a restoration of democracy. In 1957 elements of the armed forces forced Rojas Pinilla into exile and turned the reins of government over to civilians. In the thirty years since the return of democratic rule, five Colombian presidents have dismissed key military leaders whose public statements appeared to challenge government policies. The armed forces accepted each of these dismissals.

However, civilian control over the military has not spared Colombia from a long history of violent political conflict. Instead of civilian-military conflict, Colombia has experienced conflict between dominant political parties, the Liberals and Conservatives. Both parties emerged around 1850 during the presidency of General José Hilario López; for the remainder of the century, Liberals and Conservatives clashed frequently over the government of the respective departments, the division of authority between the president and the legislature, and the position in society of the Roman Catholic Church. The López administration drafted a Liberal constitution that granted substantial autonomy to the provinces, reduced the power of the executive, and established a strict separation of church and state. The PL initially consisted of a heterogeneous coalition of golgotas (merchants supporting free trade), draconianos (artisans and manufacturers supporting protectionism), and smaller landowners. Conservatives, in turn, drew their support from large landowners and the Catholic clergy. Peasants tended to support the parties of their patróns, a pattern that continued well into the twentieth century and helped to explain the intensity of rural political conflict.

Liberals emerged victorious from a civil war in the early 1860s and held power until 1884. Under the leadership of Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera, the Liberals expropriated church lands. Because the beneficiaries of this action were merchants and landowners rather than peasants, the policy served mainly to intensify land concentration in a few hands. Meeting in Rionegro in 1863, the government enacted a constitution that reserved for the states all powers not expressly granted to the federal government. In spite of these reforms, a radical faction overthrew Mosquera in 1867 and instituted still stronger curbs in central government authority. Over the next twenty years, Liberal and Conservative factions engaged in an estimated forty violent local conflicts.

The election in 1884 of the Conservative Rafael Núñez as president resulted in a dramatic reversal of government policies. Reacting to the excesses of the radical Liberal faction, legislators supported Núñez in adopting the Constitution of 1886, still in force in 1989. The Constitution established a strong president who appointed department governors and who had broad powers to shape central government policies. Although the Constitution of 1886 finally settled the contentious issue of the scope of presidential power, its promulgation also set the stage for one of the most violent periods in Colombian history. Liberals split into Peace and War factions, with the latter supporting armed rebellion against the government. After staging unsuccessful revolts in 1893 and 1895, the War faction rebelled a third time in what came to be known as the War of a Thousand Days. Conservatives eventually prevailed in 1902, but at a cost of an estimated 100,000 deaths.

The war's devastation discredited extremists in both parties. Conservative and Liberal moderates recognized that the rebuilding of the country's economy required the cooperation of both parties. Although Conservatives retained national power until 1930, a succession of presidents appointed bipartisan cabinets. Cooperation helped generate extensive economic growth and industrialization, which produced new urban groups that supported social reform. Liberal reformists led by Alfonso López Pumarejo swept to power in 1930 and instituted the "Revolution on the March," a series of measures that included agrarian reform, support for labor unions, and the enactment of public assistance. López Pumarejo's ambitious social agenda threatened Conservative landowners; in addition, the loss of the presidency stripped the Conservatives of control of extensive local patronage. As a result, relations between the two parties became increasingly polarized during the 1930s and early 1940s.

Violence soon overwhelmed the political system. In April 1948, populist Liberal politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán--a leader of many of Colombia's urban poor and a likely presidential candidate in 1950--was assassinated in Bogotá. Gaitán's murder sparked a riot, known as the Bogotazo, that destroyed much of the capital and left 2,000 dead. Although the government soon contained the situation in the capital, it could not handle the violence that spread through much of the countryside. Rural violence became the norm as some 20,000 armed combatants claiming to be operating in the name of the Liberals and Conservatives settled old political scores; over the next eighteen years, la violencia (1948-66) claimed the lives of over 200,000 Colombians. Although Mariano Ospina Pérez, who was elected president in 1946, came from the moderate wing of the PC, his administration became increasingly repressive and relied extensively on the military. His successor, Laureano Gómez Castro, was a Conservative extremist who curtailed civil liberties and used the rural police as his party's agents; these actions merely served to polarize the nation, to escalate the level of violence, and to spawn the Rojas Pinilla dictatorship. It took five years for democracy to be restored.

As was the case following the War of a Thousand Days, Liberal and Conservative leaders recognized that the survival of the political system required political cooperation rather than polarization. This recognition led to an innovative power-sharing arrangement known as the National Front. From 1958 to 1974, the two parties agreed to rotate the presidency every four years, to establish parity in all elective and appointive government positions, and to require a two-thirds vote in Congress for all legislation. The National Front proved invaluable in allowing the return of civilian rule and an end to party-related violence. Analysts also contended, however, that the noncompetitive nature of National Front elections weakened party identification among the population, especially urban Colombians, and generated notably higher levels of voter absenteeism.

Reconciliation between the two parties did not produce social peace, however. In the 1960s, three major left-wing guerrilla organizations--the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia--FARC), the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional--ELN), and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación--EPL)--and several smaller groups established bases in the Colombian countryside. In the 1970s, a fourth major organization--the 19th of April Movement (Movimiento 19 de Abril--M-19)--began urban operations. Guerrillas sought to undermine public order through kidnappings, murders, robberies, assaults on military and police facilities, and destruction of key economic installations.

Successive administrations employed a variety of tactics to deal with the guerrilla threat. Although military counterinsurgency operations placed the guerrillas on the defensive during the late 1960s and early 1970s, they regained much of their strength in the late 1970s. In response, President Julio César Turbay Ayala employed his state of siege powers in 1978 to decree the National Security Statute. The statute gave expanded arrest powers to the armed forces, granted military tribunals jurisdiction over numerous crimes, and subjected the media to censorship. Although critics charged that the statute legalized numerous human rights violations, it did not succeed in reducing the scope or intensity of guerrilla operations. Turbay's successor, Belisario Betancur Cuartas, proposed a political rather than military solution to the guerrilla problem. Under the terms of the 1984 National Dialogue, the FARC, EPL, and M-19 signed cease-fires that were designed to allow their reincorporation into national life. As part of the peace process, the FARC established a political front, the Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica--UP), which participated in national elections. But the guerrillas, who were allowed to keep their weapons, soon violated the cease-fires. The National Dialogue collapsed in November 1985 when M-19 commandos stormed the Palace of Justice, the Supreme Court building, in Bogotá. In the ensuing battle between the military and guerrillas, over 100 died, including 11 Supreme Court justices.  Go to Page 2.

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