Colombia - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Colombia: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Colombia, country in South America, situated in the northwestern part of the continent. Colombia is blessed with natural resources, including beautiful beaches, dramatic mountains, and lush rain forests, but it is notorious for political unrest and the violent influence of powerful drug cartels. And despite a long history of democratic government, Colombia has one of the most rigidly stratified class systems in Latin America.

Colombia is the only country in South America with coasts on both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Its neighbors on the east are Venezuela and Brazil; on the south, Ecuador and Peru; and to the northwest, Panama. The capital and largest city is Bogotá.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, a number of indigenous groups, including the Chibcha (Muisca), occupied the land that makes up present-day Colombia. From the 16th century to the 19th century, Colombia was a colony of Spain. The country achieved independence in 1819. Following independence, Colombia became a republic with an elected government.

Colombian society is divided between the upper and lower classes, with a large and growing gap between them. A substantial middle class developed during the 20th century, a product in part of fairly widespread land ownership associated with the country’s coffee economy. Many of the attitudes that led to Colombia’s sharp class divisions originated in 16th-century Spain and became ingrained in Colombian society during the colonial period. Family lineage, inherited wealth, and racial background continue to be powerful determinants of status. Economic progress during the last 100 years has been substantial, but political, social, and economic power continues to be concentrated in the hands of the small upper class.

Since the mid-20th century, Colombia has been torn by violence. Struggles between left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups, and the Colombian armed forces have convulsed much of the countryside. Colombia has also been plagued by an illegal drug trade that flourished in the country as a consequence of the growing demand for narcotics, particularly cocaine, in the United States and other rich, industrialized countries. The Colombian government has attempted to limit drug production and negotiate a peaceful settlement with the rebel forces. At the beginning of the 21st century, however, Colombia still experienced upheaval, and violence had become a daily experience for many Colombians.


The total land area of Colombia is 1,141,748 sq km (440,831 sq mi). The Andes mountains dominate the central and western parts of the country, extending north-south almost the entire length of Colombia. The western two-fifths of the country lies in the highlands of the Andes. Here, towering mountain ranges are separated by high plateaus and fertile valleys that are traversed by the principal rivers of the country. Almost all of Colombia’s population lives in the narrow valleys and basins nestled among the mountains. East of the Andes, three-fifths of the country consists of portions of the llanos, or grasslands, and selva, or rain forest. The llanos lie on the plain that drains northeast into the Orinoco River, and the selva drains southeast into the Amazon River basin. Along the shore of the Caribbean Sea lies a strip of lowland.

Natural Regions in Colombia

The Andes comprise three principal and parallel ranges: the Cordillera Occidental in the west, the Cordillera Central, and the Cordillera Oriental in the east. An isolated mountain mass known as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta rises on the Caribbean coast; this mass includes Colombia’s highest point at Pico Cristóbal Colón (5,776 m/18,950 ft).

The westernmost of the three high Andean cordilleras, the Cordillera Occidental, rises upward through successive vegetation zones, culminating in barren volcanic peaks some 3,700 m (12,000 ft) above sea level. This range extends as an almost unbroken wall throughout its length; generally it is not high enough to reach into the zone of permanent snow.

The Cordillera Central contains the volcanic peaks of Huila (5,750 m/18,865 ft) and Tolima (5,616 m/18,425 ft). About 240 km (about 150 mi) south of the Caribbean Sea, the Cordillera Central descends to marshy jungle. The cordillera peaks are perpetually covered with snow; the timberline in these mountains lies at about 3,000 m (about 10,000 ft).

To the east, the Cordillera Oriental rises to a height of 5,500 m (18,000 ft). Unlike the other two ranges, the Cordillera Oriental is densely populated. Most of its inhabitants live in a series of basins in the mountains at an elevation of 2,400 m to 2,700 m (8,000 ft to 9,000 ft). The three largest cities in this region, each occupying a different basin, are Bogotá, Chiquinquirá, and Sogamoso.

East of the Cordillera Oriental are vast reaches of torrid lowlands, thinly populated and only partly explored. The southern portion of this region, composed of selvas, is thickly forested and drained by the Caquetá River and other tributaries of the Amazon. The northern and greater part of the region comprises vast plains, or llanos, and is traversed by the Meta River and other tributaries of the Orinoco River.

Rivers and Coastline of Colombia

The principal river of Colombia, the Magdalena, flows north between the Cordillera Oriental and the Cordillera Central. Crossing practically the entire country, it empties into the Caribbean Sea near Barranquilla after a course of about 1,540 km (about 957 mi). The Cauca, also an important means of passage, flows north between the Cordillera Central and the Cordillera Occidental, merging with the Magdalena about 320 km (about 200 mi) from the Caribbean Sea. In the west the Patía cuts its way through the Andes, emptying into the Pacific.

The coastline of Colombia extends for about 1,760 km (about 1,090 mi) along the Caribbean and for about 1,450 km (about 900 mi) along the Pacific. River mouths along the coasts are numerous, but no good natural harbors exist.

Climate in Colombia

Colombia lies almost entirely in what is known as the Torrid Zone, the area of the earth’s surface between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. The climate, however, varies with elevation. The low regions along the coast and the deep Patía and Magdalena river valleys are extremely hot, with average annual temperatures of 24° to 27°C (75° to 81°F). From about 500 to 2,300 m (about 1,500 to 7,500 ft) the climate is subtropical, and from about 2,300 to 3,000 m (about 7,500 to 10,000 ft) it is temperate. Above about 3,000 m (about 10,000 ft) is the cold-climate zone, where temperatures range from -18° to 13°C (0° to 55°F). Seasonal variations are slight.

In Bogotá the average high temperature in January is 20°C (68°F), and in July the average high is 19°C (65°F). The highs for the same months in Barranquilla are 32°C (89°F) and 33°C (91°F).

Throughout the year, three-month periods of rain and dry weather alternate. Along the Pacific coast precipitation is heavy. At Bogotá the annual rainfall averages about 1,060 mm (about 42 in), and in Barranquilla it averages about 800 mm (about 32 in). Dry weather prevails on the slopes of the Cordillera Oriental.

Natural Resources of Colombia

About half of Colombia’s land is forested. To the north and west of the Andes, tropical forests line the major rivers and fringe the coastal areas. East of the Andes, the forests become denser as they approach the Orinoco and Amazon rivers. Pastureland occupies about 40 percent of the country and is mostly located in the basins between the Andean highlands. Cropland accounts for a mere 3.3 percent of the land, with no more than 1.5 percent supporting permanent crops. Most of the arable land is found in patches on the Andean mountainsides.

The mineral resources of the country are varied and extensive. Colombia ranks as the world’s major source of emeralds, most of which are mined in the western department of Boyacá. Other significant reserves include petroleum and natural gas, located mostly in the northeast. Most coal deposits are located on the Guajira peninsula on the country’s northeast coast. Gold and silver are found dispersed in veins throughout the central highlands. Iron ore, salt, platinum, and uranium are other important natural resources of Colombia.

Plants and Animals in Colombia

Among the nations of the world, only Brazil exhibits greater biological diversity than Colombia. The country is home to one of the world’s greatest varieties of birds, as well as hundreds of different kinds of mammals and thousands of types of insects and plants. Yet the varied ecosystems of Colombia’s Andean ridges and valleys are becoming increasingly endangered, due mainly to deforestation.

The indigenous flora of Colombia is as varied as the topography. Mangroves and coconut palms grow along the Caribbean coast, and the forest regions, which cover about one-half of the country, include commercially useful trees such as mahogany, lignum vitae, oak, walnut, cedar, pine, and several varieties of balsam. Tropical plants that grow in Colombia also yield rubber, chicle (see Gum), cinchona, vanilla, sarsaparilla, ginger, gum copal (see Resins), ipecac, tonka beans, and castor beans.

The wildlife of Colombia includes the larger South American mammals, such as jaguars, pumas, tapirs, peccaries, anteaters, sloths, armadillos, and several species of monkeys. Caimans, once numerous along the principal rivers, have become scarce due to intensive hunting. Many varieties of snakes inhabit the tropical regions of Colombia. Birds include condors, vultures, toucans, parrots, cockatoos, cranes, storks, and hummingbirds.

Increasing deforestation during the latter 20th century had negative impacts on many bird species that thrived in the rain forests of the northern Andes a century ago. For example, the yellow-eared parrot now ranks among the world’s most critically endangered species. Other endangered animals include the giant armadillo, the cotton-top marmoset, the white-footed tamarin, the tapir, the condor, and the caiman.

Another threat to Colombia’s plants and animals is the smuggling of endangered species out of the country. Birds such as parrots, toucans, and macaws, and mammals including the golden lion tamarin, marmosets, ocelots, and margay cats fall victim to such illegal international trafficking. Animals are often flown out of Colombia on the same clandestine flights used for smuggling drugs.

Soils in Colombia

Colombia contains several fertile low-lying valleys, but only 3.3 percent of the country’s land area, chiefly at higher elevations, is cultivated. The country’s agricultural regions suffer from soil exhaustion and erosion. These problems stem largely from slash-and-burn farming methods, in which forestland is cleared by cutting down and burning the existing plants.


The population of Colombia (2009 estimate) is 45,644,023, giving the country an overall population density of 44 persons per sq km (114 per sq mi). Some 77 percent of the population is classified as urban. The principal centers of population lie in the Magdalena and Cauca river valleys and along the Caribbean coastal region.

Principal Cities of Colombia

Colombia is divided into 32 departments and one capital district. Colombia’s capital and largest city is Bogotá, an industrial center with a population (2005) of 6,778,691. Located on a mountain plateau in the Cordillera Oriental, it is the heart of cultural and political life in Colombia. Cali (2,075,380) lies in the Cauca Valley. The city began as a center for coffee production, but it later developed as the commercial heart of the entire region. Medellín (2,223,660), situated in a highland valley of the Cordillera Central, ranks as the most important economic area. Originally settled by migrants from Cartagena, Medellín grew into a gold-mining town, a general commercial settlement, and finally an important manufacturing center. Other important commercial cities include Barranquilla (1,113,016), which boasts a seaport and a major international airport, and Cartagena (895,400), a seaport and oil pipeline terminal.

Ethnic Groups and Languages in Colombia

The Colombian population has a diverse racial makeup. About 58 percent of the people are mestizo (of mixed European and Native American ancestry), about 20 percent are of unmixed European ancestry, and about 14 percent are mulatto (of mixed black and European ancestry). Blacks account for 4 percent of the population, mixed black and Native Americans for 3 percent, and unmixed Native Americans for 1 percent.

Scholars estimate that the Native American population at the time of the Spanish conquest numbered between 1.5 million and 2 million. Many of the indigenous people were nomadic. The Chibchas, who lived on the Cordillera Oriental in the east, practiced agriculture. Intermarriage between the Spanish and the indigenous people began soon after the conquest, leading to the development of the mestizo population. Early in the colonial period the Spanish brought black slaves from the west coast of Africa. African ancestry is most evident today among the population of the Caribbean shores and inland among the people living along the Magdalena and Cauca rivers.

The official language of Colombia is Spanish, which is spoken throughout the country. However, some Indian tribes in remote areas still speak their own languages. The current constitution, adopted in 1991, recognizes the languages of ethnic groups and provides for bilingual education.

Religion in Colombia

The main religion in Colombia is Roman Catholicism; about 96 percent of the people are Roman Catholics. Although it is not the official state religion, Roman Catholicism is taught in all public schools. Small Protestant and Jewish minorities exist.

Education in Colombia

Elementary education is free and compulsory for five years. Much effort has been devoted to eliminating illiteracy, and 94 percent of all Colombians over age 15 could read and write by 2007. Instruction in Roman Catholicism is required in all public schools, most of which are controlled by the Roman Catholic Church. Protestant churches maintain a number of schools, chiefly in Bogotá. The national government finances secondary- and university-level schools and maintains primary schools in municipalities and departments that cannot afford to do so.

In 2007 some 5.3 million pupils annually attended primary schools; 4.7 million students attended secondary schools, including vocational and teacher-training institutions. In the early 2000s Colombia had about 280 institutions of higher education; total enrollment in 2007 was 1,372,700. Among the largest universities are the National University of Colombia in Bogotá (parts of which date from the 16th century), the University of Cartagena in Cartagena, the University of Antioquia in Medellín, and the University of Nariño in Pasto.

Social Structure of Colombia

Colombian society exhibits strong class divisions. The Colombian upper class largely consists of a wealthy white elite, some of whom trace their lineage to the aristocracy of the colonial era. The wealth of this privileged group is based mainly on the ownership of land and property. The upper class also includes some people who accumulated wealth more recently, through commercial and entrepreneurial activities.

The middle class grew as a result of industrialization and economic diversification in the 20th century. Historically, the middle class was small and politically passive, made up largely of those who had fallen from the aristocracy through loss of wealth and property. During the 20th century, however, the middle class grew to include people who rose from the lower class by bettering themselves economically, including small-business owners, merchants, professionals, bureaucrats and government workers, professors and teachers, and white-collar workers.

The greatest portion of the population consists of the politically powerless lower class. Its members are poorly educated and do not have adequate housing, health care, or sanitation. Those who have jobs are low-paid manual laborers. Few of the benefits of economic growth have reached the poor. Rural areas have an agricultural system in which the wealthy elite owns estates. This system keeps members of the lower class in a kind of bondage as field workers. In the cities the creation and expansion of a labor movement has resulted in some improvements for workers, but working conditions remain substandard, and wages and living standards are low.

Way of Life in Colombia

Family roles in Colombia are sharply delineated, and women generally play a subordinate role in society. Although women are active in the lives and care of their children, men essentially dominate all levels of society. During the last half-century, however, women have increasingly taken on leadership roles in local communities, professional associations, and grassroots movements.

Festivals are popular in Colombia. Independence Day is on July 20. Barranquilla’s annual masked fiesta, which is similar to Carnival, is famous throughout Latin America. Colorful Holy Week processions and religious ceremonies attract many visitors to the old colonial city of Popayán.

One of the most popular spectator sports in Colombia is bullfighting. Tejo, a game in which flat stones are tossed at explosive caps, is played mostly in the highlands. Along the coast, baseball is popular. Horse racing attracts great crowds, but soccer draws the largest following.


Colombia’s Native Americans had developed rich and varied cultures prior to the arrival of Spanish settlers in the 16th century. Several groups practiced agriculture and crafts, producing fine works in stone and precious metals such as gold. Their temples, statues, and pottery attest to the richness of their cultures, and Native American designs continue to influence folk arts such as sculpture, textiles, music, and dance. During the colonial period, Spanish settlers rapidly incorporated Native American civilization into the dominant Spanish culture.

The Spanish colonial government devoted less energy to developing New Granada, as Colombia was called, than it did to other parts of Latin America. Noble families generally did not settle in the area, so great palaces were not built. Since the Roman Catholic Church was the main source of wealth, churches, cathedrals, and religious paintings and statuary make up most of the colonial artistic legacy.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, romanticism took root in Latin American art and literature and became linked to the struggle for independence. Romanticism is characterized by a highly imaginative and subjective approach, emotional intensity, and a dreamlike or visionary quality. As the 19th century progressed, a national style of art began to flourish. Colombian literature flowered, and Bogotá became known as the Athens of America. In the early 21st century, the majority of Colombians had neither the means nor the time to cultivate fine arts, but Colombians still exhibit national pride in the country’s artistic and literary achievements.

Literature in Colombia

Distinguished Colombian writers include 19th-century novelist Jorge Isaacs, who is best known for his romantic novel María (1867). José Asunción Silva, known for his fluid use of traditional and new verse forms as well as his melancholy and spirituality, was one of Latin America’s most important modernist poets. Colombia’s most distinguished contemporary author is novelist Gabriel García Márquez, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1982. In his most famous novel, Cien años de soledad (1967; One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1970), García Márquez popularized magic realism, combining meticulous descriptions of Colombia’s social and political realities with elements of fantasy.

Art and Architecture of Colombia

Late medieval and Renaissance forms characterized the art and architecture of the colonial period. The styles that dominated during the 16th and 17th centuries were the plateresque, with its elaborate decoration suggestive of silver plate; mannerism, with its elongated spaces; and the baroque, with its curved lines, extravagant forms, and intricate ornamentation. The Cathedral of Tunja provides excellent examples of the plateresque style, while the church of San Ignacío in Bogotá exemplifies mannerism and the Palace of the Inquisition in Cartagena epitomizes the baroque.

A national style of painting developed in Colombia in the 19th century. In 1886 the National School of Fine Arts opened and trained future generations of artists. In the mid- to late 19th century, Alberto Urdaneta captured the romantic spirit, and Epifanio Garay was a skillful portraitist and history painter. During the 1930s and 1940s painting in Colombia reflected the influence of revolutionary political movements that exalted the masses and native peoples. Abstract art became important in Colombia around the mid-20th century. At the same time, two of Colombia’s best-known artists, Enrique Grau and Fernando Botero, created a new kind of figurative image—grotesque, funny, and rotund. The internationally famous Botero made political statements with his paintings of inflated priests and politicians. During the 1960s violence and social upheaval became themes of Colombian art, as illustrated by the works of Norman Mejía, Luciano Jaramillo, and Leonel Góngora.

Music and Dance in Colombia

Colombia has a rich tradition of folk music and dance, most of which reveals African or Native American influences. The bambuco is the national dance, although salsa music and dance became immensely popular within Colombia beginning in the 1960s. In the area around Popayán, a city in southwestern Colombia along the Cauca River, a type of music called murga is played by groups of wandering street musicians using stringed instruments. The word chirimía refers to a kind of flute and to musical groups that use this instrument to perform pieces with a strong Native American influence. Colombia has a National Symphony Orchestra and a National Conservatory in Bogotá.

Libraries and Museums in Colombia

The National Library in Bogotá (1777) contains about 800,000 volumes; it also administers town and village libraries throughout the country. The leading museums are located in Bogotá. The National Museum contains collections relating to the Spanish conquest and the colonial period. The National Archaeological Museum exhibits utensils, stone carvings, textiles, gold works, and other materials found at sites throughout the country. The famous Gold Museum features a noted collection of pre-Columbian gold objects.


Colombia is primarily an agrarian nation, and its agricultural sector once was dependent on coffee as its principal cash crop. However, the country successfully diversified its economy beginning in the late 1980s when international coffee prices declined. In 1991 the government implemented sweeping economic reform measures, which opened the economy to international trade and investment and helped the economy expand. It continued to grow until the late 1990s with the rapid development of oil and coal and increased prices for coffee.

By the end of the 20th century, however, Colombia had fallen into a recession due to a combination of low world oil prices, reduced export demand, and diminished investment flow. Moreover, domestic growth and foreign investment were hindered by an inadequate energy and transportation infrastructure and by the widespread violence stemming from drug trafficking and guerrilla insurgencies. The Bank of the Republic raised interest rates and tightened its monetary policy to defend the Colombian peso against worsening trade and fiscal deficits. In addition the country’s unemployment rate rose to almost 20 percent by the end of the 1990s. The economy began to recover in the early 2000s as the government cut spending. A wealth tax of 1 percent was introduced in 2002 to reduce the deficit and secure loans from the International Monetary Fund. The unemployment rate began to fall.

The central government budget included revenues of $50 billion (2007) and expenditures of $52.9 billion (2007). The gross domestic product (GDP) in 2007 was $207.8 billion, or about $4,723.80 per capita. Not included in these official statistics is the economic impact of coca cultivation and the illegal drug trade, including cocaine, marijuana, and opium.

Agriculture of Colombia

Coffee is still Colombia’s principal crop, although Colombia was recently surpassed by Vietnam as the second largest coffee producer in the world after Brazil. Colombia remains the world’s leading producer of mild coffee, but in the mid-1990s petroleum became the country’s largest source of foreign income. In the mid-1970s coffee accounted for 80 percent of Colombia’s export earnings; by the early 2000s coffee brought in less than 10 percent of export earnings. High production costs and low international prices combined to reduce the earnings of Colombian coffee growers.

Coffee is cultivated chiefly on mountain slopes from about 900 to 1,800 m (about 3,000 to 6,000 ft) above sea level, principally in the departments of Caldas, Antioquia, Cundinamarca, Norte de Santander, Tolima, and Santander. More than 150,000 mainly small coffee plantations extend over approximately 1 million hectares (approximately 2.5 million acres). Coffee output totaled 710,000 metric tons in 2007, with most of the exported coffee going to the United States.

While coffee is Colombia’s leading agricultural product, the country’s diverse climate and topography permit cultivation of a wide variety of other crops. Annual production of principal cash crops in addition to coffee includes cacao beans (37,000 metric tons), sugarcane (40 million), tobacco (37,000), cotton (130,000), bananas, and cut flowers. Chief food crops are rice (2.3 million), cassava (2.1 million), potatoes (1.9 million), and plantains. Plants producing pita, sisal, and hemp fibers, used in the manufacture of cordage and coarse sacking material, are also cultivated. The livestock included cattle, hogs, sheep, and horses.

The production of drug-related crops took on significant proportions starting in the 1970s with the cultivation of marijuana. Although Colombia has become notorious for its cocaine supply, the processing of coca leaves was more significant than actual coca plant cultivation in the country until the mid-1990s. As the supply of coca, primarily from Peru and Bolivia, was disrupted, coca growing in Colombia increased significantly. Opium poppies, used to make heroin, also became a significant source of revenue despite government efforts to stop their cultivation. It was estimated that from 1980 to 1995 the value of illegal drug exports amounted to almost half the value of Colombia’s legal exports.

Forestry and Fishing in Colombia

Much of the forestland of Colombia is inaccessible because of poor transportation facilities; however, the tropical forest contains many commercially valuable species including mahogany and cedar. Trees harvested in Colombia in 2007 provided 10.4 million cubic meters (369 million cubic feet) of timber. Much of the wood is used as fuel.

The coastal waters and many rivers and lakes of Colombia provide a variety of fish, notably trout, tarpon, sailfish, and tuna. The total catch in 2007 was 155,102 metric tons. About one-quarter of the annual catch consists of freshwater species of fish.

Mining in Colombia

Petroleum and coal are Colombia’s chief mining products. Other minerals extracted include gold, silver, emeralds, platinum, copper, nickel, and natural gas. The national petroleum company, Empresa Colombiana de Petróleos (ECOPETROL, Colombian Petroleum Company), controls petroleum operations along with several foreign-owned concessions. Production of crude petroleum is centered in the Magdalena River valley, about 650 km (about 400 mi) from the Caribbean, and in the region between the Cordillera Oriental and Venezuela. New oil reserves discovered 200 km (120 mi) east of Bogotá were expected to provide Colombia with energy self-sufficiency, as well as the means for significant exports, well into the 21st century. Much of Colombia’s oil is shipped to Curaçao for refining. Oil production rose from only 100,000 barrels per day in the early 1980s to 540,733 barrels per day in 2004.

Colombia is also one of the world’s leading exporters of coal. Two-thirds of an annual production of 47.6 million metric tons comes from a single open-pit mine, the world’s largest, on the Guajira Peninsula. Some 6.1 billion cu m (215 billion cu ft) of natural gas was produced in 2003.

Gold, mined in Colombia since pre-Columbian times, is found principally in the department of Antioquia and to a lesser extent in the departments of Cauca, Caldas, Nariño, Tolima, and Chocó. Platinum was discovered in Colombia in 1735, and the country has some of the most extensive deposits in the world. Platinum is found in the gold-bearing sands of the San Juan and Atrato river basins. The chief emerald-mining centers are the Muzo and Chivor mines. Other significant mineral products include lead, manganese, zinc, mercury, mica, phosphates, and sulfur.

Manufacturing in Colombia

The manufacturing industries in Colombia, stimulated in the 1950s by the establishment of high protective tariffs on imports, are generally small-scale enterprises. They primarily produce for the domestic market, and they account for 18 percent of Colombia’s annual gross domestic product (GDP). GDP is a measure of the value of all goods and services that a country produces. Cotton-spinning mills, principally in the cities of Barranquilla, Manizales, Medellín, and Samacá, rank as important manufacturing establishments. Other industries include the manufacture of foodstuffs and beverages, clothing and footwear, ceramics, tobacco products, iron and steel, and transportation equipment. Chemical products have become increasingly important.

Energy in Colombia

Colombia has many hydroelectric installations, which produced 77 percent of the nation’s electricity in 2006. A drought in 1992 brought about electricity rationing in much of the country. Consequently the government initiated the construction of new thermoelectric power plants and improved natural gas distribution to urban residences. In 2006 the country’s annual output of electricity was 52 billion kilowatt-hours.

Currency and Banking of Colombia

The basic unit of currency is the Colombian peso (2,078 pesos equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). The Bank of the Republic issues all of the nation’s money and shares responsibility for monetary policy with the government monetary board. More than 25 commercial banking institutions, as well as government development banks and several other official and semiofficial financial institutions, operate in Colombia. Stock exchanges serve Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali.

Commerce and Trade in Colombia

Petroleum ranks as the principal export of Colombia. Other leading exports include coffee, vegetables, chemicals, coal, textiles, fresh-cut flowers, bananas, sugar, gold, emeralds, and cattle. Illegal drugs also rank high among the country’s exports.

The most important imports are mechanical and electrical equipment, chemicals, food, and metals. Colombia’s annual exports earned $29.7 billion and its imports cost some $33 billion in 2007. The United States is Colombia’s main trading partner, and Venezuela, Germany, Japan, The Netherlands, Brazil, and Peru also have significant trade with the country.

Colombia is an original member of the Andean Community (1969), an organization that established free trade among its members and works toward regional economic and social cooperation; its members also include Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. Colombia entered into two other trade associations in 1995: the Group of Three and the Association of Caribbean States (ACS). The Group of Three, composed of Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia, aims to phase out trade barriers between these countries. The ACS includes all 25 nations in or along the Caribbean and focuses on regional cooperation and economic integration.

Tourism of Colombia

Colombia offers natural beauty, including beaches along the Caribbean coast, tropical rain forests, the Andes mountains, and a huge variety of wildlife. The walled port city of Cartagena has many buildings from the Spanish colonial period, including its fortifications. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1984. Bogotá, the center of Colombia’s cultural life, also has many buildings from Colombia’s colonial past. The Gold Museum in Bogotá features objects made by the indigenous inhabitants of Colombia before the arrival of Europeans. Art in the National Museum ranges from the pre-Columbian period to the present.

Colombia draws more than half a million tourists annually, primarily from the United States and countries in South America. However, reports of violence in rural areas related to guerrilla activity and illegal drug-trafficking have put a damper on the country’s tourism industry.

Transportation and Communications in Colombia

The irregular terrain of Colombia makes the construction of roads and railroads costly. Colombia has 2,137 km (1,328 mi) of operated railroad track. Most of the national railroads are feeder lines to the Magdalena River, the main transport artery of the country, which with the Cauca River is navigable for about 1,500 km (about 900 mi). Colombia has no regular passenger rail service. Roads total 112,988 km (70,207 mi), including a part of the Simón Bolívar Highway, which links Caracas, Venezuela, through Bogotá and other Colombian towns, with Quito, Ecuador. The national airline, Aerovías Nacionales de Colombia (National Airline of Colombia), known as Avianca, was established as the first Latin American airline in 1919. The main seaports are Buenaventura, Tumaco, Santa Marta, Barranquilla, and Cartagena.

Labor in Colombia

The labor force of Colombia numbers about 22 million. Some 22 percent is engaged in agriculture, forestry, and fishing; 19 percent in industry and mining; and most of the remainder in service industries. In 2007 Colombia had an unemployment rate of 10.9 percent. The main trade unions in Colombia are the Confederación Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT, Unitary Federation of Workers) and the Confederación de Trabajadores Colombianos (CTC, Confederation of Colombian Workers). The right to strike is constitutionally guaranteed to all employees who are not working for public utilities.


Colombia’s government has undergone several changes since the mid-20th century. One of the most significant was the adoption of a new constitution in 1991. The new constitution replaced the 1886 constitution and provided for a more decentralized, pluralistic, and democratic government.

Executive of Colombia

National executive power in Colombia is vested in a president who is elected by direct popular vote. Under the 1991 constitution the president is limited to a single four-year term. However, in 2005 Colombia’s Constitutional Court approved a new law that allows presidents to serve more than one term. Suffrage (the right to vote) is universal for all citizens 18 years of age or older. The president appoints a cabinet, subject to congressional approval. Under the 1991 constitution, the departmental governors are directly elected.

Legislature of Colombia

Legislative power in Colombia is vested in a bicameral congress composed of a House of Representatives (161 members) and a Senate (102 members). Members are elected to four-year terms. The 1991 constitution imposes penalties for absenteeism and bars members of Congress from simultaneously holding any other public office.

Judiciary in Colombia

Colombia has four high courts: the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court, the State Council, and the Superior Council of the Judiciary. Supreme Court justices are elected for life, half by the Senate and half by the House of Representatives. The Supreme Court is the highest court on all matters of criminal law. The Constitutional Court, whose justices are elected by the Senate to eight-year terms, rules on the constitutionality of legislation and also hears all cases concerning the constitution. The State Council is the highest court for cases concerning the administration of the government.

The judicial system also includes superior and lower district courts and provincial and municipal judges. Although the 1991 constitution banned extradition on the basis that Colombians committing crimes in Colombia had to face Colombian justice, the government repealed this section of the constitution in 1997 under heavy pressure from the United States. The 1991 constitution also established an independent system of prosecution, ensuring that neither the executive nor legislative branches can intervene in judicial proceedings. Capital punishment is outlawed.

Political Parties of Colombia

For many decades the two principal political parties were the Partido Conservador Colombiano (PCC, Conservative Party) and the Partido Liberal Colombiano (PL, Liberal Party). The PCC traditionally favored strong central government and close relations with the Roman Catholic Church, while the PL favored stronger local governments and separation of church and state. From 1958 to 1974 the Liberals and Conservatives were the only legal political parties in Colombia, owing to a 1957 constitutional amendment intended to defuse the explosive antagonisms between them. Under this arrangement, called the National Front, each party held exactly half the number of seats in each legislative house and in the cabinet and other agencies, and the presidency alternated between leaders of the parties.

Although the parity system established by the National Front was terminated in 1978, the 1886 Colombian constitution then in effect required that the losing political party be given adequate and equitable participation in the government. The 1991 constitution omitted this requirement, although subsequent administrations have included opposition parties in the government. Besides the two principal parties that have dominated Colombian politics since the 19th century, new ones have become active since 1985, including the Marxist Unión Patriótica (UP, Patriotic Union) and the Movimiento 19 de Abril (M-19, 19th of April Movement), a group originally formed to contest the results of the 1970 presidential election held on April 19. For a time the M-19 became a guerrilla movement but the group negotiated an agreement with the government in 1989 that allowed it to disarm and reenter electoral politics. The M-19 then helped write Colombia’s 1991 constitution. The UP also entered the electoral arena, winning many mayoralties and other local posts, but because of its association with the guerrilla movement known as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas (FARC, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the UP faced severe repression. More than 3,000 UP members, including two of its presidential candidates, were killed by paramilitaries during the period when it was politically active.

The traditional Liberal-Conservative dominance of Colombian politics came to an end at the beginning of the 21st century. In the 2002 presidential elections a former Liberal leader, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, bolted from the party and won election as an independent. He subsequently received the support of the Conservative Party. In the 2006 election, Uribe again ran as an independent with the backing of the Conservatives, who did not field a candidate. The Liberals placed third in the voting, and a new left-wing coalition, known as the Polo Democrático Alternativo (Alternative Democratic Pole), emerged as the principal opposition group.

Health and Welfare in Colombia

Although public health standards were improving by the early 21st century, physicians were still in short supply. Most of the country’s physicians work in the larger cities. In 2007 Colombia had one hospital bed for every 1,000 people. Malaria and yellow fever remain endemic in some parts of the country. A social insurance system provides maternity and dental benefits, accident insurance, workers’ compensation and disability, and retirement and survivors’ insurance to most of the industrial labor force. Contributions from employers, workers, and the government finance the system.

Defense of Colombia

Male citizens 18 and older must complete one to two years of military service. Some 208,600 people served in the Colombian armed forces in 2006.


From prehistoric times, geography has greatly influenced patterns of human settlement and cultural evolution in what is now Colombia. Bordering on two oceans and occupying the point where the American continents meet, this region was a channel for the movement of peoples and ideas within the hemisphere long before the arrival of Europeans. Running north-south, Colombia’s two major river valleys, the Magdalena and the Cauca, provided a corridor between Central America and the Caribbean, on the one hand, and the interior of South America, on the other.

Relics from Colombia’s most famous archaeological site, San Agustín, near the headwaters of the Magdalena River, attest to early mixing of peoples and cultures. The relics from this site include large stone statues of human figures, many with grotesque expressions. Different scholars have linked these figures to cultural influences emanating from the Andes Mountains to the south, the Amazon basin to the east, and even Mesoamerica to the north. Archaeological understanding of San Agustín, like that of much of Colombia’s pre-European past, is limited. But it appears that the site was occupied by a succession of different peoples and served as a cultural center as early as 2,300 years ago.

Precolonial Peoples and Cultures

A variety of linguistically and culturally diverse peoples occupied Colombia at the time of European contact. Their many languages were related to three linguistic families: Arawak, from eastern South America; Carib, from the Caribbean; and Chibcha, from Central America. Peoples who spoke languages from each family lived throughout the region.

Hunter-gatherer societies prevailed in the vast, sparsely populated lowlands of eastern Colombia, as well as on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts and in the tropical river valleys of the mountainous west. Some of these societies also engaged in agriculture. These were relatively egalitarian societies, and they fiercely resisted Spanish colonization.

In the densely populated temperate highlands of western Colombia, intensive cultivation of corn and potatoes gave rise to complex agricultural societies. Highly stratified and hierarchical, these societies were composed of agricultural workers, skilled artisans, merchants, priests, and warriors. Many of these societies appear to have engaged in frequent warfare with their neighbors, and most seem to have practiced human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism. Their funerary practices, including mummification, reveal great differences in the wealth and power of social groups. Many of these peoples produced exquisite gold artifacts.

The most numerous of Colombia’s indigenous peoples were the Chibcha (Muisca), who occupied the high intermontane basins of the easternmost branch of the Andes. Numbering perhaps 1 million people at the time of the Spanish conquest (estimates vary widely), the Chibcha had not evolved a full-fledged state on the order of the Aztec Empire of Mexico or the Inca Empire of Peru. But they were organized in large-scale political confederations, practiced a diverse and highly productive agriculture, and traded pottery, cotton cloth, coca, salt, gold, and emeralds over a wide area. A separate but highly sophisticated branch of Chibcha-speaking people, the Tairona, occupied the lands around the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a large volcano near the Caribbean coast.

The Spanish Conquest

In 1502, on his last voyage to the Americas, explorer Christopher Columbus made contact with Chibcha-speaking people near present-day Santa Marta. Soon Spaniards were raiding Indian villages along the Caribbean coast as far west as present-day Panama in their search for gold and slaves. Rumors of gold in the interior—the famous legends of El Dorado—prompted three separate Spanish expeditions to converge on the eastern highlands in 1538. There the Spaniards founded the settlement of Santa Fe de Bogotá, commonly called Bogotá today. Spain used the settlement as a base from which to expand its control over the region.

Although few in number, the Spanish terrified the Indians with their weapons, horses, and attack dogs. They quickly subdued the highlands societies and soon controlled much of the best land. The Spanish baptized captured Indians as Christians and required them to labor for Spanish landlords and pay tribute to the Spanish crown.

Contact with Europeans led to a precipitous decline in the population of native peoples. Indians had no immunity to common European diseases such as smallpox, measles, and influenza. In tropical areas, native peoples also succumbed to mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and yellow fever, introduced by Europeans and their African slaves.

The Spanish also undermined the indigenous way of life by changing the way Indians lived and worked. The Spanish turned land that Indians had cultivated for food over to Spanish crops such as wheat or to the raising of livestock. They also forced Indians to labor on Spanish estates or in distant mines, disrupting family life and leaving Indian laborers less time to cultivate their own food.

The catastrophic decline of the Indian population led to the virtual disappearance of native peoples in the lowlands of the north and west. To replace them, the Spanish soon began to bring in African slaves to work their estates and to labor in the mines of the gold-rich Cordillera Occidental and Cordillera Central of the Andes.

In most highland areas, however, especially in the eastern chain of the Andes, the dense Indian populations declined more slowly. Intermarriage between Indians and Europeans resulted in a large and growing population of mestizos, people of mixed Spanish and Indian descent. Indian communities did not completely disappear, but by the 17th century mestizos provided the bulk of agricultural labor. They worked either as tenants or sharecroppers on large estates owned by people of European descent, or as cultivators of small parcels of land they owned themselves. Many mestizos were also laborers and artisans in the towns and cities. Only on the Amazon lowlands of the east did Indian cultures survive the conquest largely untouched.

The Colonial Order

The Spanish crown first administered present-day Colombia through the Audiencia of New Granada, a governing body based in Bogotá that served as a judicial court and an administrative council. As part of an effort to improve administrative efficiency, in 1717 Spain created the Viceroyalty of New Granada, which included present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. A viceroy, or royal governor, who was usually a member of a high-ranking Spanish noble family, oversaw the viceroyalty.

Throughout the colonial period, the Viceroyalty of New Granada remained a relatively poor, unimportant part of the Spanish Empire. The core areas of the empire were the populous, silver-producing viceroyalties of New Spain (Mexico) and Peru. Although New Granada was the main producer of gold in the Americas, the value of the colony’s gold exports, even at their peak during the 18th century, amounted to much less than the value of Mexico’s silver exports. People of means imported luxury goods and some manufactures from Europe, but for the most part New Granada’s modest economy was self-contained and self-sufficient.

When Spain raised taxes to finance wars with its European rivals, a major rebellion, the comunero revolt of 1781, broke out in New Granada. Spanish officials brutally repressed the revolt, but many people, rich and poor, were becoming increasingly discontented with Spanish rule. Toward the end of the 18th century, the inhabitants of Spanish America grew receptive to the ideas from Europe’s Age of Enlightenment—ideas that questioned traditional beliefs and authority and introduced concepts such as limiting the power of monarchs. Members of the Creole elite (Spaniards born in the Americas) especially desired political independence and wanted to break the Spanish monopoly on foreign trade. They led the independence struggles that enveloped Spain’s American colonies in the early 19th century.

Independence from Spain

Troops from the Colombian heartland of New Granada, led by Venezuelan Creole general Simón Bolívar, played a major role in the long struggle from 1808 to 1824 for independence from Spain. A slave owner himself, Bolívar initially found it difficult to rally slaves and Indians to the revolutionary cause, and mestizos always formed the bulk of his armies. After suffering a series of early defeats and witnessing a brutal Spanish reconquest of New Granada, Bolívar’s armies finally defeated Spanish forces in Colombia at the Battle of Boyacá in 1819. See also Latin American Independence.

In 1821 Bolívar was elected president of the newly independent Gran Colombia, which included present-day Colombia, Panama, and, after their liberation, Venezuela and Ecuador. Bolívar and other leaders strove mightily to make the new nation prosper. However, the burden of the war, the weakness of the economy, and the sheer difficulty of administering such a vast and poorly integrated territory led to the breakup of the new republic in 1831, when Venezuela and Ecuador each declared their independence.

The Struggle for Liberal Reform

Even in what was left of Gran Colombia (present-day Colombia and Panama), organization remained problematic. Many political leaders withdrew their support from the increasingly authoritarian leadership of Bolívar and supported Francisco de Paula Santander, the Colombian who had served as Bolívar’s vice president during the war for independence. Regional, class, and ethnic tensions also undermined national unity, while a stagnant economy limited the government’s ability to promote education, improve transport, and maintain public order.

A major division within the new nation centered on policy toward the Roman Catholic Church. During the colonial period, the church had grown rich and powerful, controlling much rural and urban property and running most schools. After independence, the church continued to enjoy power and privileges, and efforts to reduce its influence sharply divided Colombians and led to a series of civil wars. By the mid-19th century, the debate around the church had separated Colombians into two antagonistic political parties: Liberals, who sought to curb the church’s influence and divest it of much of its wealth, and Conservatives, who struggled to maintain the church’s privileges.

The Liberals’ attacks on the privileges of the Roman Catholic Church formed part of a broader policy of creating unrestricted markets for land and labor. Thus Liberal reformers also passed legislation to abolish slavery, allow Indians to sell their land, and end the state monopoly on the cultivation of tobacco. In order to win support for their reforms, Liberals appealed to the middle and lower classes, especially the artisans of the cities. In the 1850s they took the radical, albeit temporary, step of instituting universal adult male suffrage. Conservatives were backed by much of the upper class but also appealed to the lower classes by pointing to Conservative defense of the church.

Conflict between Liberals and Conservatives over these issues resulted in periodic civil wars during the 19th century. Liberals managed to consolidate their control over the national government and push through many of their reforms following a bloody civil war from 1861 to 1863. In 1863 they wrote a constitution that established an extremely decentralized government.

During a civil war in 1885, however, Liberal dissidents allied themselves with the Conservatives and captured control of the national government. Under the leadership of dissident Liberal Rafael Núñez and Conservative Miguel Antonio Caro, the victors wrote a new constitution in 1886. The Constitution of 1886, which remained in force until 1991, restored the privileges of the Catholic Church, limited suffrage to adult males who passed the literacy requirement, restricted civil liberties, centralized administration, and greatly strengthened the power of the executive branch.

Liberals were denied meaningful representation in the new regime and revolted in 1899. The War of the Thousand Days, as the conflict came to be called, dragged on until 1902 and claimed the lives of perhaps 100,000 Colombians out of a total population of about 4 million. Government forces defeated the Liberals in the war. In the aftermath of the conflict, Panama, with the backing of the U.S. government, seceded from Colombia in 1903.

Colombia’s political instability during the 19th century was closely related to economic problems. Gold production, the mainstay of Colombian exports since colonial times, declined after 1810, and gold exports did not regain their value until the 1890s. Exports of other commodities, notably tobacco and cinchona bark (quinine), increased for two decades after 1850, then declined sharply as Colombian growers lost out to more efficient producers elsewhere.

High transport costs, a consequence of the nation’s mountainous terrain, limited the competitiveness of Colombian exports. Although steam navigation was established on the Magdalena River in the 1850s, until well into the 20th century mule transport continued to connect river ports with highland areas where most Colombians lived. The few hundred kilometers of railway in the country at the end of the 19th century were divided among short, unconnected lines, few of which extended into the mountains. In 1900 Colombian exports per capita stood at approximately $6, one of the lowest levels in all of Latin America.

Coffee and Stability

Following the loss of Panama, the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal parties joined together to promote exports and maintain social and political stability. Although the Conservative Party dominated Colombian governments until 1930, Liberals participated in them.

Economic improvement, especially the rapid growth of coffee exports, aided the bipartisan consensus in Colombia. Coffee had been cultivated for decades in parts of Colombia, but after 1910 production expanded rapidly, especially in the Cordillera Central. Most of Colombia’s coffee was grown by small farmers who owned their own land. Because profits from coffee exports stayed in Colombia and were widely shared, coffee stimulated industrial development, especially the textile industry of Medellín. Foreign investment also increased during these years, especially in banana production on the Caribbean coast and in the oil fields of the central Magdalena River Valley. The country’s economic situation also improved in the 1920s when the United States paid Colombia $25 million to compensate for the loss of Panama.

Colombia’s economic growth fostered the development of a fledgling labor movement, and during the 1920s large strikes occurred in the oil and banana industries. Repression of these strikes, especially a massacre of banana workers by the Colombian army in 1928, worked to discredit the Conservative government. The onset of a worldwide economic depression further undermined the Conservatives.

In 1930 Conservatives peacefully transferred power to the Liberals, who controlled the Colombian government until 1946. Under the leadership of Alfonso López Pumarejo, who served as president from 1934 to 1938, the Liberals enacted a series of social and economic reforms. In 1936 constitutional amendments gave the government power to regulate privately owned property in the national interest; established the right of workers to strike, subject to legal regulation; removed Roman Catholicism from its position as the official state religion; and shifted control of public education from the Catholic Church to the government.

Many Conservatives strongly opposed the Liberal reforms, and they withdrew from participating in the Liberal government. By the end of the 1930s, many moderate Liberals had also withdrawn their support for López’s reforms.

Divided over the question of social reform, the Liberals split their votes between two candidates in the presidential election of 1946. Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a famous criminal lawyer and a masterful orator, challenged the official candidate of the party, Gabriel Turbay. Gaitán was of mixed racial ancestry, and he cast himself as a champion of the dispossessed. He was highly critical of what he called the oligarchy, the elite that dominated the two traditional parties and Colombian society generally. Although Gaitán’s program was vague, he captured the fervent support of many poor and middle-class urban voters.

With the Liberal vote split, the Conservative candidate, Mariano Ospina Pérez, won the presidency in 1946. Although Ospina named a bipartisan cabinet, Conservatives in the countryside often sought exclusive control over local government. Tensions between the two parties increased, and violence broke out in many rural areas. Meanwhile, Gaitán emerged as the preeminent leader of the Liberal Party and eloquently denounced the escalating violence.

An Era of Violence

On April 9, 1948, Gaitán was assassinated outside his law offices in downtown Bogotá. The assassination marked the start of a decade of bloodshed, called La Violencia (the violence), which took the lives of an estimated 180,000 Colombians before it subsided in 1958. The violence was difficult for participants and subsequent observers to fully comprehend. Although it reflected social and economic tensions, it revolved around the partisan political concerns that had divided the two traditional parties since the 19th century.

Following the murder of Gaitán, crowds of his supporters took control of downtown Bogotá, burning churches and other symbols of Conservative power and looting many businesses. It was three days before the Colombian army reestablished control of the city. Meanwhile, Liberal partisans deposed government officials in many towns and villages across the country. Government forces quickly reestablished control of urban areas but the Liberal opposition soon organized guerrilla bands in the countryside.

Moderate Liberals and Conservatives sought to quell the escalating violence and form an effective bipartisan government following the events of April 1948. However, tension between the parties and the upheaval in the countryside undermined these efforts. Liberal members withdrew from the government and boycotted the presidential elections. The victorious Conservative candidate, Laureano Gómez, took office in 1950.

Gómez, the leader of the right wing of the Conservative party, moved vigorously to defeat the Liberal insurrection. His government declared a state of siege and suspended the 1950 session of Congress. In many areas, government police worked closely with paramilitary groups to defeat the Liberal guerrillas and to terrorize the guerrillas’ alleged supporters among the civilian population.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Party declared the government illegal soon after Gómez was inaugurated and continued its boycott of elections. In February 1953, right-wing Conservatives proposed a new constitution that many moderates in both parties believed would lead to a totalitarian regime. In June, with backing from these moderates, a military junta overthrew the Conservative government.

General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla was named provisional president of the new military regime, and in 1954 a constitutional convention elected him to a four-year term. Ruling by decree, Rojas offered amnesty to Liberals in revolt and initially succeeded in convincing many to lay down their arms. By 1956, however, violence in the countryside was again on the rise, and moderates of both parties were becoming critical of the authoritarian policies of the Rojas regime.

In 1957, following strikes and demonstrations against the government, another military coup deposed Rojas. Leaders of the Liberal and Conservative parties then arrived at an agreement to share all government offices equally and alternate the presidency between them for a period of 12 years. This arrangement, known as the National Front, was approved in a plebiscite on December 1, 1957, and early in 1958 it was extended to 16 years.

The National Front

The National Front effectively brought an end to the large-scale violence that had wracked the country since the late 1940s. Its power-sharing formula eliminated the partisanship between the two traditional parties that destabilized Colombian politics after 1946. The four presidents who served under the National Front (Liberals Alberto Lleras Camargo, 1958-1962, and Carlos Lleras Restrepo, 1966-1970; Conservatives Guillermo León Valencia, 1962-1966, and Misael Pastrana Borrero, 1970-1974) presided over an era of relative political peace.

During the 1960s, however, guerrilla groups inspired by the Cuban Revolution appeared in Colombia. These groups sought to transform Colombia’s capitalist society into a socialist one. Small remnants of the guerrillas from the era of La Violencia joined forces with some of these groups, one of which, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas (FARC, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), eventually became a major political force. Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, however, leftist guerrillas did not pose a significant threat to the government.

National Front governments sought to promote national development and political stability by launching modest agrarian reform beginning in 1962 and increasing spending on education, health, and housing. Colombia undertook these initiatives with support from the United States under a program known as the Alliance for Progress. This program sought to undercut the appeal of communism and foster capitalist development and liberal democracy in Latin America. The United States also provided increased military aid to the Colombian government in an effort to eliminate the leftist guerrillas.

Critics of the National Front argued that it failed to address the magnitude of the social problems facing the nation. They also claimed that it limited the prospects for third parties, especially those on the left. What is certain is that fewer people voted during the National Front years. Less than one-fifth of those eligible to vote actually cast ballots in the 1970 presidential election, the last held under the rules of the National Front. The low turnout of that year was all the more remarkable because the official candidate, Misael Pastrana Borrero, was almost defeated by Rojas Pinilla running as a dissident Conservative. Supporters of Rojas claimed the election returns were manipulated to defeat their candidate. Some later took up arms against the state under the banner of the Movimiento 19 de Abril (M-19, 19th of April Movement), so named for the date of the 1970 presidential election.

A New Era of Violence

Following the end of the National Front and the return of competitive elections in 1974, the two traditional parties continued to dominate Colombian politics, but this domination lasted only until the beginning of the 21st century. Six of the eight presidents elected after 1974 were Liberals. In 2002, however, Colombians rejected the official candidate of the Liberal Party, electing Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who ran as an independent. All of these governments had to grapple with the growing power of leftist guerrillas and paramilitary right-wing forces. In addition these governments tried to stop the illegal drug trade.

Leftist Guerrillas

Originally the leftist guerrillas sought to overthrow the government and create a socialist regime. Over time, however, their goals have become less clear. The collapse of the Soviet Union (see Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) in 1991 made socialism less appealing throughout the world and also eliminated Soviet support for revolutionary groups in Latin America. In addition, decades of struggle against the government made insurgency itself a way of life. Revolutionary groups support themselves through kidnapping, extortion, and income derived from protecting producers, processors, and traffickers of illegal drugs. These activities tend to undermine their commitment to revolutionary ideals and goals. Nevertheless the main guerrilla groups continue to demand a radical restructuring of Colombia’s liberal capitalist order. Estimates placed the number of combatants in the FARC as high as 18,000 men and women in 2001, up from some 4,000 in 1985. The other large guerrilla group active in the country is the Ejercito de Liberación Nacional (ELN, Army of National Liberation), estimated to have about 5,000 combatants. As the 21st century began, however, the ELN engaged in disarmament talks.

Since the 1980s, Colombian governments have simultaneously combated the guerrillas militarily while trying to negotiate with them to bring their insurgency to an end. Conservative president Belisario Betancur, who served from 1982 to 1986, made the first concerted effort at negotiation and announced a truce with the guerrillas in 1984. In response, the FARC launched a new political party, the Unión Popular (UP, Patriotic Union), in 1985 to compete in future elections. The UP achieved some electoral success in subsequent years, but the FARC never disarmed.

With the formation of the UP, the FARC pursued power through both military and political means. This pursuit made the UP especially vulnerable to clandestine right-wing repression. Many right-wing and centrist forces simply saw the UP as a front for the FARC guerrillas. In subsequent years, death squads killed hundreds of UP militants, including the UP presidential candidates in 1986 and 1990.

Betancur’s peace initiatives suffered another grave blow in November 1985 when M-19 guerrillas seized the Palace of Justice, the seat of the country’s Supreme Court, in Bogotá. They took dozens of hostages, and the Colombian army stormed the Palace. The military assault left more than 100 people dead, including 11 Supreme Court justices.

Eventually the M-19 agreed to demobilize, and its leaders played a prominent role in the constituent assembly that wrote a new constitution for Colombia in 1991. The Constitution of 1991 provided the legal basis for a more decentralized, pluralistic, and democratic government, including provisions to foster the development of new political parties.

Throughout the 1990s the Colombian government worked to negotiate an end to the guerrilla insurgency. The most ambitious of these efforts occurred following the election of Conservative Andrés Pastrana to the presidency in 1998. Pastrana created a safe haven for the FARC in southeastern Colombia. The safe haven was an area where no government troops could enter. Peace negotiations between the government and the FARC took place between 1999 and 2001. During 2000 the two sides agreed on an ambitious agenda, including agrarian reform, historically the FARC’s most fundamental concern. But the two sides made little progress on substantive issues, and by the end of 2001 negotiations had collapsed.

Meanwhile, the ELN demanded a safe haven of its own near the petroleum complex at Barrancabermeja in the Magdalena Valley. The ELN’s primary goal has been to nationalize Colombia’s oil industry, and it has inflicted great damage by repeatedly blowing up the country’s most important oil pipeline. However, a safe haven for the ELN never materialized under the Pastrana government. The government of Álvaro Uribe, with U.S. military support, attempted to protect the pipeline more effectively.

The Paramilitary Right

Throughout the 1990s, the strength of the leftist guerrillas grew, and the government was unable to defeat them or negotiate their surrender. The situation gave rise to another armed contender in Colombia’s civil war, the paramilitary right. The government initially encouraged the forerunners of some of these paramilitary groups as a way to protect rural communities from the guerrillas. Other paramilitary groups evolved after large landowners, some of them newly rich from the drug trade, hired armed bands to protect them from extortion and kidnapping.

The main paramilitary group was the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC, United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia). Paramilitary groups were scattered throughout the country and were especially strong in areas of the southeast, where the FARC was most powerful, and the northwest, where much of ELN’s strength lay.

The right-wing paramilitary groups rarely confronted the guerrillas directly. Instead, they sought through terror to deny the guerrillas the support of the civilian population. International human rights organizations blamed paramilitaries for the bulk of human rights violations in Colombia. They also accused elements of the Colombian armed forces of working with paramilitary groups against guerrillas and their alleged sympathizers.

The Drug Trade

Colombian governments also had to contend with major changes in the national economy. After 1980 Colombia began exporting large amounts of illegal drugs, primarily cocaine. The estimated value of illegal drug exports amounted to almost half the value of Colombia’s legal exports from 1980 to 1995. Earnings from the drug trade helped Colombia avoid the debt crisis that afflicted much of Latin America during the 1980s. But by cheapening the dollar and thereby overvaluing the Colombian peso, the drug trade also undermined the competitiveness of Colombia’s legal exports by making them more expensive than similar exports from other countries.

The illegal drug trade led to the growth of an enormously wealthy and powerful criminal establishment centered initially in Medellín and Cali. In the late 1980s, under increasing pressure from the United States, Colombian governments began to crack down on these drug traffickers, threatening to extradite them to the United States, where punishment was both more effective and more severe than in Colombia.

In response, the head of the Medellín drug cartel, Pablo Escobar, unleashed a bombing campaign that killed hundreds of civilians in Colombia’s major cities. Drug money was also behind the assassinations of three presidential candidates in 1990. The Constitution of 1991 prohibited extradition, but the Colombian government reinstated it soon thereafter. Escobar was eventually apprehended and killed in 1993.

By the late 1990s Colombia’s drug war had shifted toward efforts to eradicate coca, plants that are used to make cocaine, and poppies, flowers that are used to make opium. In 1999 the Colombian government announced Plan Colombia, a program to decrease the cultivation of coca and poppies in areas of southeastern Colombia largely controlled by the FARC. The following year the United States announced that it would give $1.3 billion in aid, primarily for military hardware such as helicopters and planes, to support aerial fumigation of coca and poppy fields.

Critics of the plan claimed that the spraying was dangerous to human health and the environment, that the small farmers who grew the coca had no viable economic alternatives, and that the plan’s real purpose was to aid the Colombian military in its battle against the guerrillas. Supporters of Plan Colombia denied these allegations and claimed fumigation would significantly reduce coca cultivation. Early data indicated that Colombian coca production continued to rise.

Recent Trends

In the 1990s the Colombian government implemented policies to liberalize trade by cutting tariffs, which had protected domestic industry and agriculture. These policies contributed to the country’s high levels of unemployment. By the end of the 1990s the official unemployment figure in Colombia had reached almost 20 percent, one of the highest levels in Latin America. Unemployment figures began to drop in the early 2000s.

The Colombian economy also suffered from insecurity spawned by the country’s violence. With the greatest number of kidnappings in the world and the highest homicide rate in the Americas, Colombia held little attraction for investors. The gravity of the economic situation also contributed to the frequency of common crime and to the pool of potential recruits for guerrilla and paramilitary groups, both of which pay their combatants salaries.

President Álvaro Uribe, a former Liberal who ran as an independent, was inaugurated in 2002 after winning the first round of the presidential elections. Uribe stepped up the military effort against the leftist guerrillas and pledged to double the size of Colombia’s military and police forces, winning the support of the Conservative Party in the process. Like his predecessors, Uribe also pursued negotiations with the guerrillas, and he emphasized the need for international mediation to end the conflict.

At Uribe’s request, the United States took a more active role in training and supplying the Colombian military in its war against the guerrillas. By 2003 U.S. forces were also actively involved in protecting Colombia’s northern pipeline. The FARC responded to these initiatives by detonating bombs in Colombia’s cities and targeting U.S. forces directly. By mid-2003 some observers believed that Colombia was on the verge of a full-scale civil war.

The government began formal peace talks with the paramilitary AUC in 2004, and the AUC announced that it would disarm several thousand of its members. However, the AUC wanted total amnesty on any charges related to drugs or human-rights violations. The United States sought extradition of a number of AUC leaders for drug trafficking. The outcome of the peace talks remained far from clear. In March 2006 political supporters of Uribe won a majority control of the Colombian congress. The same month his government finalized a free trade agreement with the United States.

Uribe was easily reelected in the May 2006 presidential elections, claiming more than 60 percent of the vote. Uribe again ran as an independent but with the backing of the Conservative Party, which did not field a candidate. Colombian voters credited Uribe with ending much of the daily violence that had plagued Colombia, while isolating and weakening the FARC.

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