History of Colombia

THE FOUNDING OF THE NATION, 1810-1903

Even with the initial steps to unify against Spanish authority, the colonial elites argued among themselves. Both before and after the granting of independence, elites disagreed as to whether the national structure should be federalist or centralist. This crucial disagreement, exacerbated by Colombia's extreme regional differences, was the first to separate the political elites into rival groups. The differing opinions of these groups concerning the appropriate relationship between the church and state further emphasized the disagreement. The separate groups followed leaders representing their views and identified with the individuals as much as with the ideologies. By the time of the new nation's foundation, these two groups had become clearly divided and dominated the political scene, excluding others from their competition for control of the country. The force of their ideals carried the nation back and forth between political extremes-- absolute liberty and repression.

The Independence Movement

Leaders in the various localities that had formed criollo councils sought to unite the colony of New Granada. From the beginning of their attempts, however, conflict emerged over the form the new government should take. The provincial councils did not want the centralist, authoritarian type of government advocated by the Bogota council, preferring a federal type of government more in keeping with the liberal principles of the Enlightenment and the example of the North American revolution. This represented the first ideological split between groups of leading criollos. Federalists rallied behind Camilo Torres; Centralists rallied behind Antonio Nariño. To avoid a civil war between the two factions, the provincial councils sent representatives to Bogota in 1811 to draft a constitution for the territory. In November 1811, a congress was installed, and the provinces formed the United Provinces of New Granada. The federal union consisted of autonomous provinces joined only in common interest; the national army was subordinate to Bogota.

Starting in 1812, individual provinces began declaring absolute independence from Spain. That year, Simón Bolívar Palacio, considered the liberator of South America, tried for the first time to gain independence for New Granada. The absence of united support from the various provinces, however, frustrated him. Bolívar left New Granada in 1815 and went to Jamaica. The continuing tension between federalist and centralist forces led to a conflict that left New Granada weak and vulnerable to Spain's attempts to reconquer the provinces.

At the time of Bolívar's departure, the independence cause in New Granada was desperate. Ferdinand VII had been restored to the Spanish throne, and Napoleon's forces had withdrawn from Spain. A pacification expedition led by Pablo Morillo on behalf of the king proceeded from present-day Venezuela to Bogota, and those who laid down their arms and reaffirmed their loyalty to the Spanish crown were pardoned. Morillo also granted freedom to slaves who helped in the reconquest of the colonies. Because of dissension between the upper class and the masses and inept military leadership, Cartagena fell to the royalists by the end of 1815.

In early 1816, Morillo moved to reconquer New Granada and changed his tactics from pardons to terror; Bogota fell within a few months. Morillo repressed antiroyalists (including executing leaders such as Torres) and installed the Tribunal of Purification, responsible for exiles and prisoners, and the Board of Confiscations. The Ecclesiastical Tribunal, in charge of government relations with the church, imposed military law on priests who were implicated in the subversion. The Spanish reconquest installed a military regime that ruled with violent repression. Rising discontent contributed to a greater radicalization of the independence movement, spreading to sectors of the society, such as the lower classes and slaves, that had not supported the previous attempt at independence. Thus the ground was laid for Bolívar's return and ultimate triumph.

At the end of 1816, Bolívar returned to New Granada, convinced that the war for independence was winnable only with the support of the masses. In the earlier attempt at independence, large segments of the population had been lured to the royalist side by promises such as repartition of land and abolition of slavery. When the masses saw that the promises were unfulfilled, however, they changed their allegiance from Spain to the independence movement.

Two significant military encounters led to the movement's success. After having won a number of victories in a drive from the present-day Venezuelan coast to present-day eastern Colombia via the Río Orinoco, Bolívar gave Francisco de Paula Santander the mission of liberating the Casanare region, where he defeated royalist forces in April 1819. After the decisive defeat of royalist forces at the Battle of Boyacá in August 1819, independence forces entered Bogota without resistance.

The merchants and landowners who fought against Spain now held political, economic, and social control over the new country that encompompassed present-day Venezuelan, Colombia, and Panana. The first economic reforms that they passed consolidated their position by liberalizing trade, thereby allowing merchandise from Britain (New Granada's major trading partner after Spain) freer entry into the area. As a result, the artisan class and the emerging manufactguring sector, who previously had held only slight economic and political power, now lost stature.

Gran Colombia

As victory over Spain became increasingly apparent, leaders from present-day Venezuela, Colombia, and Panana convened a congress in February 1819 in Angostura (present-day Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela) and agreed to unite in a republic to be known as Gran Colombia. After Bolívar was ratified as president in August 1819, he left Santander, his vice president, in charge of Gran Colombia and traveled south to liberate present-day Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. When present-day Ecuador was liberated in 1822, it also joined Gran Colombia. In 1821 the Cúcuta Congress wrote a constitution for the new republic. The Cúcuta political arrangement was highly centralized and provided for a government based on popular representation with a bicameral Congress, a president, and a Supreme Court consisting of five magistrates. The constitution also guaranteed freedom for the children of slaves; freedom of the press; the inviolability of homes, persons, and correspondence; the codification of taxes; protectionist policies toward industry and agriculture; and the abolition of the mita system of labor.

Nonetheless, political rivalries and regional jealousies progressively weakened the authority of the new central state. Venezuelan leaders especially were resentful of being ruled by Santander, a native of present-day Colombia, in the absence of their president and fellow Venezuelan, Bolívar. In 1826 General José Antonio Páez led a Venezuelan revolt against Gran Colombia. Outbreaks and disturbances also occurred elsewhere.

On his return from Peru in 1827, Bolívar was barely able to maintain his personal authority. In April 1828, a general convention was convened in Ocaña to reform the constitution of Cúcuta, but the convention broke up as a result of conflicting positions taken by the followers of Santander and Bolívar. Those backing Santander believed in a liberal, federalist form of government. Bolívar's followers supported a more authoritarian and centralized government, and many, especially those in Bogota, called on Bolívar to assume national authority until he deemed it wise to convoke a new legislative body to replace Congress.

In August 1828, Bolívar assumed dictatorial powers and attempted to install a constitution that he had developed for Bolivia and Peru. Unpopular with a large portion of the New Grenadine populace, this constitution called for increased central authority and a president-for-life who could also name his own successor. During a constitutional convention held in January 1830, Bolívar resigned as president, naming José Domingo Caicedo as his successor. That same year, the divisive forces at work within the republic achieved a major triumph as the Venezuelan and Ecuadorian portions of the republic seceded.

New Granada

New Granada lay in a depressed state after the dissolution of Gran Colombia. None of the country's three principal economic bases--agriculture, ranching, and mining--was healthy. The import trade was limited to a small group, the banking industry was inadequate, and craftsmen and small manufacturers could supply only enough for local consumption. Despite the desire and need for change, New Granada retained slavery, the sales tax, and a state monopoly on the production and trade of tobacco and alcohol. The problems facing the country, the discontent of liberal groups who saw the constitution as being monarchical, and the military's desire for power culminated in the fall of the constitutional order and the installation in 1830 of the eight-month dictatorship of General Rafael Urdaneta. After Bolívar's death in December 1830, however, civilian and military leaders called for the restoration of legitimate authority. Urdaneta was forced to cede power to Caicedo as the legitimate president.

In October 1831, Caicedo convened a commission to write a new constitution for New Granada. Finished in 1832, the new constitution restricted the power of the presidency and expanded the autonomy of the regional administrative subdivisions known as departments (departamentos). Santander assumed the presidency in 1832 and was succeeded in 1837 by his vice president, José Ignacio de Márquez. Personalism and regionalism remained key elements in national politics in a country with small cities, a weak state, and a semifeudal population that was bound to the large landowners in patron-client relationships.

During the Márquez administration, the political divisions in the country reached a breaking point. In 1840 the political ambitions of some department governors, the constitutional weakness of the president, and the suppression of some Roman Catholic monasteries in Pasto combined to ignite a civil war that ended with the victory of the government forces led by General Pedro Alcántara Herrán. This triumph brought Herrán to the presidency with the next election in 1841. In 1843 his administration instituted a new constitution, which stipulated a greater centralization of power.

In 1845 Tomás Ciprianode Mosquera succeeded Herrán. Personalism as an important element in politics abated during his administration. The Mosquera government also saw the economic and political ascendancy of merchants, artisans, and small property owners. Mosquera liberalized trade and set New Granada on the path of exporting primary goods.

The election of General José Hilario López as president in 1849 marked a turning point for Colombia both economically and politically. Capitalism began to replace the old colonial structure, and the ideological differences between the established political parties overshadowed the previous emphasis on personalism. In 1850 the López administration instituted a socalled agrarian reform program and abolished slavery. In order to allow landowners access to more land, the agrarian reform program lifted the restrictions on the sale of resguardo lands; as a result, Indians became displaced from the countryside and moved to the cities, where they provided excess labor. In 1851 the government ended the state monopoly on tobacco cultivation and trade and declared an official separation of church and state. In addition, López took the education system from the hands of the church and subjected parish priests to popular elections.

Consolidation of Political Divisions

The ideological split dividing the political elite began in 1810 and became solidified by 1850 after the official establishment of the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal--PL) and the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador--PC), the two parties that continued to dominate Colombian politics in the 1980s. The Liberals were anticolonial and wanted to transform New Granada into a modern nation. Those joining the PL primarily came from the more recently created and ascending classes and included merchants advocating free trade, manufacturers and artisans anxious to increase demand for their products, some small landowners and agriculturists endorsing a liberalization of state monopolies on crops such as tobacco, and slaves seeking their freedom. The Liberals also sought lessened executive power; separation of church and state; freedom of press, education, religion, and business; and elimination of the death penalty.

The Conservatives wanted to preserve the Spanish colonial legacy of Roman Catholicism and authoritarianism. They favored prolonging colonial structures and institutions, upholding the alliance between church and state, continuing slavery, and defending the authoritarian form of government that would eliminate what they saw as excesses of freedom. The PC grouped together slave owners, the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and large landholders. Campesinos were divided between the two parties, their loyalties following those of their employers or patrons--often the PC.

In contrast to the unity demonstrated by the PC, the PL developed factions from the start. Although they had most interests in common, the merchants differed from the artisans and manufacturers on the question of trade. Merchants favored free trade of imports and were called golgotas, whereas artisans and manufacturers demanded protectionism to support domestic industry and were known as draconianos.

The Federalists

Although divided, the PL soon achieved electoral victories. In the election of 1853, General José María Obando, who had led the revolutionary forces in the 1840 civil war and who was supported by the draconianos and the army, was elected and inaugurated as president. Congress remained in the hands of the golgotas. In May of the same year, Congress adopted the constitution of 1853, which had been written under López. A liberal document, it had significant provisions defining the separation of church and state and freedom of worship and establishing male suffrage. The new constitution also mandated the direct election of the president, members of Congress, magistrates, and governors, and it granted extensive autonomy to the departments.

Despite the victory that the constitution represented for the Liberals, tensions grew between golgota and draconiano forces. When the draconianos found Obando to be compromising with the golgotas, General José María Melo led a coup d'état in April 1854, declared himself dictator, and dissolved Congress. Melo's rule, the only military dictatorship in the nineteenth century, lasted only eight months because he proved unable to consolidate the interests of the draconianos; he was deposed by an alliance of golgotas and Conservatives.

In 1857 PC candidate Mariano Ospina Rodríguez was elected president. The next year, his administration adopted a new constitution, which renamed the country the Grenadine Confederation, replaced the vice president with three designates elected by Congress, and set the presidential term at four years. With the draconiano faction disappearing as a political force, the golgotas took over the PL in opposition to the Conservative Ospina. General Mosquera, the former president and the governor of the department of Cauca, emerged as the most important Liberal figure. A strong advocate of federalism, Mosquera threatened the secession of Cauca in the face of the centralization undertaken by the Conservatives. Mosquera, the golgotas, and their supporters declared a civil war in 1860, resulting in an almost complete obstruction of government.

Because civil disorder prevented elections from being held as scheduled in 1861, Bartolomé Calvo, a Conservative in line for the presidency, assumed the office. In July 1861, Mosquera captured Bogota, deposed Calvo, and took the title of provisional president of the United States of New Granada and supreme commander of war. A congress of plenipotentiaries chosen by the civil and military leaders of each department met in the capital in September 1861 in response to a call by the provisional government. Meanwhile, the war continued until Mosquera defeated the Conservatives and finally subdued the opposition in Antioquia in October 1862.

Shortly after taking power, Mosquera put the church under secular control and expropriated church lands. The property was not redistributed to the landless, however, but was sold to merchants and landholders in an effort to improve the national fiscal situation, which had been ruined by the war. As a result, the amount of land held under latifundios increased.

In February 1863, a Liberal-only government convention met in Rionegro and enacted the constitution of 1863, which was to last until 1886. The Rionegro constitution renamed the nation the United States of Colombia. All powers not given to the central government were reserved for the states, including the right to engage in the commerce of arms and ammunition. The constitution contained fully defined individual liberties and guarantees as nearly absolute as possible, leaving the federal authority with little room to regulate society. The constitution also guaranteed Colombians the right to profess any religion.

The Rionegro constitution brought little peace to the country. After its enactment and before the next constitutional change, Liberals and Conservatives engaged in some forty local conflicts and several major military struggles. Contention persisted, moreover, between the moderate Liberals in the executive branch and the radical Liberals in the legislature; the latter went so far as to enact a measure prohibiting the central authority from suppressing a revolt against the government of any state or in any way interfering in state affairs. In 1867 the radical Liberals also executed a coup against Mosquera, leading to his imprisonment, trial before the Senate, and exile from the country.

With the fall of Mosquera and the entrenchment of radical Liberals in power, Conservatives found it increasingly difficult to accept the Rionegro constitution. Eventually Conservatives in Tolima and Antioquia took up arms, initiating another civil conflict in 1876. The Liberal national government put down the rebellion, but only with difficulty.

Golgotas controlled the presidency until 1884 and defended the Rionegro constitution's provisions for federalism, absolute liberties, separation of church and state, and the nonintervention of the state in the economy. Their economic policies emphasized the construction of lines of communication, especially railroads and improved roads. These projects did not unify the country and increase internal trade but instead linked the interior with export centers, connecting important cities with river and maritime ports. By allowing easier access to imports, the projects thus favored the merchant class over the national industrialists.

Under the golgota policy of completely free trade, exports became a major element of the country's economy. Three main agricultural exports--tobacco, quinine, and coffee--developed, especially after 1850 when international markets were more favorable and accessible. Nonetheless, all three crops suffered from cyclical periods of high and low demand. By the 1880s, it was clear that tobacco and quinine would not be reliable exports in the long term because of stiff international competition. Coffee also faced competition but nevertheless succeeded in dominating the economy after the 1870s. The coffee merchants used their profits as middlemen to invest in domestic industries, producing goods such as textiles for domestic consumption, particularly in the Medellín area. The emergence of coffee as an important export crop and the investment of profits from the coffee trade into domestic industry were significant steps in the economic development of the country.

The Nationalists

It became obvious to many Liberals and Conservatives that the lack of governmental authority stipulated in the Rionegro constitution was allowing the country to run a chaotic course and that the situation needed to be corrected. The Regeneration movement sought a basic shift in Colombia's direction. A key leader of the movement was Rafael Núñez, who was elected president in 1879 and held the office until 1882. Liberals and Conservatives who were disenchanted with the golgota governments joined to form the National Party, a coalition that in February 1884 brought Núñez to the presidency for a second term. The Nationalists authorized Núñez to take steps urgently required to improve economic conditions. As leader of the Regeneration movement, he attempted to reform the constitution with the agreement of all groups. The golgotas, however, were afraid that constitutional change would favor the Conservatives and dissident Liberals at their expense. In 1884 the golgotas in Santander started an armed rebellion, which spread throughout the country. Nationalist forces suppressed the revolution by August 1885, at which time Núñez also declared that the Rionegro constitution had expired.

The most important result of the conflict was the adoption of the Constitution of 1886 by a national council made up of two delegates from each state. The Nationalist leaders believed that ultraliberalism as practiced under the Rionegro constitution was not appropriate to the needs of the country and that a balance was needed between individual liberties and national order. Based on this philosophy, the Constitution of 1886 reversed the federalist trend and brought the country under strong centralist control. The Constitution renamed the country the Republic of Colombia and, with amendments, remained in effect in the late 1980s. The Constitution provides for a national rather than confederate system of government in which the president has more power than the governors, who head departments or two types of national territories known as intendencies (intendencias) and commissaryships (comisarias).

In 1887 Núñez consolidated the position of the church in the country by signing the Concordat of 1887 with the Holy See. Through the concordat, the church regained its autonomy and its previous preferential relationship with the republic. The agreement stipulated the obligatory teaching of Roman Catholicism as part of a child's education and recognized Roman Catholic marriages as the only valid marriages in the country. It also acknowledged Colombia's debt to the Holy See brought on by the uncompensated confiscation of church assets under Mosquera in the 1860s.

Political disorder did not cease with the adoption of the Constitution of 1886. The Nationalists, who had become an extremist branch of the PC after Núñez was elected, were opposed by the Historical Conservatives, the moderate faction of the PC that did not agree with the extent of antiliberalism taken by the new government. The bipartisan opposition of Liberals and Historical Conservatives sought to reform Nationalist economic and political policies through peaceful means. The Nationalists, however, denied the civil rights and political representation of the Liberals because differences of opinion concerning trade policy and the role of the state in society created a gulf between the Nationalists and their opponents. The PL split into Peace and War factions, the former seeking peaceful reform of economic policies and the latter advocating revolution as the only way to win political rights. The Peace faction controlled the party in the capital, whereas the War faction dominated the party in the departments--a response to the violent political exclusion that was characteristic of rural areas and small towns. The War faction staged unsuccessful revolts in 1893 and 1895.

In 1898 Nationalist candidate Manuel Antonio Sanclemente was elected president. In ill health, Sanclemente left much of the governing to his vice president, José Manuel Marroquín. The Sanclemente/Marroquín presidency faced increasing problems as the world price of coffee fell, which, because of reduced customs revenues, left the government bankrupt. The fiscal policy of issuing nonredeemable paper money, which had replaced the gold standard under Núñez, added to the increasing lack of confidence in the government.

In July 1899, in Santander, Liberals again attempted a revolution, known as the War of a Thousand Days. Historical Conservatives eventually cast their allegiance with the Nationalists, whereas the Peace and War factions of the PL remained split, thereby weakening the rebellion. Despite an initial victory in December 1899, the Liberal forces were outnumbered at Palonegro five months later. The defeat left the Liberal army decimated and demoralized and with little chance to succeed. The Liberal army changed its strategy from conventional tactics to guerrilla warfare, thus transforming the war into a desperate struggle that lasted for two more years.

In July 1900, Historical Conservatives, seeking a political solution to the war, supported Marroquín in a coup against Sanclemente. Contrary to what his supporters had expected, Marroquín adopted a hard line against the rebels and refused to negotiate a settlement. In November 1902, the defeated Liberal army negotiated a peace agreement with the government. The war took more than 100,000 lives and left the country devastated.

The War of a Thousand Days left the country too weak to prevent Panama's secession from the republic in 1903. The events leading up to Panama's secession were as much international as domestic. At the turn of the century, the United States recognized the strategic need to have access to a naval route connecting the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, such as a canal in the isthmus. The HayHerrán Treaty of January 1903, which was to have been the basis for allowing the United States canal project to proceed, was rejected by the Colombian Congress. Because the proposed Panamanian route was preferred over the Nicaraguan alternative, the United States encouraged the Panamanian separatist movement, militarily assisted Panama in its movement for independence, and immediately recognized the independent Republic of Panama.

Colombia History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress