History of Colombia

THE PERIOD OF RECONCILIATION, 1903-30

The Reyes Presidency

The devastation that resulted from the War of a Thousand Days discredited the factions of each party that had instigated the conflict. The moderates who assumed power in each party had similar economic interests; they recognized the need for the two parties to reconcile their differences and rule together in peaceful coexistence to ensure the survival of the country and the economy. For the first time in Colombian history, the Liberals and the Conservatives sought to share power rather than exclude the opposition party from it. Although Conservatives were nominally in control during this period, they formed coalition governments incorporating minority Liberals into the cabinet and other important political bodies. Rejecting the practice of excluding the Liberals from political participation, as had been done by the Nationalists, the moderate Conservatives removed the key element that had prompted so much political violence in the past and laid the foundation for economic progress in the country.

At the end of the civil war, the country needed a leader who was strong enough to rebuild the nation after the loss of Panama and the ravages of civil strife. General Rafael Reyes, elected president in 1904 with the support of moderate Conservatives, showed a determination to unify the republic, renew the nation's economy, and prevent any obstacle--constitutional or otherwise-- from standing in his way. Reyes's policies were a contradictory combination of political reconciliation and authoritarianism, which forced minority Liberal representation in government on the elected Conservative majority in Congress. His economic programs included a protectionist trade policy, which represented a major intervention of the state into economic activity. This trade policy encouraged domestic industrial growth, which in turn led to the growth of cities and the need to develop an urban infrastructure.

To ensure the passage of his economic reforms, Reyes greatly strengthened the executive and thereby centralized power. He abolished Congress and replaced it with a National Assembly composed of three representatives from each department, selected by department officials appointed by Reyes. This action ensured the adequate representation of the Liberal support he needed in the legislative branch. This extraconstitutional body was designed to approve his decrees and to pass constitutional amendments. The National Assembly allowed Reyes to implement policies that sometimes were at odds with orthodox economic theory and therefore would not have been tolerated by a Conservative Congress. Through these measures, Reyes established a sound fiscal administration, stabilized the monetary system, initiated a return to the gold standard, restored Colombian credit abroad, attracted foreign capital, improved transportation, encouraged export agriculture, and aided domestic industry. At the same time, however, he aroused a great deal of political opposition.

Reyes realized that the soundest path to economic development-- based on trade and foreign investment--required normalized relations with the United States, an unpopular idea at that time. In 1909 Reyes unsuccessfully tried to force legislative approval of the Thompson-Urrutia Treaty with the United States, which was to reestablish relations with that country and recognize the independence of Panama. The issue of the treaty's ratification, however, provided a focal point for opposition against Reyes, even though the treaty was ratified under a subsequent administration. In June 1909, the Republican Union, a bipartisan group of Liberals and Historical Conservatives who opposed Reyes, won a majority in the congressional elections held to reestablish the Colombian Cngress. In acknowledgment of the political current against him, Reyes secretly resigned later that month and left the country.

Carlos E. Restrepo, a Conservative who had been instrumental in founding the Republican Union, assumed the presidency after Reyes. The Republican Union represented a transformation in Colombian politics. The Liberal merchants and Conservative agriculturists found a common interest in coffee exports, which was quickly beginning to dominate the Colombian economy. Their mutual economic interest allowed the moderate factions of each party to join in a bipartisan coalition that gained political control at the end of the civil war. Although Conservatives retained nominal control of political institutions until 1930, they accepted and applied the principle of Liberal representation and participation in government. Conservative presidents appointed Liberals to their bipartisan cabinets and thus included them in political decision making. Although party conflict and rural unrest remained, the coalitions that the two parties formed provided a basis for political stability.

Economic and Social Change

As a result of domestic policies and the international situation, the Colombian economy diversified and developed at the turn of the century. In the early 1900s, the industrial sector became an increasingly important part of the economy. Between 1900 and 1910, textile industries developed in Bello and Medellín, pottery plants in Caldas, and breweries in Itagüi and Bogotá. New economic groups emerged with the development of import substitution industrialization and of a larger financial sector.

During the 1910s and 1920s, the Colombian economy became more integrated into the global financial and commercial markets. Renewed relations with the United States during the administration of Marco Fidel Suárez (1918-21) opened the door for foreign exchange and investment. The United States replaced Britain as Colombia's key financial and commercial partner. Most of the foreign exchange came from the coffee trade, which at this time represented nearly 80 percent of exports. Foreign exchange also came in the form of loans and an indemnity paid by the United States for Colombia's loss of Panama. Money coming into the country was invested in industry, consumption goods, and public works and enterprises. Public works, such as building communication networks, accelerated under the Conservative Pedro Nel Ospina administration (1922-26). Investment in industry came primarily from the private sector, including foreign interests. By 1929 private foreign investment totaled US$400 million, with some US$45 million having been invested by oil companies. The Nel Ospina administration also oversaw the reorganization of the banking and financial sectors, creating the Bank of the Republic (Banco de la República).

The growth in industry and construction, supported by both public and private funds, led to the emergence of a genuine working class that soon learned to unionize. In 1918 Colombia experienced its first major strikes. The union movement also came to be influenced by European syndicalism and socialism; in 1919 the first workers' conference, which was fostered by socialist ideas, was held. These activities were a backdrop to the launching of the Colombian Socialist Party. During the 1920s, the union movement expanded and stimulated the growth of socialist-oriented groups. In 1928 a strike against the United Fruit Company was put down violently by armed forces. In the following year, Congressman Jorge Eliécer Gaitán criticized the rough handling of the strike and became a prominent speaker for the working class.

Growing popular discontent with the Conservative governments and divisions within Conservative ranks eventually resulted in the rise of the PL to power. The growth in the industrial and construction sectors that fueled the union movement also drained the countryside of agricultural workers, encouraging rural workers to petition for higher wages. In 1928 the government began importing food and as a result drew protests from agriculturists. Workers and artisans protested the rise in inflation that resulted from the influx of foreign loans and protectionist trade policies. Social tensions increased throughout the Conservative administration of Abadia Méndez (1926-30) and ultimately led to the fall of the PC after its forty-five years in power. The Liberals gained the upper hand in the political arena and retained it during the fifteen years (1930-45) of global crisis.

Colombia History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress