History of Colombia

THE NATIONAL FRONT, 1958-74

The National Front agreement to share power between Liberals and Conservatives was a constructive effort to assuage the interparty strife and distrust that had contributed to both the violence and the collapse of the democratic system. Its inauguration marked the beginning of a gradual decline in the level of confrontation. Nevertheless, the necessity of securing bipartisan support for any policy or action produced several difficulties--most notably, stalemate and inaction in the governmental process, voter apathy, and the exacerbation of factionalism within the two parties--that were to plague National Front administrations.

Instituting the Coalition Government

When Lleras Camargo took office in August 1958, he faced not only the problems of rivalry between Liberals and Conservatives but also factional controversies within the two parties. He succeeded, however, in demonstrating that the National Front program could point the way to a restoration of constitutional government. His administration adopted vigorous measures to reduce banditry and rural violence.

Lleras Camargo introduced an austerity program to improve economic conditions, with the result that in 1958 Colombia recorded its most favorable balance of trade in twenty years. The government cut imports, stabilized the peso, and established the National Planning Department. It handled labor troubles with firmness. The Lleras Camargo government also instituted a series of programs to improve the living conditions of the masses, including expansion of the water supply, sewers, housing, and education. An agrarian reform law passed in 1961 provided for a new agency, the Colombian Institute of Agrarian Reform (Instituto Colombiano de Reforma Agraria--Incora). Lleras Camargo's government made only limited progress in land reform, however, in the face of opposition from Liberals, who denounced the plan as inadequate, and from Conservatives, who called it communistic and revolutionary. Nevertheless, at the end of his term in 1962, despite a difficult political situation, Lleras Camargo had done much to stabilize the economy, stimulate increased output of industrial and agricultural products, and bring the people a renewed confidence in the future.

Although he was strongly opposed by Gómez and his supporters among the reactionary Conservatives, Valencia became the next official Conservative candidate of the National Front and was elected for the 1962-66 presidential term. Only half the eligible citizens voted, but Valencia received more than 62 percent of the votes, which perhaps confirmed the voters' belief in the principle of alternating the presidency between the two leading parties. Valencia took only modest steps to continue the programs initiated by his predecessor. He ignored, for example, the National Planning Department and failed to fill vacancies as they occurred. Incora's land reform program also ran into opposition from large landholders. In addition, Valencia's finance minister, Carlos Sanz, devalued the peso and proposed new taxes, thereby arousing the hostility of Congress.

Declining economic conditions contributed to growing social unrest. Increasing prices, the printing of growing quantities of paper money, and a drop in the price of coffee affected the economy adversely and contributed to increased inflation. Drains on the economy were generated by contraband trade with neighboring countries. The equivalent of some US$64 million in foreign loans promised in 1964 had been withheld, and the government was faced with a serious deficit. Rumors of plots against the government circulated, students protesting high prices rioted in Bogotá, and kidnappings occurred frequently. Valencia declared a state of siege in May 1965 and, having lost additional congressional support, was forced to rule by decree. The war minister, General Alberto Ruiz Novoa, succeeded in reducing civil disorders; Ruiz was dismissed in January 1965, however, after he openly criticized the president and made it known that he considered himself a leader who might bring order out of the confusion that plagued the nation.

In mid-1965 the state of siege enabled Valencia and his new finance minister, Joaquín Vallejo, to enact reforms by decree. They raised taxes, collected delinquent taxes, limited imports, and applied other austerity measures. The United States and international lending agencies then agreed to make loans to Colombia with the understanding that the government would take vigorous action to improve its financial situation. Inflation leveled off, and rumors of plots to remove the president died down.

Opposition to the National Front

Despite the constitutional amendment stipulating that only the PL and PC were authorized to participate in elections, dissident groups opposing the National Front arrangement formed "movements" to challenge the establishment by presenting candidates under the Liberal and Conservative labels. In 1959 Liberal dissidents formed the Liberal Recovery Movement (Movimiento de Recuperación Liberal)- -subsequently renamed the Liberal Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Revolucionario Liberal--MRL)--under the leadership of Alfonso López Michelsen, son of ex-President López Pumarejo. The more serious challenge to the National Front arrangement came from the populist National Popular Alliance (Alianza Nacional Popular-- Anapo), which was founded in 1961 by Rojas Pinilla after his return from exile. The potential popular support for these dissident movements was manifest in the congressional elections of 1964, when 70 percent of the voters failed to cast ballots and 10 percent voted against Valencia's candidates. Congressional victories by Anapo and MRL reduced Valencia's support in the legislature to a narrow majority.

During the mid-1960s, the embers of la violencia were dying out, but guerrilla activity was increasing. In 1964 the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional--ELN) was formed by students who were disenchanted with the pro-Soviet Communist Party of Colombia (Partido Comunista de Colombia--PCC) and inspired by the Cuban Revolution. The ELN gained its greatest notoriety when Father Camilo Torres, a Roman Catholic priest, joined the guerrilla group in 1966 and was killed in an armed conflict with government forces shortly thereafter. In 1966 another guerrilla movement--the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia--FARC)--began operating and was officially designated as a branch of the PCC.

Carlos Lleras Restrepo, the third president under the National Front, proved to be an effective leader. He was opposed in the 1966 election by the Liberal Anapo candidate, who won almost 30 percent of the vote. Aided by an especially competent group of cabinet members, Lleras Restrepo enacted a number of reforms during his tenure in office. He swiftly announced the creation of a series of presidential task forces to draw up national development plans, which included the establishment of exchange controls to combat the mounting foreign exchange difficulties; an increased state role in economic development; and funding for new housing, infrastructure, and industrial development projects. These proposals drew support from international lending agencies, which helped ease the fiscal problems that had beset the Valencia administration.

The effectiveness of the government was increased by the sweeping constitutional reforms of December 1968, which abolished the requirement of a two-thirds majority for Congress to pass major bills and gave greater authority to the executive in economic decision making. In addition, the reforms provided for the gradual phasing out of the National Front arrangement during the coming decade. Having discarded major obstacles that had stalemated previous National Front administrations, Lleras Restrepo built on the efforts of Lleras Camargo in economic and social reform. The government revised tax laws and rationalized tax collection through more rigid enforcement. Wage and price controls helped stabilize the currency, and inflation was held to a moderate 7 percent per year. The Lleras Restrepo administration improved the balance of payments situation through a program of export diversification, through which exports other than coffee more than doubled between 1966 and 1970. The government reorganized the Ministry of Agriculture and gave it increased resources to finance investments in the agricultural sector. Incora intensified agrarian reform efforts and issued more than 60,000 land titles to tenants and sharecroppers in 1968 and 1969 alone. The creation of the Andean Common Market in 1969 further stimulated economic expansion through the integration of the economies of Colombia and its neighbors.

The policies of the Lleras Restrepo administration resulted in an increased rate of economic growth. Nevertheless, an explosive population increase continued to add some 200,000 young Colombians to the labor force each year, and the problems of poverty and unemployment persisted. A system of family planning was launched, in spite of considerable church opposition, in an attempt to slow the population growth that was largely nullifying the economic gains.

Unrest in the late 1960s assumed a more urban and more nearly class-oriented base as rural and interparty violence receded. Rural disorders declined markedly as a consequence of optimism on the economic front and the capture of some of the most prominent guerrilla leaders. In 1968, however, a new guerrilla group--the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación--EPL)--was formed as the armed branch of the Communist Party of Colombia-- Marxist-Leninist (Partido Comunista de Colombia--MarxistaLeninista --PCC-ML), a pro-Chinese group. In December 1968 Lleras Restrepo lifted the state of siege that had been imposed under Valencia in 1965. Sporadic incidents of violence occurred, however, especially among dissident students and labor union members, and the government reinstated its emergency powers on several occasions.

Dissidence within the PL was lessened through the reintegration of the MRL and its leader, López Michelsen, who came to play a valuable role in the Lleras Restrepo government. In the 1968, congressional elections, those elements of both the PL and PC that supported the National Front arrangement gained a strong majority in the legislature. Voter apathy persisted, however, and less than 40 percent of eligible voters participated.

Under the banner of Anapo, Rojas Pinilla continued his appeal to the urban masses and the peasantry, promising solutions to the problems of unemployment and inflation and advocating free education and health care for the poor. Anapo challenged the National Front by presenting Rojas Pinilla as a Conservative candidate for the presidency in 1970. The election took place in an atmosphere of escalating violence, and the public received with widespread skepticism the official announcement that the Conservative candidate of the National Front, Misael Pastrana Borrero, had won by a narrow margin of 65,000 votes. The outpouring of support for Rojas Pinilla indicated significant voter dissatisfaction with the National Front's response to Colombia's persistent social and economic problems.

Dismantling the Coalition Apparatus

Pastrana was the last president to be elected under the provisions of the National Front. In 1970 the government began to dismantle the structure of the National Front in accordance with the 1968 constitutional amendments. The parity provision for elective legislative bodies and the exclusion of nontraditional parties from participation in elections no longer applied on the local level. These changes also went into effect on the national level in 1974, in time for the election of Pastrana's successor.

The liberalization of the political system in effect undercut support for the bipartisan movements that had challenged the traditional parties during the National Front. Although Anapo declared itself an official party in 1971, it declined in popularity and electoral strength. María Eugenia Rojas--the Anapo candidate in the 1974 presidential election--received less than 10 percent of the vote. After General Rojas Pinilla's death in 1975, the party continued to lose strength, eventually allying itself with other marginal movements that, by themselves, drew insignificant results at the polls.

Pastrana termed his administration the "Social Front" and followed most of the policies of his predecessor. In two areas of economic policy, however, he differed: land reform and the status of the construction sector. Pastrana's proposals for land reform included promises of redistribution; however, the large landowners objected to the government's proposal to base taxation on potential rather than actual income from the land. In the course of negotiations between the agricultural interests and the different party factions, productivity replaced redistribution as a priority. The government granted major concessions to the large agriculturists concerning the bases for assessing income and real estate taxes. It also guaranteed that new sources of credit be made available for modernizing the agricultural sector along capitalintensive lines.

In industrial policy, Pastrana selected construction as the "leading sector." The administration advocated public investment in construction projects as the engine of growth for the economy because it created employment and increased income and, by extension, increased demand for domestically produced items. Pastrana also encouraged private investment in the leading sector through the establishment of the Units of Constant Purchasing Power (Unidades de Poder Adquisitivo Constante--UPAC), a system by which an investment not only accrued interest but also was adjusted for inflation. The UPAC system of adjusting for inflation extended to many elements of the economy, including life insurance, wages, and prices. The combination of the UPAC system and the huge investment in construction overstimulated the economy and fueled inflation, which reached 27 percent by 1974.

Guerrilla activity continued during the Pastrana administration. In 1972 another guerrilla group--the 19th of April Movement (Movimiento 19 de Abril--M-19)--emerged. The M-19 took its name from the date on which Rojas Pinilla was narrowly and, in their minds, fraudulently, defeated by Pastrana. Although the M-19 claimed to be the armed branch of Anapo, the Rojas Pinilla organization disavowed any connection to the guerrilla group.

Colombia History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress