Colombia Table of Contents

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

Some analysts have divided the political elite along economic lines between the landed and the nonlanded. The agricultural export sector, the backbone of the Colombian economy, has supplied the two main economic groups that also have been the most powerful in the political sphere: the landed aristocracy, who are devoted to the large-scale production of agricultural crops, and the merchants, who are engaged in the trade of these export goods and imported consumer goods. Lesser economic groups, such as the emerging manufacturing sector, have allied themselves with one of the two dominant groups, most often the merchants. Differences within the allied groups on issues such as trade created factions within the alliances even before they officially became established political parties. In addition, the nation's economic development opened up new economic opportunities, and new forces increasingly expressed their views through the political factions.

Elite members of the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party alternately competed and cooperated with each other throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Often the nature of relations between the two parties depended on whether moderates or extremists dominated the ruling party. During the periods when moderate factions of both parties were in power, the parties were able to work together in coalitions; when extremist factions prevailed, however, conflict often resulted. During the competitive periods, one party usually sought to limit or eliminate the rival party's participation in the political process, attempts that often resulted in political violence. The most notorious of these periods were the War of a Thousand Days (1899-1902) and la violencia (1948-66). At the end of these civil wars, the elite inaugurated the cooperative governments of the Period of Reconciliation (1903- 30) and the National Front (1958-74), respectively, the former catalyzed by the Rafael Reyes presidency (1904-09) and the latter by the Gustavo Rojas Pinilla dictatorship (1953-57). The replacement of the discredited extremist factions by the more conciliatory moderate factions in each case made it possible for the two parties to share power and to achieve a consensus on what policies were appropriate for Colombian society at the time.

Although the elite dominated the masses, the different classes were bound to each other through personalistic patron-client relationships, especially in rural areas where peasants relied on the propertied upper class for access to the land they farmed. These patron-client relationships also tied the masses into the political system as the numerical votes or bodies mobilized and controlled by local political bosses. The affiliation adopted by the members of the lower classes was determined largely by the affiliation of their patrons and their families; these affiliations, as much for a party as against the opposing party, became what Robert H. Dix termed "inherited hatreds," elements of one's identity handed down from generation to generation. The emotional bond to the party carried individual members not only to the polls but also into violent conflict with adherents of the opposing party during those times when political conflict could not be controlled. In this way, the peasants and urban masses were recruited by the party elite to participate in the civil wars that riddled the nation's history.

Colombia's economic life has been based consistently on exports of primary goods, especially coffee. In the sixteenth century, the conquistadors and early colonialists, who often exploited Indian and slave labor, mined precious metals and gems for export to Spain under a mercantile system that inhibited the development of domestic industries. Throughout the preindependence and postindependence periods, agriculture on large landholdings, known as latifundios, became the predominant mode of production for export crops such as sugar and tobacco. By the 1860s, coffee had emerged as the key export crop. At the turn of the century, tariffs on coffee exports were the main source of government revenues, and profits from the coffee trade were the major source of investment in the newly emerging industrial sector that was beginning to produce basic consumer goods. Although the industrial sector grew sufficiently to induce urbanization and economic modernization in the first half of the twentieth century, industrial exports remained relatively minor compared with coffee, which in the late 1980s still accounted for almost 60 percent of all export earnings.

Economic modernization, supported by the coffee industry, became significant at the turn of the century. Modernization brought social changes and growing demands that produced various challenges to the dominant position of the traditional elite: the populist movements of the 1940s and 1970s, the military dictatorship of the 1950s, the rise of guerrilla activity in the 1960s through the 1980s, and the emergence of drug traffickers as a major economic and social element in the 1970s and 1980s. The increase in industrialization and the migration of peasants to the cities accelerated the rate of urbanization and the formation of urban working and lower classes. The heightened need for infrastructure, both within a given city and among urban areas, spurred the growing involvement of the state in the economy, especially during the reformist period in the 1930s and 1940s. By the 1980s, the state had become an important investor in and manager of strategic sectors of the economy, such as energy resources, transportation, and communications.

The emergence of the National Front marked a significant break in the traditional political and economic patterns in Colombian society. Interparty conflict receded and was replaced in the 1960s by leftist subversion, which continued through the 1980s. The illicit narcotics industry emerged in the 1970s as a dominant economic force, altering the structure of the national economy and disrupting existing social and political relations. The leadership in both parties proved unable to address inflation, unemployment, and a skewed distribution of income. The post-National Front Liberal tenure bequeathed a triple legacy to the incoming Conservative government in 1982: guerrilla activity, the corruptive drug trade, and an inequitable economy.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress