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Historical Overivew

During colonial times present-day Colombia was part of the viceroyalty of Peru. However, due to it’s distance from Lima and the geographical isolation of Santa Fe (Bogotá), it remained relatively independent. In 1739, it became the Viceroyalty of New Granada with additional surrounding territory including Panama and Venezuela. It’s only export was gold, and otherwise was a subsistence economy.

After Napoleon deposed of the Spanish king in 1808, Colombia along with Venezuela established the independent country of the United Provinces of New Granada. This only lasted till 1816, when Spain once again took control, but under the military leadership of Simón Bolívar it was re-liberated in 1819 along with Panama and Ecuador, and renamed Gran Colombia. Francisco Santander, the very liberal vice-president, had direct control over Gran Colombia till 1828 when the mostly absent Bolívar named himself dictator after clashing with Santander over reforms and rebellions in Venezuela. By 1830, Gran Colombia fell apart, and Colombia along with Panama formed the Republic of Colombia. The Santander/Bolívar division remains important as it germinated the now two-party system of Liberals and Conservatives.

The Republic of New Granada, which lasted from 1830-1858, began under the presidency of Santander who watered down many of his earlier reforms but maintained a highly centralized form of government. The War of the Supremes of 1839 to 1841, was an attempt by the very dis-unified provinces to change the tightly controlled Republic to a federation. From 1853--with a constitutional reform--regional governments gained increasing independence, until the continued press for federalism led to the creation of Grenadine Confederation in 1858. This lack of national unity--exacerbated by their geographical isolation--continually played a large role in the internal violence that has plagued Colombia throughout it’s existence. In fact by 1860, the country was again in a state of civil war, with the Liberals triumphing in1862 and then forming the United States of Colombia in 1863, where each state basically ruled itself and the central government had almost no power. Radical liberal reforms (including allowing civil marriages, divorce, and non-religious educational institutions) begun during the Republic escalated, causing huge altercations with the Catholic church.

Conservatives with the support of the Catholic church gained control in 1887, renamed the country the Republic of Colombia, and started rescinding the liberal reforms. This complicated family organization as previous divorces and remarriages were no longer legally recognized. Liberals, who were denied any participation in government, rebelled in 1899 and started the Thousand Days’ War, a very bloody war which ended with little benefit to anyone in 1902. Conservatives, albeit with greater power sharing with the Liberals, remained in power till 1930.

The power change in 1930 to a Liberal president, resulted in outbreaks of fighting in many remote areas which foreshadowed later violence to come. With the assassination of the popular Liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948, rioting in Bogotá spread to outlying areas in what came to be know as La Violencía. The brutal and barbaric violence led to the formation of many guerrilla bands, including Communist factions, which remained even after the end of La Violencía in the early 1960’s. A mild, but unpopular dictatorship (formed by a military coup to in an attempt to help control the violence) was replaced in 1958 by the National Front, a equal power sharing coalition between the Liberal and Conservative Parties that remained in place till 1978. While this did serve to end the violence, this exclusion and alienation of other parties led to the acceptance that violence was the only way to change the system. Rapid urbanization during this time also occurred as rural people moved to escape the fighting.

Many radical, violent guerrilla organizations formed during the 1970’s and 1980’s in Colombia as a result. Also, drug cartels started developing enormous power in Cali and Medellín. Attempts to mediate peace failed and urban terrorism, political violence, corruption, and kidnapping regularly occurred. In 1991 a new constitution was ratified with hopes that it would help. But the 90’s proved to be the most violent since La Violencía. Efforts of eradication and mediation met with little success as underlying causes of economic inequity and poverty remained substantial. Mass emigration, partially due to the violence and partially to economic reasons, peaked in 2000, which became known as the Colombian diaspora. During the 2000’s, some headway was made, but criminal groups still have a strong presence in roughly one/third of Colombia.

Despite all the conflict, Colombia remains unique from other Latin American countries in that is has had one of the most stable governments of all. While coups and dictatorships arose, they were rare, short-lived and moderate. Also, while economic growth was never extraordinary, it always managed to miss the extreme ups and downs of it’s neighbors, and remain fairly positive. Colombia has always had and continues to have the strongest Catholic church presence, and Bogotá developed the nickname of “The Athens of South America” due to its academics.

All of the internal conflicts in Colombia affected the people and records.  Churches and records have been destroyed, and population displacement occurred. Preservation of documents in a national archives has only began since 1991, as government attention and resources are and were absorbed by the conflicts.

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  • This page was last modified on 10 April 2014, at 17:35.
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