During the pre-Colombian period, the area now known as Colombia was
inhabited by indigenous peoples who were primitive hunters or nomadic farmers.
The Chibchas, who lived in the Bogotá region, were the largest indigenous
The Spanish sailed along the north coast of Colombia as early as 1500;
however, their first permanent settlement, at Santa Marta, was not established
until 1525. In 1549, the area was a Spanish colony with the capital at
Santa Fe de Bogotá. In 1717, Bogotá became the capital of
the Viceroyalty of New Granada, which included what are now Venezuela,
Ecuador, and Panama. The city became one of the principal administrative
centers of the Spanish possessions in the New World, along with Lima and
In August 2000 the capital's name was officially changed from "Santa
Fe de Bogotá" to the more commonly used "Bogotá." On July
20, 1810, the citizens of Bogotá created the first representative
council to defy Spanish authority. Full independence was proclaimed in
1813, and in 1819 the Republic of Greater Colombia was formed.
The Republic and La Violencia (The Violence)
The new Republic of Greater Colombia included all the territory of the
former Viceroyalty. Simon Bolivar was elected its first president and Francisco
de Paula Santander, vice president. Two political parties grew out of conflicts
between the followers of Bolivar and Santander and their political visions--the
Conservatives and the Liberals--and have since dominated Colombian politics.
Bolivar's supporters, who later formed the nucleus of the Conservative
Party, sought strong centralized government, alliance with the Roman Catholic
Church, and a limited franchise. Santander's followers, forerunners of
the Liberals, wanted a decentralized government, state rather than church
control over education and other civil matters, and a broadened suffrage.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, each party held the presidency
for roughly equal periods of time. Colombia maintained a tradition of civilian
government and regular, free elections. Notwithstanding the country's commitment
to democratic institutions, Colombia's history also has been characterized
by widespread, violent conflict. Two civil wars resulted from bitter rivalry
between the Conservative and Liberal parties: The War of a Thousand Days
(1899-1902) claimed an estimated 100,000 lives, and La Violencia (1946-1957)
cost another 300,000 Colombians.
The National Front
In July 1957, former Conservative President Laureano Gomez (1950-53)
and former Liberal President Alberto Lleras Camargo (1945-46) proclaimed
the "Declaration of Sitges," in which they proposed a "National Front"
whereby the Liberal and Conservative parties would govern jointly. The
presidency would be determined by regular elections every 4 years; the
two parties would have parity in all other elective and appointive offices.
The National Front ended La Violencia, and National Front administrations
instituted social and economic reforms in cooperation with the Alliance
for Progress. Although the system established by the Sitges agreement was
phased out by 1978, the 1886 Colombian Constitution--in effect until 1991--required
that the losing political party be given adequate and equitable participation
in the government. The 1991 Constitution does not have that requirement,
but subsequent administrations have included members of opposition parties.
Post-National Front Years
Between 1978 and 1982, the government focused on ending the limited,
but persistent, Cuban-backed insurgencies that sought to undermine Colombia's
traditional democratic system. In 1984, President Belisario Betancur, a
Conservative who won 47% of the popular vote, negotiated a cease-fire that
included the release of many guerrillas imprisoned during the effort to
overpower the insurgents. The cease-fire ended when Democratic Alliance/M-19
(AD/M-19) guerrillas resumed fighting in 1985.
An attack on the Palace of Justice in Bogotá by the AD/M-19 on
November 6-7, 1985, and its violent suppression by the army, shocked Colombians.
Of the 115 people killed, 11 were Supreme Court justices. Although the
government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) renewed
their truce in March 1986, peace with other revolutionary movements, in
particular the AD/M-19--then the largest insurgent group--and the National
Liberation Army (ELN) was remote as Betancur left office.
The AD/M-19 and several smaller guerilla groups were successfully incorporated
into a peace process during the late 1980s, which culminated in a national
assembly to write a new constitution, which took effect in 1991. The FARC
had declared a unilateral cease-fire under Betancur, which led to the establishment
of the Union Patriotica (UP), a legal and non-clandestine political organization.
After growing violence against its UP members, when an estimated 1,000-3,000
were killed, the truce with the FARC again ended in 1990.
Following administrations had to contend with the guerrillas, paramilitaries,
and narcotics traffickers. Narco-terrorists assassinated three presidential
candidates before Cesar Gaviria Trujillo was elected in 1990. Since the
death of Medellín cartel leader Pablo Escobar in a police shootout
in December 1993, indiscriminate acts of violence associated with that
organization have abated as the "cartels" now are broken up into multiple,
smaller and often-competing trafficking organizations. Nevertheless, violence
continues as these drug organizations resort to violence as part of their
operations as well as to protest against government policies, especially
President Ernesto Samper assumed office in August 1994. However, a political
crisis relating to largescale contributions from drug traffickers to Samper's
presidential campaign diverted attention from governance programs, thus
slowing, and in many cases, halting progress on the nation's domestic reform
The Pastrana Administration and Peace Process
On August 7, 1998, Andres Pastrana became President of Colombia. A member
of the Conservative Party, Pastrana defeated Liberal Party candidate Horacio
Serpa in a run-off election marked by high voter turnout and little political
unrest. During his administration, high unemployment, increased countrywide
guerrilla attacks by the FARC and ELN, widespread drug production and the
expansion of paramilitary groups all hindered the Pastrana administration's
ability to solve the country's problems.
No single explanation fully addresses the deep roots of Colombia's present-day
troubles, but they include limited government presence in large areas of
the interior, the expansion of illicit drug cultivation, endemic violence,
and social inequities. In order to confront these challenges, the Pastrana
administration unveiled its "Plan Colombia" in late 1999, a comprehensive
strategy to deal with these longstanding, mutually reinforcing problems.
The main objectives of Plan Colombia are to promote peace, combat the narcotics
industry, revive the Colombian economy, improve respect for human rights,
and strengthen the democratic and social institutions of the country.
The Uribe Administration
President Alvaro Uribe, a Harvard and Oxford-educated lawyer, was elected
President of Colombia in May 2002 on a line platform to restore security
to the country. An independent, he was elected with 56% of the vote, giving
him a strong mandate. Among his promises was to continue to pursue the
broad goals of the Pastrana administration's Plan Colombia, but within
the framework of a long-term security strategy.
His inauguration on August 7, 2002 brought about violent attacks. Though
Uribe was spared, the rockets launched at the presidential palace by FARC
terrorists killed 19 people and injured many more. Uribe declared a state
of limited emergency as a first step toward strengthening the country's
law enforcement and military capabilities.
In the fall of 2002, the administration released the much-awaited Colombian
national security strategy, entitled Democratic Security and Defense Policy.
The Plan fit within the broader social, economic, and political goals of
Plan Colombia. Though much attention has been focused on the security and
military aspects of Colombia's situation, the administration also is spending
significant time on issues such as expanding international trade, supporting
alternate means of development, and reforming Colombia's judicial system.
Columbian History Bibliography