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Colombia: Historical Setting
Country Study > Chapter 1 > Historical Setting


At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Colombia exhibited social and economic indicators that, with few exceptions, were close to the Latin American norm. Yet forms of political and criminal violence plagued the country, with an intensity and duration that had few parallels in the region. Neither could many countries in Latin America or elsewhere in the developing world match Colombia’s record of persistent, albeit imperfect, adherence to democratic forms and procedures. An examination of the historical path by which Colombia arrived at its present situation offers no easy explanation of these paradoxes but is a logical place to start.

The initial building blocks for the future Colombian nation were the same as for its Latin American neighbors: Amerindian peoples, European conquerors and colonizers, and Africans arriving as slaves. During three centuries of Spanish colonial rule, these elements were unevenly combined into a new multiethnic society. The Europeans and their descendants enjoyed a predominant share of political influence, economic wealth, and social prestige, while the Amerindians were assimilated or marginalized and inexorably reduced to subordinate status. The latter was also true of Afro-Colombians, even when they escaped from slavery. Yet for most of the colonial population, Spain’s control was light, and it was maintained less by force than by the mystique surrounding the monarchy and by the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, which established a strong institutional base and acted as cultural and ideological arbiter.

Colombia played a preeminent role in the movement for independence in Latin America. Once independence was achieved, however, the country lapsed into relative obscurity, with a weak connection to the world economy and, for many years, scant progress in the development of infrastructure or public education. At the same time, peculiarities of the political system, notably the rise of strong and warring parties within a weak state, began to make themselves felt. Only with the rise of the coffee industry, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, did Colombia enter clearly on a path of economic modernization. Coffee likewise seemed, for a time, to usher in a phase of harmonious political consolidation. But by the mid-twentieth century, dysfunctional aspects of social and political development were increasingly evident as economic growth continued.

The successful transfer of power from one party to another by electoral means in 1930 and again in 1946—something that in much of Latin America was still far from normal—seemed to confirm the maturity of Colombian democracy. Yet in both cases, the transfer was followed by outbreaks of violence in the backcountry. These revolts were relatively short-lived in the first case, but the latter was the start of what Colombians called La Violencia (The Violence), which would wrack the nation for roughly two decades and then give way to the leftist insurgencies that marked the last four decades of the century. The bitter antagonism between the entrenched Liberal and Conservative parties was a triggering mechanism in both 1930 and 1946, but the existence of deep rural poverty and illiteracy, despite rising gross domestic product (GDP—see Glossary) per capita and a modest beginning of social reform legislation, created an environment in which those antagonisms more easily found virulent expression. The same social problems, even though gradually diminishing, provided superficial justification for the violence of later guerrilla organizations.

Regular elections and formally constitutional government were interrupted only briefly, in the 1950s, yet the inability of the state to maintain public order throughout the country—indeed its virtual absence from much of Colombian territory—favored growth of the illegal drug industry in the final quarter of the century. That industry’s combination with chronic political and criminal violence led to ever-greater disillusion with existing institutions. The adoption in 1991 of a new constitution aimed to make the political system more inclusive as well as to enshrine a long list of social guarantees. Although two of the irregular armed groups had earlier agreed to demobilize and pursue their objectives by legal political action, others wanted further concessions and assurances before doing the same. And the drug traffickers, of course, were more responsive to world market conditions, which remained favorable, than to any changes in the constitution. Nevertheless, the new constitution went into effect, and in the nation as a whole there was no lack of positive developments alongside the continuing traumas.

Data as of 2010

Last Updated: January 2010

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Colombia was first published in 1988. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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