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Colombia: New Departures and Continuing Problems
Country Study > Chapter 1 > Historical Setting > The Contemporary Era, 1978–98 > New Departures and Continuing Problems


In the view of many Colombians, the epidemic of multifaceted violence resulted in considerable part from the rigidity of the country’s institutions. The existing constitution, dating back to 1886 and holding a record in Latin America for longevity, was seen as part of the problem. Accordingly, President Virgilio Barco agreed to the holding of a referendum, in May 1990, in which an overwhelming majority of voters approved the holding of a convention to reform the constitution. President César Augusto Gaviria Trujillo (president, 1990–94), the Liberal who a few weeks later succeeded Barco (and who reinstituted coalition government), moved quickly to convoke new elections for members of the Constituent Assembly. Some jurists seriously questioned the legality of the procedure, but the elections were held, albeit with a disappointingly high abstention. The eventual outcome was the constitution of 1991, easily the most democratic in Colombian history and also the most complicated.

The new charter further reduced government centralization, for example, by specifying that departmental governors as well as mayors should be elected, although the governors’ independent authority was still less than in a truly federalist regime. It revamped the electoral system, required that the Senate be chosen by proportional representation on a nationwide basis, supposedly to counteract the evil influence of local bosses, and provided for special representation in Congress of the Amerindian and Afro-Colombian minorities. It contained a long list of sweeping individual rights, such as the right to work and special rights of children and adolescents. There was even the right not to be extradited to the United States, because an article prohibiting extradition of Colombian citizens was written into the text on the understanding that in return the drug lords would mend their behavior. A procedure of tutela was established whereby citizens whose rights had been abused could seek a writ of protection against the offending party. The new constitution also completed disestablishment of the Roman Catholic Church by dropping any reference to Roman Catholicism as the religion of the nation, placing all denominations on an equal footing, and extending the relegalization of divorce, timidly granted for couples in civil marriage in 1976, to cover religious unions as well.

There was something in the new constitution to please almost everyone, and in its immediate aftermath the mood of euphoria was such that some Colombians hoped that the FARC and the ELN, recognizing the constitution’s democratic and egalitarian bent, would agree to lay down arms and pursue their objectives peacefully under its framework. Alas, no such thing happened. Neither did the drug problem go away; on the contrary, it returned to center stage when narco-traffickers made massive contributions to the campaign chest of Gaviria’s successor, Ernesto Samper Pizano (president, 1994–98), and for his entire term he labored under the resulting cloud of distrust. The degree of administrative decentralization entailed onerous transfers of funds from the national treasury to the regions, taking money from other urgent needs and handing it to local politicians who did not always use it properly. The tutela device corrected some injustices, but at the cost of further clogging an overburdened legal system. Other articles of the constitution, too, either did not live up to expectations or had regrettable unintended consequences. Thus, before long the amendment provisions were put to use in changing one article or another, including, in 1997, the prohibition of extraditions, which had vastly annoyed the United States. The basic framework nevertheless remained in place, while Colombians settled down to argue over other things.

Drugs and guerrillas remained at the forefront of public discussion and debate, for both problems appeared resistant to all attempted countermeasures. A newer source of controversy was the Colombian version of the neoliberal and globalizing policies adopted in so much of Latin America, with strong urging from Washington and assorted international agencies, during the last decade of the twentieth century. Some steps toward a greater opening (apertura) of the economy occurred earlier, but President Gaviria was the leader who firmly committed Colombia to this path. Restrictions on foreign trade and investment loosened, at first gradually and then more abruptly, and the flow of foreign goods and capital duly increased, even though deficiencies in Colombian infrastructure limited the impact of policy changes. Privatization, another aspect of the neoliberal agenda, was also limited both because it was politically impossible for the government to divest itself of Ecopetrol, the preeminent state enterprise, and because in Colombia the public sector was not a particularly large employer.

The reduction in tariffs and elimination of numerous controls affecting foreign trade did have some clearly positive effects: for example, the availability of inexpensive foreign ingredients for chicken feed led to more protein in the Colombian diet. However, in Colombia as elsewhere greater opening to the world economy favored those with specialized training over unskilled workers, and, more broadly, capital as against labor, with a resultant increase in socioeconomic inequality. And while in the agricultural sector, those most affected by the competition of imports were large-scale commercial producers, some of the loudest protests against aperturacame from the indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, whose own production was not greatly threatened but who had borne much of the brunt of continuing rural violence and seized upon the evils of globalization as an effective way to publicize their other, quite justified, grievances and frustrations.

Colombia thus ended the twentieth century a land of many contradictions. A popularly elected government was in place, with no chance of being overthrown, yet unable to assert effective control over much of the nation’s territory. Among Latin American nations, Colombia held a record for most consecutive years of economic growth—–stretching back to the 1930s and uninterrupted until 1999—but a majority of its inhabitants lived in poverty, and income distribution remained highly unequal. Colombians such as Gabriel García Márquez in literature, Fernando Botero in painting and sculpture, and several performers of popular music were esteemed throughout the Western world, but the standard image attached to the country was one of violence and criminality. Among Colombians themselves, there was a steady stream of emigrants seeking greater opportunities and security in the United States or other developed-world destinations. Nevertheless, the human and material resources for a turn for the better were clearly present.

On pre-Columbian history, Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff’s Colombia indígena is a masterful overview, of which an earlier version in English is titled simply Colombia. On the colonial era, there is Anthony McFarlane’s Colombia Before Independence: Economy, Society, and Politics under Bourbon Rule, and for the independence period, Rebecca Earle’s Spain and the Independence of Colombia, 1810–1825. For the nineteenth century, Frank Safford’s The Ideal of the Practical: Colombia’s Struggle to Form a Technical Elite covers considerably more than its stated topic of technical education; James E. Sanders’s Contentious Republicans: Popular Politics, Race, and Class in Nineteenth-Century Colombia is a recent analysis covering the second half of the century, particularly in the southwest; Jaime Jaramillo Uribe’s El pensamiento colombiano en el siglo XIX is a classic history of ideas; and José Antonio Ocampo’s Colombia y la economía mundial, 1830–1910 analyzes one critical aspect of economic development. Charles W. Bergquist’s Coffee and Conflict in Colombia, 1886–1910 covers politics and economics in the transition from nineteenth century to twentieth. James D. Henderson’s Modernization in Colombia: The Laureano Gómez Years, 1889–1965 takes the story to the 1960s, and John W. Green’s Gaitanismo, Left Liberalism, and Popular Mobilization in Colombia examines an abortive but significant left-Liberal movement at midcentury. On La Violencia in the later 1940s and 1950s, Germán Guzmán Campos, Orlando Fals Borda, and Eduardo Umaña Luna’s La Violencia en Colombia: Estudio de un proceso social has not been surpassed. The most recent developments are covered in several excellent compilations of contributed chapters, including Eduardo Posada-Carbó’s Colombia: The Politics of Reforming the State and Cristina Rojas and Judy Meltzer’s Elusive Peace: International, National, and Local Dimensions of Conflict in Colombia. Two readily available general surveys of Colombian history are David Bushnell’s The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself and Frank Safford and Marco Palacios’s Colombia: Fragmented Land, Divided Society. The second edition of the 11-volume Nueva historia de Colombia edited by Jaramillo Uribe, with the assistance of Alvaro Tirado Mejía, Jorge Orlando Melo, and Jesús Antonio Bejarano, offers contributions on topical themes by Colombian and some foreign specialists. Economic history is surveyed by William Paul McGreevey’s An Economic History of Colombia, 1845–1930 and the collaborative Historia económica de Colombia, edited by Germán Colmenares and José Antonio Ocampo. Although it goes only to the 1960s, the historical review of political development in Robert H. Dix’s Colombia: The Political Dimensions of Change remains useful. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

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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