Colombia, like most of Latin America, represents a mixture of cultural and ethnic influences including the Indians of the New World and the importation of slaves from Africa. in Colombia, Iberian culture predominated, and the cultural and racial mixtures created a society distinct from that of Spain (McGreevey, p. 4). Indeed, the Colombian way of development is as typical as that of any in the Latin America founded neither in one of the major centers of Indian civilization, as in Mexico or Peru, nor in one of the least advanced, while at the same time including, but in lesser degree than in, say, Brazil, significant numbers of persons of African heritage. Thesis Colombia won its independence in political struggle which helped it to create a strong political system and the independent state.
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From historical perspective, Colombia has further shared with most other countries of Latin America more than a century and a half of political independence. For Latin America, within a few decades of the independence of 13 of the British colonies to the north, became part of the first wave of “new nations” created out of erstwhile European empires, a very long time before the creation of the new nations of much of Africa and Asia in the wake of World War II. Along with that independence came new political institutions (Bushnell 54). It is important to note that formal independence did not necessarily mean fully realized independence; nor did adoption of the institutions of republican government always signify their effective functioning (Spain and the Independence of Colombia 382). Early independence and republicanism gave Colombia a framework of institutions and a legacy of historical experience in their operation that sets it, as most of Latin America, quite apart from much of the rest of the Third World (Kline, p. 23).
During the 18th century, the empire depended on Madrid. Much has been made of the municipal councils in which the Creoles took part. Spain had municipal traditions that had taken firm root in response to defensive needs in the warfare against the Moors prior to their “final expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492; and municipalities, and their councils, were at once established in the New World” (Kline, p. 23). During the colonial era, especially at the beginning, the municipal councils often had certain powers in such matters as taxation, licensing, and public works. As virtually the only bodies in which Creoles had representation, they were later to play a leading role in the movement for independence. Most of the municipal councils lost whatever autonomy they had had. Membership became principally honorific, and seats on the councils were frequently purchased or went to appointees of the Crown. They decayed as effective organs of local self-government. With some exceptions in the early years, they seldom became problem-solving bodies for their communities (Kline, p. 24; Dennis et al 1988). Certain policies of the Crown similarly conduced to the formation of quasi-feudal societies in Spanish America. The kings of Spain, eager for both new sources of revenue and additional converts to Holy Church, encouraged the process of conquest and “conversion by granting an important measure of authority over the Indians, and at times over large tracts of land, to the conquerors and to the Church and its missionary orders” (Bushnell, p. 51). The Crown attempted to retain ultimate title and responsibility, and to mitigate abuses. However, the overall effect of royal authority in the American branches of its empire was to forge (Kline, p. 27).
There was a tension between feudal society and the imperial state, evidenced in de facto resistance to royal edicts and by discrimination–economic, social, political, and intellectual-imposed on the Creoles by the agents of the mother country (McGreevey, p. 77). Indians, slaves, and those of mixed blood were in a far worse position than the Creoles, ruled not only by royal officials but more directly, and often more oppressively, in their economic and social lives by the Creoles (McGreevey, p. 78). There was an Indian or slave uprising, and although some of the lower classes willingly participated in the armies of the wars for independence, it was generally the members of the Creole elite who led the struggle for independence. It was certainly they who came into its inheritance (Bushnell, p. 55; Dennis et al, 1988).
Only exceptionally under Spanish imperial rule were there popular uprisings. When they did occur, they did not usually challenge royal authority but were directed against the actions of particular officials or the imposition of particular taxes. Not the king but his administrators were blamed. Such was the case with the most notable instance of violent protest in “Nueva Granada prior to the independence struggle, the so-called comuneros uprising in northeastern Colombia in 1781” (McGreevey, p. 76). The invasion of Spain by the French in 1808 produced not only declarations of loyalty to legitimate Spanish sovereignty, but also conflicts as to the best manner of reacting. The results were declarations of independence by the various political entities constituting the New Kingdom, with the exception of Santa Marta, Riohacha, Panama, and Ecuador (McGreevey, p. 76).
From the beginning, disputes arose over whether the government should be centralized, as local political leaders and intellectuals who had been influenced by European experience usually desired, or federated, as advocated by those who were impressed by the example of the United States. Independence, when it came, nevertheless did not result directly from the slowly festering resentments of the Creoles. Spanish rule might have continued for many years had it not been for the Napoleonic occupation of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808, and the deposition and exile of the legitimate king (McGreevey, p. 67). These actions of Napoleon set off a train of events, whose details we do not need to consider here, that led several of the cabildos in Spanish America to declare their independence. Bogotá in the viceroyalty of Nueva Granada did so on July 20, 1810; the port city of Cartagena, on November 11, 1811 (McGreevey, p. 84). “In November 1811, a congress was installed, and the provinces formed the United Provinces of New Granada. The federal union consisted of autonomous provinces joined only in common interest; the national army was subordinate to Bogot” (Dennis, 1988)..Conflicts facilitated a temporary return of Spanish political authority between 1814 and 1819 after initial rebel success. Under the pressure of such reverses and goaded by the terroristic excesses of the Spanish Pacificador (Pacificator), General Pablo Morillo, Colombian forces regrouped in the eastern llanos under General Francisco de Paula Santander. There they joined the troops under General Simón Bolívar (The Liberator) in the valley of the Orinoco River in Venezuela. Bolívar led the combined armies into New Granada and decisively defeated the loyalist forces at Boyacá on August 7, 1819 (McGreevey, p. 76). Bolívar continued the struggle, finally achieving victory in Venezuela in 1821 and in Ecuador in 1822. Meanwhile, Santander had remained in command in New Granada as acting political leader of the state. (Bushnell, p. 51).
There were other consequences of independence and the long struggle. They included the ferocity and destructiveness of the wars, which impoverished the new states and gave a heritage of violence to societies already imbued with some of its supporting values (McFarlane and Safford, p. 55). In some countries, though not in Colombia, the wars enhanced the role of the military and led to its emergence as virtually the only focus of national cohesion, and as a channel of social and political advancement for the ambitious and the less privileged. Independence also “destroyed the old imperial unity and replaced it with many new centers of sovereignty, most of them at first uncertain of their possibilities of holding together as nations” (McGreevey, p. 73). When to the struggles to hold the reins of the new republican authority were added profound divergences over the nature and goals of the state, the stage was set throughout much of Latin America, and notably in Colombia, for a century of civil strife (McFarlane and Safford, p. 55).
In 1819 a constituent congress met at Angostura (now Ciudad Bolívar in Venezuela) and established the Republic of Grán Colombia, which included Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. The republic so established was more formally organized at the Congress of Cúcuta in July 1821 (Kline, p. 31; Lasso, p. 84). The government was divided into three branches – executive, legislative, and judicial – and was designed to govern the old captaincy-general of Venezuela and the viceroyalty of New Granada (Kline, p. 23). It was provided that there would be at least six departments administratively dependent on the central government and, under these, provinces and cantons. Bogotá was established as the provisional capital (Bushnell, p. 64). The congress also passed a law providing that the children of slaves would be free at birth. Other laws dealt with the organization of government, the press, weights and measures, customs duties, and government lands. Bolivar and Santander were elected president and vice president, respectively, and inaugurated on October 3 (Bushnell, p. 64; Lasso, p. 87).
The independence of Colombia was declared on July 1810, but was officially recognized only in August 7, 1819. The history of independent Colombia in the 19th century was turbulent, particularly the period between 1831 and 1903. Although the adoption of the Constitution of 1886 was a victory for the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador), it was only after 1903 that the victory was consolidated and the party could undertake almost three decades of their rule (McFarlane and Safford, p. 51). The year 1903 marked the beginning of a period in which there was sufficient consensus within parties and between them, especially as to the form of the state, that it was possible for one party to rule in relative agreement with the other as to its right to do so (Kline, p. 35; Lasso, p. 50).
During the first decades of the republic, heroes of the wars for independence often attained the presidency. Yet on the whole the caudillo was less important, and dictatorship less frequent, than in most other Latin American countries (Lasso, p. 57). A number of facts support such a contention: Once independence had been consolidated, Colombia’s army was reduced to fewer than 2,500 men and placed constitutionally under the ultimate control of Congress (McFarlane and Safford, p. 64; Earle, p. 86). Its military fuero was abolished, not to be restored until 1886. Following the defeat of the short-lived military dictatorship of General Melo (1854) by civilian armies of the two political parties, the army was reduced still further to a virtual corporal’s guard and relegated to such tasks as mail delivery and guarding prisoners. The military was still further weakened by loyalties among its officers to one or the other traditional party, though as an institution it played little role in the civil wars of the 19th century (Kline, p. 23; Earle, p. 88). These steps aroused the bitter opposition of those whose interests, and whose entire conception of society, government, and religion, were threatened; they also generated vehement support on the part of those whose interests and ideas were thereby favored. “From whatever point one dates the precise organization of formal parties, it was clearly at mid-century that the combination of material and ideal interests that was to comprise the stuff of much of subsequent Colombian politics took its shape” (Earle, p. 65).
The seven civil wars and innumerable regional or provincial revolts that erupted between 1850 and the end of the century were in considerable part a function of personal, family, and regional rivalries. For much of the 19th century both parties stood essentially behind policies of laissez-faire in foreign trade, while issues such as federalism sometimes cut across party lines. The struggle between the parties entailed a unity of two sets of economic interests and two political cultures: one, that of 19th-century liberalism struggling to be born; the other, the traditionalist outlook inherited from Spain. That unity, common in many Latin American countries during the 19th century, seems to have been unusually bitter in Colombia. In general, independence constituted the victory of the feudal society over the paternalistic state that had bound that society together for three centuries.
- Bushnell, D. The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself. University of California Press, 1993.
- Dennis M. Hanratty and Sandra W. Meditz, editors. Colombia: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1988 [online] 2007. Web.
- Earle, R.A. Spain and the Independence of Colombia, 1808-1825. University of Exeter Press, 2000.
- Kline Harvey F. Colombia: Portrait of Unity and Diversity. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1983.
- Lasso, M. Myths of Harmony: Race and Republicanism during the Age of Revolution, Colombia, 1795-1831. University of Pittsburgh Press; 1 edition, 2007.
- McGreevey William Paul. An Economic History of Colombia, 1845-1930. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971.
- McFarlane, A., Safford, F. Colombia: Fragmented Land, Divided Society (Latin American Histories). Oxford University Press, USA, 2001.
- Spain and the Independence of Colombia, 1810-1825 Hamnett Hispanic American Historical Review. 81 (2001): 382-384