Government and Politics
SEVERAL FEATURES DISTINGUISH Colombia's political system from that of other Latin American nations. Colombia has a long history of party politics, usually fair and regular elections, and respect for political and civil rights. Two traditional parties--the Liberals and the Conservatives--have competed for power since the midnineteenth century and have rotated frequently as the governing party. Colombia's armed forces have seized power on only three occasions--1830, 1854, and 1953--far less often than in most Latin American countries. The 1953 coup took place, moreover, only after the two parties--unable to maintain a minimum of public order-- supported military intervention. Colombia's conservative Roman Catholic Church traditionally has been more influential than the military in electing presidents and influencing elections and the political socialization of Colombians.
Some analysts of Colombian political affairs have noted that in the 1980s the military gradually began to assume a larger decisionmaking role, owing to the inability of the civilian governments to resolve critical situations, such as the sixty-one-day terrorist occupation of the Dominican Republic embassy in 1980. The military had become somewhat more assertive in national security decision making as a result of the growing and more unified guerrilla insurgency and increasing terrorism of drug traffickers (narcotraficantes). Nevertheless, Colombia's long tradition of military subordination to civilian authority did not appear to be in jeopardy in late 1988. When military leaders attempted to challenge civilian authority on several occasions in the 1970s and 1980s, the incumbent president dismissed them.
A contradictory feature of Colombia's long democratic tradition is its high level of political violence (six interparty wars in the nineteenth century and two in the twentieth century). An estimated 100,000 Colombians died in the War of a Thousand Days (1899-1902), and 200,000 died in the more recent period of interparty civil war called la violencia, which lasted from 1948 to 1966. According to Colombian Ministry of National Defense statistics, an additional 70,000 people had died in other political violence, mainly guerrilla insurgencies, by August 1984. This violence included left-wing insurgency and terrorism, right-wing paramilitary activity, and narcoterrorism. For most of the fortyyear period following the 1948 Bogotazo (the riot following the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, in which 2,000 were killed), Colombia lived under a constitutionally authorized state of siege (estatuto de seguridad) invoked to deal with civil disturbances, insurgency, and terrorism. In mid-1988 many Colombian academics who studied killings by drug smugglers, guerrillas, death squads, and common criminals believed that the government was losing control over the country's rampaging violence. They noted that even if the guerrillas laid down their arms, violence by narcotics traffickers, death squads, and common criminals would continue unabated.
Scholars, such as Robert H. Dix, have attributed the nation's violent legacy in part to the elitist nature of the political system. The members of this traditional elite have competed bitterly, and sometimes violently, for control of the government through the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party, which changed its name to the Social Conservative Party in July 1987. These parties cooperated with each other only when the position of the upper class seemed threatened. Unlike their counterparts in other Latin American countries, Colombia's Christian democratic, social democratic, and Marxist parties were always weak and insignificant. Constitutional amendments and the evolution of Colombia's political culture reinforced its highly centralized and elitist governmental system. The elites managed to retain control over the political system by co-opting representatives of the middle class, labor, and the peasantry.
A number of Colombianists also contended that the traditional parties had impeded modernization. The fact that the guerrilla movement was still strong in the late 1980s, after four decades of "armed struggle," manifested to some scholars the elitist nature of Colombian politics. For Bruce Michael Bagley, the guerrilla insurgency was only the most visible "dimension of a far deeper problem confronting the Colombian political system: the progressive erosion of the regime's legitimacy" as a result of its failure "to institutionalize mechanisms of political participation." Bagley also saw the legitimacy problem reflected in rising levels of voter abstention and mass political apathy and cynicism, as well as declining rates of voter identification with either of the traditional parties and the emergence of an urban swing vote. This view notwithstanding, since the mid-1960s the elites dominating the two-party system usually have accommodated gradual change in order to preserve stability. For example, Colombia took a major step toward breaking with its elitist political tradition and modernizing the country's political structures by holding its first direct, popular elections for mayors in early 1988.
Although some political accommodation had occured, the Colombian government has been less successful in reducing economic inequality. During the 1980s, approximately 20 percent of the population controlled 70 percent of income. Rural poverty was particularly pronounced, with per capita income barely reaching half the national average. Analysts generally believed that these economic factors helped spawn political violence.
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