The Society and Its Environment

The Society and Its Environment

COLOMBIA IS THE FIFTH LARGEST country in Latin America and has the third largest population (28 million) in the region. Unlike most of its Andean neighbors, Colombia is a nation of cities; almost 70 percent of the people lived in urban areas in the late 1980s. In addition to Bogotá, the capital, which had an estimated population of 5 million in 1988, three other cities had populations of 1 million or more: Cali, Medellín, and Barranquilla. Fourteen other urban centers had populations of between 100,000 and 500,000. More than 100 cities had 10,000 or more inhabitants.

Three-fifths of the country was sparsely populated tropical lowlands and jungle. Ninety-eight percent of the population was concentrated in the interior two-fifths of the national territory-- mainly in the narrow valleys and intermontane basins formed by the three ranges of the Andes Mountains that divide the country from north to south. The dominant language was Spanish, and the vast majority of the people were (at least nominally) Roman Catholic. Seventy percent of the population was of mixed blood; Caucasians, Indians, and blacks accounted for the rest. The country's economic and political elite remained predominantly white, however.

Over the past nearly 500 years, Colombian society has been highly stratified, with a castelike elite, correlation between skin color and class membership, and limited vertical mobility. Modern social structure was the offspring of a colonial society that was rigidly segregated into two groups: the white elite of educated, cultured, rich, and politically powerful persons and the mass of proletarians and peasants. A small middle group, composed of merchants and minor officials, actually belonged with the lower class in terms of powerlessness.

Independence did little to change this configuration, and prestige continued to be determined by birth and landownership. The postindependence period did not encourage a revolutionary change in the stratification system but instead reinforced the status quo. The continuing political anarchy, the difficulty of economic development because of ineffective use of capital and resources, and the lack of an urban labor movement inhibited change throughout the nineteenth century and discouraged the growth of an independent, viable middle class.

The rugged terrain and inadequate transportation system reinforced social and geographic distance, keeping the numerically superior but disunited masses fragmented and powerless. The nascent middle sector lacked a collective consciousness, preferring to identify individually with the upper class. The elite was the only social group with sufficient cohesion to articulate goals and make them known to the rest of the society.

In the twentieth century, the society began to experience change--not so much in values or orientation but in broadening of the economic bases and an expansion of the social classes. Improvements in transportation, communication, and education-- coupled with industrialization and rapid urban growth--opened the society somewhat by expanding economic opportunities. Individuals moved up from the masses into the lower, the middle, and infrequently the upper classes. Nevertheless, the traditional upper class continued to dominate the country by maintaining strict control over forces that encouraged change and by absorbing or coopting other social sectors into the economic and political system. Generally, however, the upper class did not admit these upwardly mobile groups to the inner circle of power cliques and informal social contacts.

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