There are traces of hunter gatherers going back 10,000 years BC and the Pre-Colombian sites of San Agustin, Tierradentro and Ciudad Perdida where highly skilled metalworkers and goldsmiths created the region’s best artefacts. But the really interesting part of Colombian history starts with the arrival of the Europeans.
The first expedition led by Alonso de Ojeda arrived in 1499 but it wasn’t until 1525 when the Spanish settled at Santa Marta with Cartagena coming later in 1533. The Spanish Royal Audiencia was established in 1549 in what is now Bogotá and by 1739 the Viceroyalty of New Granada had been established.
In the early 1800s the region was no different to many other Latin American countries; the independence movement responded to Napoleon’s invasion of Spain and sought to declare independence from the Spanish.
In 1812 Simón Bolívar arrived in Cartagena after fighting and winning six major battles in Venezuela, but, unable to hold the territory, had withdrawn to Colombia. By mid-1815 the Spanish arrived to take back the territory and by 1816 the region was back under the control of Spain.
But the people of the region had tasted independence and they were not going to give up the struggle. Over the next few years Bolívar and Francisco de Paula Santander in neighbouring Venezuela continued the battles. Bolívar assembled an army in Venezuela and invaded Colombia; on 7th August 1819 the Battle of Boyacá was won and independence declared.
In the following years Gran Colombia came into being made up of modern day Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela with Simón Bolívar as its president. But the union was too large and by 1830 had split into three separate countries with Panama remaining a province of Colombia.
In 1863 the modern day Colombia was then called the “United States of Colombia”, and by 1886 had become the “Republic of Colombia”. Meanwhile two political parties, the Conservatives (centralists) and the Liberals (federalists) emerged. The political rivalries were strong and throughout the rest of the century the unrest led to eight civil wars with 50 anti-government insurrections between 1863 and 1885.
The unrest was to continue into the new century when in 1899 the Conservatives were accused of holding on to power through fraudulent means. The Thousand Days’ War, much of which had been fought in the province of Panama, ended in 1902 when the Liberals realised they could not win and the Americans intervened to protect their interests in the construction of the Panama Canal. In the meantime around 100,000 people had been left dead.
The Americans, keen to prevent further turmoil, encouraged a secessionist movement in Panama which resulted in the formal separation and creation of the country of Panama on 3rd November 1903.
Somehow the two parties managed to live alongside each other for the rest of the early part of the 20th Century, although Colombia did fall out with neighbouring Peru. The war, which lasted from 1st September 1932 until 24th May 1933 was over a stretch of Amazonian Rainforest and the strategically important town of Leticia. The war ended when President Sánchez of Peru was assassinated and his successor, Óscar Benavides brought an end to the conflict.
Although not directly involved in the conflict of World War Two, Colombia entered the war on the side of the Allies in November 1943 after German attacks on its shipping; and its navy was active in responding to U-boat operations in the Caribbean.
In 1948 (some say 1946) the violence between Conservatives and Liberals flared up once more. ‘La Violencia’ or ‘The Violence’ lasted until 1958 and killed an estimated 300,000 people. During that period the only military coup d’état of the 20th Century took place in June 1953 when General Gustavo Rojas toppled the government of the Conservative President Laureano Gómez. Rojas lasted until 10th May 1957 when nationwide protests demanding his resignation were successful; they led to a military Junta of five more Generals.
The Conservatives and Liberals, realising that they were getting nowhere, came together in July 1957. The former Conservative President Laureano Gómez and former Liberal President Alberto Lleras signed the ‘Declaration of Sitges’ in which they declared a ‘National Front’. A novel solution, the National Front meant that each party would take an equal number of seats in parliament and would alternate the presidency every four years for 16 years.
A good solution to ending ‘The Violence’, the National Front was not that successful in moving the country forward and it suppressed the opportunities for other political parties to participate in the democratic process.
The system came to a formal end in 1974 but by that time the frustration had built up amongst urbanites and farmworkers alike. The result was the 19 April Movement (M-19), the much more dangerous Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN) and United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). It is only in 2014 that the government of the day is close to reaching a peace deal with FARC and ELN, but time will tell. Meanwhile a potent drug trade had built up, making Colombia one of the main growing and distribution centres of the world in drugs. The Medellín Cartel led by Pablo Escobar who became a member of Congress in 1982 was perhaps the most notorious of the drugs cartels (Escobar died in 1993 in a shootout with the Colombian National Police).
President Belisario Betancur (1982 – 1986) was the first president to try and open dialogue with the rebel groups. At first it looked as though he was getting somewhere until the M-19 attacked the Palacio de Justicia in 1986 and killed more than 100 people.
President Virgilio Barco Vargas (1986 – 1990) also tried and succeeded in getting the M-19 to lay down their arms and integrate into the political process.
By now the United States had intervened in the drugs war and millions of dollars were being poured into the country to fight the cartels. In 1999 President Andrés Pastrana Arango, with the help of the Americans, launched Plan Colombia which led to the spraying of coca fields with herbicides.
In 2002 President Álvaro Uribe entered office with a country that was largely closed down and in the hands of rebel groups and drugs cartels. He vowed to do something about it and he did; within months he had poured in thousands of troops and opened up the country once more. He was so successful that Congress changed the constitution to allow him to run for a second term in 2006. However, his presidency ended in controversy over extrajudicial killings.
Uribe was replaced by President Juan Manuel Santos in 2010. Santos was a former Defence Minister under Uribe and continued the tough line against FARC and other rebel groups. On 27th August 2012 the Colombian government announced that it was entering talks with FARC but that the military would continue their campaign against rebel groups until a final solution was agreed.
Uribe and now Santos have brought a degree of stability back to the country and investment has increased.
The Conservative and Liberal parties remain strong in Congress, but with the election of Uribe in 2002 the first truly multi-party elections took place. In the 2010 general election twelve parties won seats in the Congress with five parties in double digits.
In the 2014 elections Santos won once more but with a much reduced majority, taking just 50.95% of the vote and his party emerged as the largest party but with 39 of the 163 seats in the House of Representatives.
Santos announced on 27th August 2012 that the government had started talks with FARC and after extensive talks the peace deal went to a referendum on 2nd October 2, 2016 but was defeated. The Colombian government and FARC signed a revised peace deal on 24th November 2016 which Congress approved on 30th November. The government has now entered into talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN), another armed group.
The President is elected for a four year term but as of 2006 can stand for a second term.
The bicameral congress consists of 166 members of the lower house or House of Representatives and 102 members of the upper house or Senate who are elected for single four year terms.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Colombia at joint 90th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 37 (where 100 is least corrupt).