100 YEARS OF PEACE

Colombia 2014 | DIPLOMACY | REVIEW: DIPLOMACY

The Colombian state is over two centuries old, and is now reinventing itself, winning admiration from the region and the world.

In July 2014, Colombians celebrated 204 years of independence from Spain. Newly-elected President Santos marked the day with the opening of Congress and an impassioned speech about the upward trajectory of the populous Andean nation. Peace was the theme of the day, referred to frequently throughout. The incumbent president and his Social Party of National Unity have been vigorously pursuing conclusive negotiations with the largest paramilitary rebellion in the country. In 1H2014, Santos was re-elected with 50.95% of the vote, and is looking to develop the economy through numerous free trade agreements and improved relations with neighbors through organizations such as the Pacific Alliance.

A HISTORY OF RESISTANCE

The Republic of Colombia is a unitary state that emerged from the dissolution of the Viceroyalty of New Granada, a colonial jurisdiction that corresponded primarily to modern day Venezuela, Panama, and Ecuador, as well as parts of Brazil and Guyana, Peru, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Suriname. In the first decade of the 19th century, Spanish society experienced a period of pivotal changes that directly affected its American colonies. These social upheavals culminated in the abdications of Charles VII and Ferdinand VII in 1808, to be replaced by Napoleon Bonaparte's brother Joseph, and ultimately led to the Peninsular War on the Spanish mainland. This decisive conflict between the Spanish Empire and the First French Empire provoked frustration on the part of the former's subjects, as many people, particularly creoles and members of the non-elite castes of society, felt neglected and decried the inequalities that existed under colonial rule. Rebellions in Quito and Caracas preceded the secession of the key Colombian port city of Cartagena, which was then followed by Bogotá and a declaration of independence from European control.

Over the subsequent decade, Simón Bolívar and other leaders who sought the withdrawal of Spanish military and civilian powers from South America consolidated the independence of the modern nations of the region. The watershed moment was the Battle of Boyacá, central Colombia, on August 7, 1819, a date that today remains a national holiday. A number of constitutions were promulgated between then and 1886, variously attempting to reinforce a centralized concept of the state and to better define the role of the Catholic Church. However, the heterogeneous nature of the departamentos and their traditional desire for autonomous government, clear since the early separation of Cartagena from the colonial viceroyalty and the post-independence regional infighting of the mid-19th century, ultimately led to a new document in 1991. This outlined the decentralized model of unitary government in existence today.

FORM AND FUNCTION

The new constitution instituted a number of significant changes. An impartial Constitutional Court was established for judicial review, a power once held by the Supreme Court, new habeas corpus mechanisms were introduced for the protection of citizens' rights, and the four-year presidential term was limited to one term without the possibility of re-election. This latter clause was overturned in 2005, allowing for the recent re-election of President Santos to a second tenure. The president leads the executive branch of the government, and is supported by the vice-president and the council of ministers and cabinet of advisors.

The Colombian legislative branch is run as a bicameral legislature, with a 166-seat Chamber of Representatives and a Senate with 102 seats. Elections for both chambers are held prior to presidential elections. The results of the 1Q2014 Senate election were close, with the Social Party of National Unity gaining 15.58%, the Democratic Center Party winning 14.29%, the Conservative Party at 13.58%, and the liberal party with 12.22% of votes. Results of the larger Chamber of Representatives elections were slightly different, with the Social Party of National Unity at 16.05%, the Liberal Party at 14.13%, the Conservative Party at 13.17%, the Democratic Center Party at 9.47%, and the Radical Change Party at 7.74%. Each of Colombia's 32 departments has a provincial capital and a local government with a publicly elected mayor and assembly. The departments are further subdivided into municipalities.

TURN ON THE BRIGHT LIGHTS

For many decades in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party dominated Colombian political life, with the former generally maintaining a more prominent position. A binary mindset among the electorate was exacerbated by elites on both sides, and voters were convinced that there were only two possible alternatives. Supporters were awarded when either side was in power, as the national budget was at the discretion of party functionaries, and this long-term feud climaxed in a dark period known as La Violencia, beginning in the 1940s and continuing throughout the 1950s. The declaration of Sitges established the National Front coalition of both parties as the legitimate government, replacing the regime of General Gustavo Rojas. Subsequent decades were marked by the protracted insurgency of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and a number of other separatist groups, as well as violent challenges to the government's authority from narcotics gangs.

The worst era for political violence showed signs of ending as smaller paramilitary and guerrilla groups were gradually incorporated into the peace process. The 1991 constitution offered new possibilities for reconciliation through improved recognition of human rights and provisions for the integration of dissident groups into the broader political process. The government of Álvaro Uribe, predecessor of Santos, lasted from 2002 to 2010, and pushed a policy of containment of armed groups within the borders of Colombia to the forefront of its agenda.

DIVIDENDS OF PEACE

The current government has been active in developing a lasting peace agreement with FARC, a strategy about which many Colombians are hopeful. Expectations for the performance of the economy in a post-conflict situation are also high, with GDP predicted to rise by up to two percentage points as transport throughout the interior becomes more open and business safer to conduct. Authorities are aware that the challenge extends beyond the conflict, however. “Social gaps in our country are still very large, and therefore public spending should be focused and targeted towards correcting inequality and increasing opportunities," explained President Santos in a speech at the opening of the congressional 2014-2015 term. “What we want is for the regions to continue empowering themselves, and for the most remote areas of the country to become incorporated into the process of national development."

The final branch of government is the judicial branch. Its Supreme Court judges number 25, and are elected by the legislature. This court is divided among judges that deal exclusively with penal, labor, and civil and agrarian cases. The Council of State is used for issues within the state apparatus, and advises on issues related to the functioning of the state. Lower courts are overseen by superior tribunals, which hold responsibility for geographic areas. As stipulated by the 1991 constitution, an independent constitutional court maintains the legality of judicial decisions, and is tasked with upholding human rights complaints from individual citizens.

Colombia is moving toward prosperity, despite the considerable challenges that remain. Through the gradual development of a reconciliatory approach to the country's internal complications, the government is paving the way for a sustainable era of peace. As the third largest economy in Latin America, the country's potential for growth is undeniable. The subject of peace is sure to be on citizen's minds for months, and years, to come.