Following the loss of Panama, the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal parties joined together to promote exports and maintain social and political stability. Although the Conservative Party dominated Colombian governments until 1930, Liberals participated in them.
Economic improvement, especially the rapid growth of coffee exports, aided the bipartisan consensus in Colombia. Coffee had been cultivated for decades in parts of Colombia, but after 1910 production expanded rapidly, especially in the Cordillera Central. Most of Colombia’s coffee was grown by small farmers who owned their own land. Because profits from coffee exports stayed in Colombia and were widely shared, coffee stimulated industrial development, especially the textile industry of Medellín.
Foreign investment also increased during these years, especially in banana production on the Caribbean coast and in the oil fields of the central Magdalena River Valley. The country’s economic situation also improved in the 1920s when the United States paid Colombia $25 million to compensate for the loss of Panama.
Colombia’s economic growth fostered the development of a fledgling labor movement, and during the 1920s large strikes occurred in the oil and banana industries. Repression of these strikes, especially a massacre of banana workers by the Colombian army in 1928, worked to discredit the Conservative government. The onset of a worldwide economic depression further undermined the Conservatives.
In 1930 Conservatives peacefully transferred power to the Liberals, who controlled the Colombian government until 1946. Under the leadership of Alfonso López Pumarejo, who served as president from 1934 to 1938, the Liberals enacted a series of social and economic reforms.
In 1936 constitutional amendments gave the government power to regulate privately owned property in the national interest; established the right of workers to strike, subject to legal regulation; removed Roman Catholicism from its position as the official state religion; and shifted control of public education from the Catholic Church to the government.
Many Conservatives strongly opposed the Liberal reforms, and they withdrew from participating in the Liberal government. By the end of the 1930s, many moderate Liberals had also withdrawn their support for López’s reforms.
Divided over the question of social reform, the Liberals split their votes between two candidates in the presidential election of 1946. Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a famous criminal lawyer and a masterful orator, challenged the official candidate of the party, Gabriel Turbay. Gaitán was of mixed racial ancestry, and he cast himself as a champion of the dispossessed. He was highly critical of what he called the oligarchy, the elite that dominated the two traditional parties and Colombian society generally. Although Gaitán’s program was vague, he captured the fervent support of many poor and middle-class urban voters.
With the Liberal vote split, the Conservative candidate, Mariano Ospina Pérez, won the presidency in 1946. Although Ospina named a bipartisan cabinet, Conservatives in the countryside often sought exclusive control over local government. Tensions between the two parties increased, and violence broke out in many rural areas. Meanwhile, Gaitán emerged as the preeminent leader of the Liberal Party and eloquently denounced the escalating violence. "Colombia" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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