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Colombia at the end of the 20th century


Farc members in Colombia
Farc members in Colombia

Following the end of the National Front and the return of competitive elections in 1974, the two traditional parties continued to dominate Colombian politics, but this domination lasted only until the beginning of the 21st century. Six of the eight presidents elected after 1974 were Liberals. In 2002, however, Colombians rejected the official candidate of the Liberal Party, electing Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who ran as an independent. All of these governments had to grapple with the growing power of leftist guerrillas and paramilitary right-wing forces. In addition these governments tried to stop the illegal drug trade. Originally the leftist guerrillas sought to overthrow the government and create a socialist regime. Over time, however, their goals have become less clear.

The collapse of the Soviet Union (see Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) in 1991 made socialism less appealing throughout the world and also eliminated Soviet support for revolutionary groups in Latin America. In addition, decades of struggle against the government made insurgency itself a way of life. Revolutionary groups support themselves through kidnapping, extortion, and income derived from protecting producers, processors, and traffickers of illegal drugs. These activities tend to undermine their commitment to revolutionary ideals and goals. Nevertheless the main guerrilla groups continue to demand a radical restructuring of Colombia’s liberal capitalist order. Estimates placed the number of combatants in the FARC as high as 18,000 men and women in 2001, up from some 4,000 in 1985.

Ejercito de Liberación Nacional


The other large guerrilla group active in the country is the Ejercito de Liberación Nacional (ELN, Army of National Liberation), estimated to have about 5,000 combatants. As the 21st century began, however, the ELN engaged in disarmament talks.

Since the 1980s, Colombian governments have simultaneously combated the guerrillas militarily while trying to negotiate with them to bring their insurgency to an end. Conservative president Belisario Betancur, who served from 1982 to 1986, made the first concerted effort at negotiation and announced a truce with the guerrillas in 1984. In response, the FARC launched a new political party, the Unión Popular (UP, Patriotic Union), in 1985 to compete in future elections. The UP achieved some electoral success in subsequent years, but the FARC never disarmed.

Magdalena river in Colombia
Magdalena river in Colombia

With the formation of the UP, the FARC pursued power through both military and political means. This pursuit made the UP especially vulnerable to clandestine right-wing repression. Many right-wing and centrist forces simply saw the UP as a front for the FARC guerrillas. In subsequent years, death squads killed hundreds of UP militants, including the UP presidential candidates in 1986 and 1990.

Betancur’s peace initiatives suffered another grave blow in November 1985 when M-19 guerrillas seized the Palace of Justice, the seat of the country’s Supreme Court, in Bogotá. They took dozens of hostages, and the Colombian army stormed the Palace. The military assault left more than 100 people dead, including 11 Supreme Court justices.

Eventually the M-19 agreed to demobilize, and its leaders played a prominent role in the constituent assembly that wrote a new constitution for Colombia in 1991. The Constitution of 1991 provided the legal basis for a more decentralized, pluralistic, and democratic government, including provisions to foster the development of new political parties.

Throughout the 1990s the Colombian government worked to negotiate an end to the guerrilla insurgency. The most ambitious of these efforts occurred following the election of Conservative Andrés Pastrana to the presidency in 1998. Pastrana created a safe haven for the FARC in southeastern Colombia. The safe haven was an area where no government troops could enter. Peace negotiations between the government and the FARC took place between 1999 and 2001. During 2000 the two sides agreed on an ambitious agenda, including agrarian reform, historically the FARC’s most fundamental concern. But the two sides made little progress on substantive issues, and by the end of 2001 negotiations had collapsed.

Meanwhile, the ELN demanded a safe haven of its own near the petroleum complex at Barrancabermeja in the Magdalena Valley. The ELN’s primary goal has been to nationalize Colombia’s oil industry, and it has inflicted great damage by repeatedly blowing up the country’s most important oil pipeline. However, a safe haven for the ELN never materialized under the Pastrana government. The government of Álvaro Uribe, with U.S. military support, attempted to protect the pipeline more effectively. "Colombia" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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