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New political organization of Colombia


University of Antioquia Medellin
University of Antioquia Medellin

Even in what was left of Gran Colombia (present-day Colombia and Panama), organization remained problematic. Many political leaders withdrew their support from the increasingly authoritarian leadership of Bolívar and supported Francisco de Paula Santander, the Colombian who had served as Bolívar’s vice president during the war for independence. Regional, class, and ethnic tensions also undermined national unity, while a stagnant economy limited the government’s ability to promote education, improve transport, and maintain public order. A major division within the new nation centered on policy toward the Roman Catholic Church. During the colonial period, the church had grown rich and powerful, controlling much rural and urban property and running most schools.

After independence, the church continued to enjoy power and privileges, and efforts to reduce its influence sharply divided Colombians and led to a series of civil wars. By the mid-19th century, the debate around the church had separated Colombians into two antagonistic political parties: Liberals, who sought to curb the church’s influence and divest it of much of its wealth, and Conservatives, who struggled to maintain the church’s privileges.

Conflict between Liberals and Conservatives


The Liberals’ attacks on the privileges of the Roman Catholic Church formed part of a broader policy of creating unrestricted markets for land and labor. Thus Liberal reformers also passed legislation to abolish slavery, allow Indians to sell their land, and end the state monopoly on the cultivation of tobacco. In order to win support for their reforms, Liberals appealed to the middle and lower classes, especially the artisans of the cities. In the 1850s they took the radical, albeit temporary, step of instituting universal adult male suffrage. Conservatives were backed by much of the upper class but also appealed to the lower classes by pointing to Conservative defense of the church.

Conflict between Liberals and Conservatives over these issues resulted in periodic civil wars during the 19th century. Liberals managed to consolidate their control over the national government and push through many of their reforms following a bloody civil war from 1861 to 1863. In 1863 they wrote a constitution that established an extremely decentralized government. During a civil war in 1885, however, Liberal dissidents allied themselves with the Conservatives and captured control of the national government. Under the leadership of dissident Liberal Rafael Núñez and Conservative Miguel Antonio Caro, the victors wrote a new constitution in 1886. The Constitution of 1886, which remained in force until 1991, restored the privileges of the Catholic Church, limited suffrage to adult males who passed the literacy requirement, restricted civil liberties, centralized administration, and greatly strengthened the power of the executive branch. Liberals were denied meaningful representation in the new regime and revolted in 1899. The War of the Thousand Days, as the conflict came to be called, dragged on until 1902 and claimed the lives of perhaps 100,000 Colombians out of a total population of about 4 million.

Government forces defeated the Liberals in the war. In the aftermath of the conflict, Panama, with the backing of the U.S. government, seceded from Colombia in 1903. Colombia’s political instability during the 19th century was closely related to economic problems. Gold production, the mainstay of Colombian exports since colonial times, declined after 1810, and gold exports did not regain their value until the 1890s. Exports of other commodities, notably tobacco and cinchona bark (quinine), increased for two decades after 1850, then declined sharply as Colombian growers lost out to more efficient producers elsewhere. High transport costs, a consequence of the nation’s mountainous terrain, limited the competitiveness of Colombian exports. Although steam navigation was established on the Magdalena River in the 1850s, until well into the 20th century mule transport continued to connect river ports with highland areas where most Colombians lived. The few hundred kilometers of railway in the country at the end of the 19th century were divided among short, unconnected lines, few of which extended into the mountains. In 1900 Colombian exports per capita stood at approximately $6, one of the lowest levels in all of Latin America. "Colombia" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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