Politically, Colombia is a country of paradoxes: (one of) “the oldest democracy in South America”, but also the oldest armed conflict in the Americas (since 1964, or, more accurately, 1946-8). It is a country with a long tradition of competitive elections, civilian governments, peaceful transitions of power and – for most of its history – a fairly consensual (formal) political culture. It is also a country with a long tradition of political violence, expressed in a dozen-odd civil wars in the nineteenth century, the madness of the Violencia or the barbarity of the current armed conflict in all its plural forms. How these two, apparently self-contradictory, things can apparently coexist is one of the most interesting things (to me) about Colombian politics.
Colombian politics and history, even disregarding violence, stand out in Latin America – I mean, pick up any undergrad textbook which mentions South America, and Colombia is nothing more than a footnote or mentioned in passing, usually preceded with the word ‘except’. Despite being South America’s second most populous country, and one of its largest economies, less is commonly known about it than is known of, say, Argentina or Chile (and, obviously, Cuba). I suppose that’s because Colombia is that annoying exception which breaks down polisci theories. Colombia is practically the only Latin American country which was not carried by the Pink/Red wave a few years ago (also, Mexico, but Mexico has a strong left). Related to this point, Colombia is one of the few Latin American countries which lacks a strong left. Colombia is one of the few Latin American countries (along with minor Central American countries and basket case Paraguay) where the nineteenth century two-party, Liberal/Conservative, system survived well into the twentieth century – certainly much longer than it did in Mexico, Ecuador or Venezuela. There are plenty of other cases where Colombia is the odd man out, or unique in some way – the near-absence of military coups, the lack of an authoritarian military dictatorship in the 1970s or the oddity of the National Front, for example.
The common refrain about Colombia being “the oldest democracy in South America” isn’t entirely accurate, and if your definition of democracy is the slightest bit more demanding than “they hold elections”, then you’d probably disagree with it. At the same time, it does have a lot of truth to it – Colombia had a peaceful transition of power between two opposing sides following an election in 1836, Colombia’s change of government during the Depression era (1930) came through an election won by the opposition (because the governing party was divided) rather than a revolution or coup as in most other South American countries, presidents who don’t serve the entirety of their terms are far more the exception than the rule (hello Ecuador) and elections are a central element to political competition in Colombia (and there is a long list of closely contested elections). On the other hand, several points strike pretty big holes in the idea of “the oldest democracy” – the quasi-permanent undemocratic states of emergency under article 121 of the 1886 constitution between the 1940s and 1991 (which allowed governments, among other things, to legislate by decree), massive human rights abuses by public authorities, the widespread collusion and criminal alliances between illegal groups and politicians, the ruling elites’ inability/unwillingness to integrate new social groups (especially disadvantaged or marginalized ones) into formal political mechanisms or the exclusionary power-sharing National Front (1958-1974). Several of these factors have been causes and effects of the armed conflict.
Something must be said about the Liberal (rojos – reds) and Conservative (azules – blues, or godos) parties, and their role in Colombian politics and society. Both arose sometime in the nineteenth century, at roughly the same time, one in reaction to the other, and they remain the only two relevant political parties until the 1990s. The initial ideological differences between the two were similar to those between the same parties in other countries in the region – overstated, though with some differences on things like religion/the role of the Church, free trade and territorial organization (federalism). The Liberals of the nineteenth century got their wet dream in the 1863 constitution, of the ‘United States of Colombia’, and supported very decentralized federalism, personal freedom (with caveats), free trade (to an extent) and state-ordained secularism/laïcité; the Conservatives, on the other hand, got their wet dream in the 1886 constitution, and their foundations were family, faith and order (still reflected in the national anthem – Comprende las palabras / Del que murió en la cruz, or on the coat of arms – Libertad y Orden). In any case, both parties have always been a complex, convoluted mess of factions – who, at specific times, have jumped ship for purpose of defeating a common enemy. The differences in social makeup of the parties, at their outset, have been overstated as well – it was never a ‘landowning Conservatives’ versus ‘bourgeois merchant Liberals’ affair of the kind suggested by some old literature. Political competition between and within the Liberals and Conservatives took place in elections (i.e. 1930, 1946), but also in civil wars – like those of the nineteenth century, of the War of the Thousand Days at the turn of the last century and, most recently, the Violencia. The Liberals and Conservatives, in a country lacking a national myth or ethos, served an important function in unifying a fragmented and poorly connected country of regions. At the same time, they (and, for the godos, the Church) also created and cemented ‘inherited hatreds’, fuelling political violence. To the above list of ideological differences I would add a really important one – murdering the other side. A tour guide in Cali once told me that the Liberals and Conservatives have been the cause/root of every problem in Colombia – it’s hard to disagree.
The Liberals ruled between 1861 and the early 1880s – the ‘radical Olympus’; the Conservatives ruled from about 1886 to 1930 (in different forms) – the ‘Conservative Hegemony’ and the Liberals ruled between 1930 and 1946 – the ‘Liberal Republic’. After 1930, the Liberals became the dominant party – they were the majority party in every election until some point in the 1990s, and when they lost elections (1946 and 1982) it was because of vote splitting. The Liberals’ advantage came from their ability at integrating or (more accurately) co-opting some emerging social group into the political system – unionized workers, some peasants, new urban clienteles and parts of the political left (the Communist Party, for one, was basically an appendage of the Liberals for a good period of time). In every case, of course, the Liberals sold all of these people out – agrarian reform, the lack thereof, being the most tragic and pernicious example.
The last round of red-blue violence in The Violence having been particularly egregious even by Colombian standards, a genius power-sharing mechanism was created by Liberal and Conservative elites in 1957 and entrenched into the constitution – the National Front (Frente Nacional). Among other things, the National Front meant a guaranteed equal 50-50 division of seats in all elected bodies (from town council up to Congress) between the two parties (with other parties explicitly barred from running themselves), an alternation in the presidency (in the style of Restoration Spain’s turno pacifico) over what ended up as four terms (1958-1974), an equal division of cabinet and bureaucratic gigs at all levels between parties, requirements for inflated super-majorities to do or pass anything and an indefinite sunset clause guaranteeing bipartisan power-sharing far beyond 1974 (article 120 of the 1886 constitution) — although the National Front dispensations ended in 1974, the first single-party government was that of Virgilio Barco (1986). The National Front was hardly democratic, and although its successes should not be downplayed (i.e. the Liberals and Conservatives stopped murdering each other, although this took away their last remaining ideological difference, and other people were murdered instead), it had a fairly negative long-term impact on Colombian democracy and political participation (i.e. it’s one of the reasons why turnout is crap). That said, although other parties were excluded from political/electoral participation, this wasn’t as bad as it sounds – the other parties were jokes on their own, regardless of other things, and the other parties found ways to participate by becoming factions of the two parties. It wasn’t as if there was no democratic opposition to the system – you had the MRL and later the ANAPO, and former military dictator/poor man’s Perón Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (1953-1957) nearly won the 1970 election with his anti-FN ANAPO (amidst claims that it was #rigged, which I’m not convinced is true). The National Front turned competition from inter-party to intra-party, and this continued (and accelerated) after 1974, reinforced by Colombia’s laughably bad electoral system (changed in 2003). The Liberal and Conservative parties collapsed progressively in the 1990s – with the highly progressive 1991 constitution which favoured the fragmentation/opening of the party system, the impetus from the electoral system and the paramilitaries’ hidden hand. In any case, the Liberal and Conservative parties and their ‘traditions’ now both exist beyond the parties themselves – the Partido de la U and Cambio Radical are basically factions of the Liberals which split off, and Juan Manuel Santos, a founder and leader of the Partido de la U, is at heart a Liberal.
Colombian politics remain intensely clientelistic and patronage-driven. No president has won without support of some kind of political machine — in Colombia, ‘political machine’ really takes on its nasty pejorative connotation; Antanas Mockus came closest in 2010, and modern post-2010 uribismo has gone very far without much in the way of traditional political machines (which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have any). The machines and clientelistic networks they represent reign supreme in Congress, the lair of criminals. They are kept in line to vote for the government’s bills through pork (in Santos’ Colombia, known as marmelade, which is a superior term), bureaucratic appointments for their friends and allies (at all levels, political machines/clans expect ‘bureaucratic quotas’ for themselves in administrations) and a chance to sneak in riders to bills (known as micos, literally ‘monkeys’, again a far superior term to boring English!). If you don’t honour your deal with these “bad hombres”, then you will get screwed over – and those people really don’t mess around (ask Kiko Gómez, former governor, convicted to 55 years for homicide).
Much more could (and should) be said about the 1991 constitution, the judiciary’s important role, the paradoxical highly legalistic tradition of a war-torn country (Colombianos las armas os han dado la independencia, pero solo las leyes os darán la libertad – Francisco de Paula Santander), US-Colombia relations, Álvaro Uribe, parapolitics or the armed conflict — but I’d probably ramble on forever…