Colombia Digest III: Papal visit special

Special edition: Pope Francis’ visit to Colombia and comments on the Catholic Church’s historic role in politics and conflict in Colombia

Pope Francis’ visit

Pope Francis was in Colombia between Wednesday, September 6 and Sunday, September 10, visiting Bogotá (the capital), Villavicencio (Meta), Medellín and Cartagena. Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope, is the third pope to have visited the country, after Pope Paul VI in 1968 and Pope John Paul II in 1986. The papal visit attracted heavy attention from the Colombian media, which devoted wall-to-wall live coverage of the pope’s activities (if you’re interested, the livestreams can easily be found on YouTube).

Colombia has the sixth or seventh largest Catholic population in the world and the third largest in Latin America, after Brazil and Mexico. The government does not collect official statistics on religion (unlike in Mexico), but the 2014 Latinobarómetro study on religion in Latin America reported that 75% of Colombians were Catholics (down from 87% in 1996) while a 2010 Colombian survey found that 71% were Catholic. That same survey, which offers a wealth of data (though potentially outdated), also confirmed several assumptions: Colombians are religious (94% believers incl. 58% practicing believers; 48% said religion was very important), women and seniors are more religious and the percentage of declared agnostics and atheists is low (particularly compared to more secularized countries like Uruguay). As elsewhere, a good number of Catholics are ‘passive’ or ‘nominal’ Catholics who do not regularly attend religious services or feel attached the institutions of the Church. Colombia remains, on the aggregate, a conservative country on moral issues – but there are indications that views are evolving, particularly among the younger, urban educated middle-classes. The most recent Gallup poll found that 43% of (urban) respondents supported same-sex marriage (up from 31% in 2011) and 32% supported same-sex adoption (up from 19% in 2016).

The pope meeting Uribe and Santos, Dec. 2016 (source: El Espectador)

Pope Francis’ visit had been anticipated since 2015, when President Juan Manuel Santos announced the pope’s intention to visit the country sometime in the near future, an intention confirmed in 2016. In March 2017, the Vatican announced that the pope would visit the country in September. The first papal visit to Colombia in 31 years was, naturally, highly anticipated by all – particularly the politicians and the government, seeking the Pope’s blessing. President Juan Manuel Santos, whose popularity is in the dumps (25-30%) and his legacy (the peace process and its implementation) not looking very hot at the moment, explicitly sought the Pope’s blessing and public support for the peace process. Other politicians, including the opposition, also sought to make political use of the pope’s visit. As mentioned in the second edition of my Colombia Digest, the bilateral ceasefire with the ELN and Clan del Golfo’s possible surrender to authorities were timed to coincide with the pope’s arrival and both armed groups referred to the pope’s message of peace and reconciliation to support their announcements. The Catholic Church was quick to emphasize the religious, not political, character of the pope’s visit, but obviously given the themes (and even official slogan) of the visit (reconciliation, peace, non-violence, inequality, poverty, environmental protection, social justice, family, youth), everything the pope would say had a dual religious and political message. And, obviously, Pope Francis hasn’t shied away from quasi-political statements during his papacy. In Colombia, Pope Francis supported the peace process (but cautiously retained an arm’s length distance). In December 2016, the pope met with Santos and Uribe in a private audience in Rome, a strange and hastily arranged meeting which was ultimately a waste of everybody’s time and only produced memes.

Everybody took advantage of the papal visit to send their letters to Pope Francis. Uribe expressed his usual complaints about the peace process with the FARC (“we all want peace, but…”), the increase in coca cultivation (which he equates with drug trafficking and addiction), the economy and transitional justice. ‘Timochenko’, the leader of the FARC, wrote about the ex-guerrilla’s decision to surrender its weapons and leave behind hate and violence, and begged for his forgiveness for “any tears and pain we have caused”. As previously mentioned, alias ‘Otoniel’, public leader of the Clan del Golfo, addressed one short video specifically to Francis. Several social organizations and movements also wrote to the pope.

The pope landed in Bogotá late in the afternoon of September 6.  Huge crowds lined the pope’s route from the airport to the apostolic nunciature, along one of Bogotá’s main avenues (calle 26). One of the well-wishers hoping to catch a glimpse of the pope was Álvaro Uribe, accompanied by other senators of the CD. As it happened, the pope was looking the other way at the exact moment that the popemobile drove past Uribe. The unintended ‘papal snub’ to Uribe and CD senators holding up a banner asking for the pope’s blessing delighted the anti-uribistas on social media (the hashtag #MasIgnoradoQueUribe, or ‘more ignored than Uribe’, trended on Twitter in Colombia). Uribe being a parishioner among millions in Bogotá and Medellín contrasted sharply with his arch-nemesis, President Juan Manuel Santos, who greeted the pope at the airport in Bogotá, received in with the highest honours at the presidential palace the next day and bid him farewell at the airport in Cartagena.

source: @JuanManSantos

On September 7, in Bogotá, the pope was received at the presidential palace (Casa de Nariño) in downtown Bogotá by Santos, prayed in the cathedral of Bogotá, faced a crowd of 22,000 young people on the Plaza de Bolívar and, in the late afternoon, offered a Eucharist in Bogotá’s largest downtown park (Parque Simón Bolívar). As the pope and the president walked down the ceremonial red carpet, several children and young adults with disabilities or suffering from Down syndrome approached and hugged the pope, seeking his blessing. The reception of the pope as a foreign dignitary at the presidential palace was attended by a large press contingent, all the top dignitaries of the state (ministers, magistrates, leading congressmen, former peace negotiators, heads of the independent control agencies, attorney general, prominent politicians), famous Colombian artists (Fonseca and two members of the Chocquibtown group) and the three former presidents on ‘friendly terms’ with Santos (Belisario Betancur, César Gaviria, Ernesto Samper; Uribe and Andrés Pastrana, while invited, didn’t attend and neither did any of the CD’s congressmen). The pope’s Eucharist at the park shattered all previous attendance records: 1.3 million people showed up.

On September 8, Pope Francis flew to Villavicencio, the capital of Meta department and ‘the door to the Eastern Plains’ (Llanos Orientales). Peace, reconciliation and remembrance were the main themes of the pope’s second day in Colombia – as well as the environment and natural conservation. On the tarmac at Bogotá airport, the pope saluted wounded soldiers and hoped that they could see peace consolidated in a country ‘which deserved it’. In Villavicencio, thousands awaited the pope. After a Eucharist, one the most moving events of the pope’s journey in Colombia was a meeting with victims of the armed conflict – including reintegrated former members of the guerrilla and paramilitaries. Symbolically, the pope blessed the ‘black Christ of Bojayá’, which was in the church of the small village of Bojayá (Chocó) in May 2002, when 119 civilians taking shelter inside the church were killed by an artisanal mortar fired by the FARC.

Pope Francis offered memorable comments on peace and reconciliation – “any peace effort without a sincere commitment to reconciliation will always be a failure”, “one good person is enough for there to be hope, and each one of us can be this person”, “do not lose peace because of discord (cizaña)”, “love is stronger than death and violence”, “it is time to heal wounds, build bridges, settle differences”, “do not fear truth and justice” and “truth is an inseparable companion of justice and mercy, together they are essential to build peace”. In his first night in Colombia, Pope Francis told a crowd of young people outside the apostolic nunciature “do not let yourself be defeated, do not be fooled, do not lose joy, do not lose hope”. In both Bogotá and Villavicencio, the pope also spoke out for natural conservation and environmental protection, a particularly important issue in Colombia – the second most biodiverse country in the world (and the most biodiverse per square kilometre!).

On September 9, in Medellín, often described as one of the most religious (clerical) cities in Colombia (and whose archbishop is very conservative), the pope offered another mass Eucharist attended by over 1 million people, visited a home for disadvantaged children (orphans, victims, internally displaced, disabled, sick) and spoke to priests, nuns, seminarians and their families. Addressing the clergy, the pope highlighted some of the themes that have been at the centre of his papacy: the need for the Church to leave its ‘comforts and attachments’ to renew itself, urging the clergy to involve itself in the defence of the weakest and in favour of peace, not taking advantage of their religious positions to obtain material benefits and the impossibility of ‘serving God and money’

On his last day in Colombia, the pope was in Cartagena, one of the most unequal cities in Colombia. There was controversy because the municipal administration installed fences to hide a poor neighbourhood along the pope’s route, although the pope did visit one of the city’s poorest barrios and blessed the first stone of a future homeless shelter. He later prayed and spoke at the church of San Pedro Claver in Cartagena’s colonial centre and offered a final mass Eucharist before departing Colombia.

Pope Francis’ historic visit to Colombia was effusively praised by most media commentators, who broadly agreed that the papal visit restored some degree of optimism in a difficult period where pessimism runs very high and ‘brought out the good in people‘, something perhaps too easily forgotten in Colombia and other countries (where headlines are about terrorism, corruption, violence, intolerance, suffering, evil and stupidity). The pope’s words were simple, timely, effective and spoke to the national reality. The themes he raised – peace, reconciliation, non-violence, social justice, inequalities, the environment, the youth, family – spoke not only to a religious Catholic audience but to everyone, including non-Catholics and atheists.

The question is whether or not the legacy of the pope’s visit and his messages will last. Given the highly-charged polarized political climate in a quasi-electoral year (the elections are in less than 12 months now) and the harsh reality, that appears to be unlikely.

The Catholic Church’s role in conflicts (and politics) in Colombia

The Catholic Church, obviously, has not been an innocent bystander in Colombian history. Quite to the contrary, the Catholic Church has been a prominent actor in the main events of post-independence Colombian history – much like in every other Latin American country. In a country divided by geography, regionalism, cultural diversity and the historical weakness of the state, the Catholic Church was one of the only institutions which provided some degree of social cohesion and governability. Following independence from Spain, the Catholic Church in Colombia therefore retained much of its far-reaching spiritual, political, social and economic influence.

However, as elsewhere in Latin America, the Church’s intransigent ultramontanism collided with the secular, liberal ideas of the Enlightenment. Religious issues underpinned most conflicts between anti-clerical liberals – opposed to the Church’s influence and political power – and conservatives throughout the nineteenth century, with repercussions into the twentieth century until La Violencia. The religious conflict in Colombia was exacerbated by the identification of both sides with the two antagonistic parties (which were inimical political subcultures): anti-clericals, Protestants, Freemasons and freethinkers with the Liberal Party; clerical Catholics and much of the Church hierarchy with the Conservative Party. The Catholic Church in Colombia was particularly conservative, identifying with integralism or integrism to resist modernism and associated socioeconomic changes. Catholic integralism has a holistic vision of the world built around Catholicism, underpinning all social and political action. The integralist/integrist clergy in Colombia stood out for the virulence of its attacks on liberalism, Protestantism, atheism and later communism. To the most radical men of the clergy, liberalism was incompatible with Catholicism – a viewpoint not unlike that of some parts of the Catholic clergy in Quebec (Canada) around the same time.

Anti-clerical liberalism triumphed with the Rionegro constitution of 1863, which separated church and state and enshrined freedom of religion. During the so-called olimpo radical – the supposed triumph of anti-clerical radical liberalism (1863-1880s) – the Jesuits were re-expelled (they had previously been expelled under a previous liberal regime, in 1850), Church assets were confiscated and a secular public education system was imposed. The latter led to one of the bloodiest civil wars in nineteenth century Colombia (1876-1877), which showed how the anti-clerical dogmatism and intransigence of the liberals polarized society and led conservatives to close ranks around the ‘defence of Catholic values’ (and the social order of the Church). Unlike in Mexico, therefore, Colombian liberals were never triumphant – a critical difference being that Colombian conservatives were never de-legitimized as ‘traitors’ for having allied with a foreign power with disastrous consequences.

The Regeneración, led by Rafael Núñez and Miguel Antonio Caro, marked the failure of the secular and federalist project of the radical liberals and institutionalized a new order in which the Catholic Church regained its previous influence and power. Rafael Núñez, the leading political figure of the Regeneración, was not an ultramontane clerical but an independent liberal (and positivist) who saw the Catholic Church as the only national institution capable of maintaining social order and cohesion and guaranteeing national integration in a fragmented country. The 1886 constitution, the antithesis of the 1863 constitution, along with the 1887 Concordat, declared Catholicism to be the ‘religion of the nation’ (but allowed for freedom of conscience and freedom of worship for “all cults which are not contrary to Christian morals and laws”), granted autonomy to the Church in the management of its internal affairs and exempted most of the Church’s real property from taxation. Moreover, public education was to be ‘organized and directed in accordance with the Catholic religion’ (with compulsory religious education managed and supervised by the Church), the Church was constitutionally authorized to carry out civil duties (civil status – marriage, births, deaths), civil marriages were abolished and annulled (the ‘Concha law’ of 1924 forced Catholics to renounce their faith if they wished to contract a civil marriage) and divorce was placed under the exclusive jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts.

The Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Religion is that of the Nation; the public powers will protect it and ensure it is respected as an essential element of the social order. It is understood that the Catholic Church is not and will not be official, and will retain its independence. (Art. 38, C.P. 1886)

The freedom of all faiths (cults) that are not contrary to Christian morals or the laws is guaranteed. Acts contrary to Christian morals or subversive of public order, which are carried out on the occasion or pretext of the exercise of a faith, are subject to the common law. (Art. 40, C.P. 1886)

The Catholic Church thus regained its political, social and moral influence over Colombian society, and Colombia – although Catholicism was not the official religion – became a ‘confessional state’. Colombian national identity, post-1886, was constructed around Catholicism and hispanismo. This Catholic national identity was institutionalized through the annual consecration of the nation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus after 1902, a legally-sanctioned tradition which continued until the Constitutional Court ruled it unconstitutional under the new constitution in 1994.

Ezequiel Moreno, pastor of Pasto (1896-1905): liberalism is a sin

The Church’s open support helps explain (in part) why the Conservatives retained power until 1930. During the War of the Thousand Days (1899-1902), for example, the bishop of Pasto, Ezequiel Moreno (canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1992), encouraged Conservatives to defend ‘Christian values’ with ‘Remington and machete’ and famously declared that liberalism is a sin. Local clergy indoctrinated parishioners and supervised election results (although the attitudes of the clergy, and their degree of rabid opposition to liberalism, varied by region), while the archbishop of Bogotá sometimes intervened to mediate internal conflicts in the ruling Conservative Party – Archbishop Ismael Perdomo’s failure to arbitrate between the two Conservative candidates in the 1930 election led to the Liberal victory in that year’s election.

The Liberal Party’s victory in 1930, and more particularly the election of Alfonso López Pumarejo in 1934 – with an ambitious reformist program, the Revolución en Marcha – revived latent religious and political conflicts, with sectors of the Conservative Party (most famously Laureano Gómez, a Catholic and hispanista sympathetic to Francisco Franco) and the Church fanning the flames. López Pumarejo’s 1936 constitutional reform removed the mention of God from the preamble and the reference to Catholicism as the ‘religion of the nation’ and ‘essential element of social order’. It – among other things – guaranteed freedom of conscience, freedom of religion (provided that it was not contrary to Christian morals) and freedom of education.

The State guarantees freedom of conscience. No one shall be importuned by reason of their religious opinions, nor compelled to profess beliefs or observe practices contrary to their conscience. The freedom of all faiths (cults) that are not contrary to Christian morals or the laws is guaranteed. Acts contrary to Christian morals or subversive of public order, which are carried out on the occasion or pretext of the exercise of a faith, are subject to the common law. (Acto Legislativo 1 de 1936, Artículo 13).

López Pumarejo’s reforms did not separate Church and State, but they secularized the state and were aimed at reducing the Church’s power and influence, particularly over education (where the Church enjoyed extraordinary powers). Likely inspired by Mexico, López Pumarejo imagined a free, compulsory and secular public education system – open to all social classes, without discrimination (banned by law in 1936) – which would contribute to the development of a critical, rational spirit based on new pedagogical methods and open to more modern currents of Western thought. At the post-secondary level, the National University of Colombia (opened in 1867) gained greater autonomy.

The Liberal reforms were not remotely revolutionary – the Church’s power was to be reduced, but its privileged position was left untouched, while several issues (divorce, civil marriage, women’s rights) were barely addressed. Nevertheless, to the conservative Colombian Catholic Church, the Liberal reforms were a direct threat not only to their power but to the very foundations of society (threatened by the evils of laicismo, atheism, Protestant proselytizing, liberalism and communism) and they were systematically and virulently attacked by the Church (and laureanista Conservatives). The vehement opposition of much of the ecclesiastical hierarchy condemned López’s secular constitutional and educational reforms to failure, as did the opposition of ‘moderate’ Liberals who pointed to the devastating consequences of the radical reforms of the nineteenth century. In López’s second term (1942-1945), the secularizing reforms – like many other ambitious projects of Revolución en Marcha (agrarian reform…) – were effectively abandoned in favour of a flowery discourse about ‘religious peace’ (which didn’t last). During this period, Catholic integralism in Colombia sought to challenge the growing Liberal and communist influence in society by creating Catholic lay associations, reinvigorating Catholic education (the Pontifical Xavierian University in Bogotá was reopened in 1931, 164 years after it was closed with the expulsion of Jesuits from the Spanish Empire in 1767; the Pontifical Bolivarian University in Medellín, founded in 1936), creating Catholic trade unions (most prominently the Conservative-aligned UTC in 1946, to compete against the Liberal and Communist-aligned CTC) and supporting corporatism and Catholic social teachings.

The Conservative victory in 1946 dealt the final blow to the Liberal reforms of the 1930s, heightened partisan and religious tensions and led to the eruption of La Violencia – the long, confusing and savagely bloody civil war between the two traditional parties. The Conservatives’ return to power strengthened the political power and influence of the Catholic Church, which in several regions indiscriminately conflated liberalism and communism and incited parishioners to quasi-‘holy wars’ against liberalism and communism. In turn, Liberal guerrillas and mobs identified the Church with the Conservative Party and turned their ire and violence against the clergy, churches and religious schools. The assassination of Liberal tribune Jorge Eliécer Gaitán on April 9, 1948 and the subsequent Bogotazo riots which followed increased religious conflict. The Colombian Catholic Church hierarchy, vociferously anti-communist, blamed international communism – among other evils (loosening of moral norms, Protestantism) – for the violence. From the top town, the ecclesiastical hierarchy forbade parishioners from voting for ‘communists’ – although whether all Liberals were communists (or if only some were) differed from place to place.

Miguel Ángel Builes, pastor of Sta. Rosa de Osos (1924-1967): liberalism is essentially evil.

One of the most famous figures of Catholic orthodoxy intransigence was Mgr. Miguel Ángel Builes, bishop of Santa Rosa de Osos (Antioquia) between 1924 and 1967. Builes attacked modernity and ‘loosening of moral norms’ (women wearing pants or riding horses – sins that he alone could absolve, cinema, radio, books, dancing), public education and liberalism-communism. Warning against the sinister conspiratorial designs of international communism, which he explicitly equated with Colombian liberalism (‘a dress with which the communist beast covers itself’), he considered liberalism to be “essentially evil” and said that voting for liberal-leftists was a mortal sin. He spoke of the events of April 9, 1948 – the responsibility of ‘communist liberalism’ – as the sign that the forces of evil were readying to lead their last battle, against Christ and the Church, and the duty of good Catholics was to fight, until the last drop of blood if need be.

Pope Francis made implicit reference to the Violencia during his visit by beatifying Pedro María Ramírez Bustos, the pastor of Armero (Tolima) who was lynched and murdered by a Liberal mob in the town on April 10, 1948 – one day after Gaitán was murdered, when the country was being torn apart (with Liberals attacking the clergy, blaming them for Gaitán’s murder). One popular tale which spread about his murder was that, moments before dying, the priest cast a curse on the town – which was destroyed by a volcanic eruption (the Armero tragedy) which killed 20,000 in 1985. Semana had an article about the unresolved mystery around Ramírez’s death. He was, apparently, a stern and austere person and – most likely – a Conservative in a Liberal municipality (although he, apparently, didn’t discriminate on party). Semana‘s recent article focuses on an eyewitness, who died in 2016 without anybody ever having bothered listening to his story, who claims that Ramírez’s murder was ordered by the town’s Liberal doctor, incensed that the pastor had thrown his wife out of church for wearing a revealing neckline.

During La Violencia, the country’s small Protestant minority (about 45,000 in 1957, still less than 1%) was often the target of persecution – either because of their partisanship (Liberals) or their faith. Several Protestant churches were burned or attacked, over 100 schools were closed and an undetermined number of faithfuls were killed. In any case, Protestantism had become one of the main targets of Catholic attacks in the 1940s, with the creation of a ‘national anti-Protestant committee’ by the Episcopal Conference in 1944. Discrimination and attacks against Protestants continued under the military regime of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (1953-1957).

Laureano Gómez, the catastrophic Conservative president from 1950 to 1953 (in the body of Roberto Urdaneta after 1951), tried – with some success – to curry favour with the Catholic Church with a corporatist, clerical, traditionalist and authoritarian program (which was never adopted) inspired by Franco and Salazar. The Church regained a great deal of power over education, but the Church hierarchy tended to keep its distance from the government and began making calls for peace. The Church, like most political forces at the time, supported the bloodless coup which brought General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla to power in 1953. Rojas Pinilla, politically conservative and anti-communist, also considered the Church vital to maintaining social order and sought to keep it on his side. However, the Church balked at Rojas Pinilla’s Peronist attempts at creating a ‘third force’ and creating a third trade union aligned with the Peronist union confederation (ATLAS).

The Catholic Church supported the National Front (1958-1974), the institutionalized power-sharing setup between Liberals and Conservatives adopted by plebiscite in 1957. The Liberal leadership made their peace with the Catholic hierarchy. The constitutional reform adopted by the 1957 plebiscite placed the word ‘God’ in the constitutional preamble once more and referenced the privileged status of the Catholic Church:

“In the name of God, supreme source of all authority, and in order to strengthen national unity, one of whose bases is the recognition made by the political parties that the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman religion is that of the nation, and as such, the public powers will protect it and make it respected as an essential element of the social order” (Decreto 247 de 1957, “Sobre plebiscito para una reforma constitucional”)

The National Front signalled the end of the Conservative-Church alliance which had characterized Colombian politics since the 1840s – and removed what was basically the last remaining difference between the Liberals and Conservatives, hastening the decrepitude of the party system. Although the National Front restored the special position the Church had enjoyed under the original 1886 constitution, the Church’s power and influence over politics and society began declining significantly during this period.

Rapid modernization and socioeconomic changes in Colombia beginning in the 1960s changed the religious dynamics of the country and weakened the Church: a demographic boom, rapid and chaotic urbanization and modernization, women participation in the workforce and peasant colonization in peripheral regions. Urbanization/modernization in Colombia was chaotic and disorderly, leading to social dislocation, anomie and the growth of informal and illegal urban economies. In rural areas, colonization and the weak presence of the state (as well as the collapse of many rural economies in the early 1990s and widening rural-urban disparities) had somewhat similar social consequences, combined with the growing urban influence in rural regions with the growth of mass media. These processes weakened traditional social structures, particularly the Church’s capacity of social control, and favoured the growth of new religious movements and ‘religious informality’ – evangelical Christian churches (more accurately Pentecostal churches) – as well as, to a lesser extent, atheism and agnosticism. Other social trends in this period also evidenced the changes in traditional values and the weakening social influence of the Church – the increase in divorce, single mothers and the use of contraception and other family planning methods.

The 2015-6 national demographic and health study by the health ministry and Profamilia showed many of these demographic changes which have weakened the Church’s social influence. The fertility rate fell from 7 in 1965 to 2 in 2015, 36% of Colombian households are headed by women, 22% of families (nuclear or extended) are monoparental, two-thirds of women (13-49) worked in the last year, about 90% of sexually active men and women have used contraception, about 36% of women and 46% of men 13-49 have never been married (only 17% of women and 15% of men 13-49 reported being legally married in the survey). However, traditional gender stereotypes and views of gender roles remain widespread and while reported discriminatory attitudes towards LGBT people is relatively low, there are still important steps to be made to reach full acceptance of basic LGBT rights. As a sign of the Church’s disengagement from political affairs and modernization, women gained full legal equality (in the civil code) in 1974 and divorce for civil marriages was introduced in 1976.

The Catholic Church was challenged from the inside and the outside. At the international level, the reforms of the Second Vatican Council debilitated the conservative, integralist and traditionalist currents and divided the Colombian church. Liberation theology gained a foothold in Colombia, although less than in Brazil and the Central American civil wars, amongst sectors who criticized the ecclesiastical hierarchy’s defence of the status-quo and alliance with the political elite. The ideas from Vatican II and aspects of liberation theology influenced the conclusions issued by the second conference of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM) held in Medellín in 1968, but the conservative Colombian ecclesiastical hierarchy led the counter-offensive against liberation theology (at the third CELAM conference in Puebla, Mexico in 1979). Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, Archbishop of Medellín (1979-1991), was a favourite of Pope John Paul II and a staunch opponent of liberation theology with a key role in the Puebla conference. The cardinal was accused of turning a blind eye to the proximity of local priests to Pablo Escobar and possibly collaborating with the CIA in operations against liberation theology in Nicaragua. Another influential conservative Colombian cardinal, Darío Castrillón Hoyos (bishop of Pereira, 1976-1991), controversially accepted donations from drug traffickers and did not denounce them to authorities.

Father Camilo Torres, priest and ELN guerrillero / martyr (d. 1966)

Some radical priests, convinced that the armed struggle was the only solution, joined the ELN guerrilla – which has always been influenced by liberation theology and a peculiar strain of ‘Marxist-Christianity’. The emblematic figure of the curas rebeldes (rebel priests) was father Camilo Torres, the co-founder of the National University’s sociology department and leader of a radical left-wing student movement (Frente Unido). Torres joined the new ELN but was killed in his first battle in 1966, becoming in death a mythical symbol for the guerrilla group. Other priests, several foreigners, also joined the ELN, most famously Spanish priest father Manuel Pérez, the ELN’s commander from 1983 until his death in 1998. Despite the influence of liberation theology and a certain Catholic moralist discourse, the ELN’s relationship with religion and the Church has been paradoxical – and Pope Francis highlighted it during his visit, by beatifying the late bishop of Arauca, Jesús Emilio Jaramillo Monsalve, assassinated by the ELN’s Frente Domingo Laín (ironically named after a Spanish priest in the ELN) in 1989. Jaramillo dedicated himself to helping the poor and a leading community figure in Arauca, an oil-producing department in which the ELN became rich by extorting a German company building an oil pipeline (the payment, which was used in social investments in communities, was mediated by Jaramillo). Jaramillo opposed liberation theology and the armed struggle, and with his popularity and influence he became a threat to the guerrilla. The ELN’s central command (COCE) censured and admonished the Frente Domingo Laín for the bishop’s murder, but the front was at odds with the guerrilla’s COCE at the time, particularly over the issue of Christian revolutionaries. The Diocese of Arauca, besides bishop Jaramillo, suffered during the conflict and was recently recognized as a collective victim by the government’s victims’ unit.

The 1991 constitution marked the end – in theory, at least – of the confessional state or a national identity built around Catholicism and hispanismo, and the separation (perhaps incomplete) of church and state. The current constitution’s preamble invokes the protection of God, but the constitution is proclaimed in the name of the people of Colombia, in exercise of its sovereign power (vs. in the name of God, supreme source of all authority, in 1886 and 1957). Article 18 guarantees freedom of conscience and the right not to be harrassed by reason of one’s convictions or beliefs, nor compelled to reveal them or to act against one’s conscience. Article 19 of the constitution guarantees religious freedom – the right of every person to freely profess his or her religion and to disseminate it – as well as the equality of all faiths and churches before the law. Law 133 of 1994 (religious freedom law), which implemented the constitution, extended the Catholic Church’s benefits – tax exemptions for places of worship – to all other churches (read: Protestant churches). In 1997, a ‘concordat’ was signed with evangelical churches which recognized the civil effects of religious marriages and the possibility for religious education in schools. According to a 1994 law, (Catholic) religious education in schools is optional, but many parents are unaware of their right to opt their children out and assume it is compulsory. The first Constitutional Court – particularly progressive and activist – granted consistent protection to freedom of religion. In 1993, infuriating the Catholic Church, the Court ruled many articles of the 1973 Concordat with the Holy See to be unconstitutional because it gave preferential treatment to the Catholic Church. In 1994, as aforementioned, the Court struck down the legal provision which consecrated the Colombian state to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

All of these constitutional and legal changes were spearheaded by the rapidly growing evangelical/Pentecostal movement, which ran its own lists and elected two members to the constituent assembly in 1991 and has retained major electoral influence in all elections since then. Although the evangelical movement hasn’t grown as exponentially as in Brazil or certain Central American countries, they have come to make up about 15-20% according to some estimates (but the lack of recent and reliable data makes it a tough guess). 

The issue of religion in politics since 1991 is beyond the scope of this post, which is already far too long, but should certainly be the subject of a post of its own before the 2018 elections. The electoral and political power of both traditionalist/conservative Catholicism and the evangelical movement was perhaps most stunningly apparent in 2016, with the massive demonstrations against the education ministry’s booklets on gender equality and – a knock-on effect of these marches – the evangelical community’s mobilization in the 2016 plebiscite on the peace agreement, in which it has been estimated that evangelicals ‘put’ 1 million votes for the No (more than the winning margin). Many parties, but particularly the opposition – led by Álvaro Uribe’s CD (a party closely allied to one of the largest evangelical megachurches in the country, the MCI) and anti-government Conservative dissidents – are seeking to capture the evangelical and traditionalist Catholic vote in 2018. Presidential pre-candidates like Liberal senator Viviane Morales (a prominent evangelical Christian leader) and former inspector general Alejandro Ordóñez (a lefebvriste far-right Catholic) are the two most prominent examples of 2018 hopefuls using religion for political ends.

Recommended: William Mauricio Beltrán. Del monopolio católico a la explosión pentecostal: Pluralización religiosa, secularización y cambio social en Colombia. Universidad Nacional de Colombia (Centro de Estudios Sociales), 2013.

More on the Church’s role in the Violencia and armed conflict: Casos de implicación de la Iglesia en la violencia en Colombia. Pacific School of Religion. 2016.

Primer on Colombian Politics: Institutions and Constitution

Not much is known about Colombia’s political system, its political institutions and its politics in general – and the material on those topics in English seems awfully limited. It is unfortunate, because sometimes the lack of knowledge about Colombia’s institutions and political systems seems to lead to misunderstandings of current events in the country. As a sort of primer on Colombian politics, I will present the main aspects of the country’s politics: the institutional and constitutional setting, elections and the party system.

Constitutional Setting

Colombia’s current constitution is the Constitution of 1991, formally known as the Constitución Política de Colombia 1991 and informally as the Constitución del 91. It is the country’s seventh constitution – 1821 (Gran Colombia, ‘Constitution of Cúcuta’), 1843 (New Granada), 1853 (New Granada), 1858 (Grenadine Confederation), 1863 (United States of Colombia, ‘Constitution of Rionegro’) and 1886 (Republic of Colombia). It was adopted by a national constituent assembly in 1991, becoming the first Colombian constitution which was not purely the product of the political elites. It marked a fundamental change in the organization of the State and the relation between the people and the State.

The previous constitution, that of 1886, was – especially at the outset – a conservative document with autocratic pockets and very limited room for political participation outside of scheduled elections. Although it was reformed several times, moving in a more ‘progressive’ direction, particularly with the New Deal-inspired Liberal reforms of 1936, it became widely seen as inadequate in the face of Colombia’s massive challenges in 1990.

Some of the more important aspects and points of change of the Constitution of ’91:

  • Colombia is defined as an Estado social de derecho, a Spanish legal concept whose English translations all seem silly or clunky (social State under the rule of law). It is similar to the definition of Germany as a “democratic and social federal State” and Spain as a “social and democratic State, subject to the rule of law” (Estado social y democrático de Derecho). Which is not surprising, given that Colombians drew on two doctrines from continental European legal thinking – the old German Rechtsstaat (state/rule of law) and the ‘social State’. The Rechtsstaat is a model of State in which the exercise of political power is constrained by the (just) law with separation of powers, the guarantee of individual rights, legal certainty and a hierarchy of laws as the main principles. The ‘social State’ is a State which has incorporated, within their constitution and legal system, social rights (second generation rights) such as the right to health, education, work and social security. Colombian constitutionalism usually identifies the 1919 Weimar Constitution as the first Estado social de derecho, followed by the 1931 Constitution of the Second Spanish Republic and the 1936 Liberal reforms in Colombia; nevertheless, the esteemed late Colombian scholar Luis Villar Borda identified German legal scholar Hermann Heller as the forefather of the Estado social de derecho. Colombian constitutional jurisprudence holds that this definition in article 1 guides the entire text, including the ‘organic’ part of the document (i.e. the organization of the State).
  • Recognition of Colombia’s diversity and plurality. The ’91 constitution finally threw out the old exclusionary model of citizenship and nation common to Spanish America – that of a Catholic, Hispanic and Spanish-speaking nation excluding indigenous peoples and racial minorities. The Constitution has given visibility and recognition to Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples and the Raizal. Article 1 also defines the country as “democratic, participative and pluralist”.
  • Popular sovereignty, rather than national sovereignty (1886).
  • Decentralization. Colombia remains a unitary State, but a “decentralized unitary republic, with autonomy of its territorial units.” One theme in Colombia’s nineteenth century – like in that of most other Latin American countries (hi, Argentina) – was constant conflict between federalism and centralism. Colombia went all-out on federalism and 19th century liberalism with the 1863 constitution and the ‘radical Liberal era’, which wasn’t such a great idea. It led to a backlash, so the 1886 constitution took things to the other extreme, making Colombia one of the most centralized States in Latin America, inspired by France (Colombia’s administrative divisions are departments). Mayors and governors were not directly elected – they were appointed, by the governor and president respectively. A 1986 amendment allowed direct election of mayors. The Constitution of ’91 expanded direct election to governors, set the stage for the devolution of important powers to departments/municipalities and gave them the financial means to exercise these powers (at least officially).
  • Separation of Church and State. The 1886 constitution was also a backlash to liberal secularism and anti-clericalism, so it reestablished the Catholic Church as the official religion. After 1936, if the Church was no longer the State faith, it was still explicitly mentioned in the Constitution in silly verbose language (“political parties have recognized that the Church is the faith of the nation”). The current constitution mentions no religion specifically, and allows full freedom of conscience and religion.
  • The Constitution greatly expanded fundamental rights. It includes the usual right to life, ban on torture/cruel and unusual punishment, individual equality, right to privacy, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, right to petition, freedom of movement, the right to work (not the American butchery of that term), freedom of profession, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, right to peaceful protest, right to unionize, political rights and a broad right to individual autonomy known as libre desarrollo de la personalidad. Peace is also a right and mandatory duty, reflecting the mindset and goals of those who wrote the document. There are also legal rights, similar to those founds in, say, the Canadian Charter. Famously, the constituent assembly banned extradition, responding to pressure from Pablo Escobar (among others), but this provision was amended in 1997 to allow extradition again.
  • New social and economic rights, reflecting the Estado social de derecho. These include women’s rights, children’s rights, elders’ rights, social security, right to health, right to housing, workers’ rights, collective bargaining, the right to strike, right to education, intellectual property, access to culture and artistic freedom. Property rights are limited because property has a “social and environment role which implies obligations” and the prevalence of public/social interest over individual property rights in case of legal conflict. Expropriation is allowed, with compensation and judicial authorization, for public utility or social interest.
  • Even third generation rights are enshrined in the constitution – consumer rights, the right to a healthy environment, the protection of public space for use in the common interest and a ban on the manufacture, importation, possession and use of chemical/biological/nuclear weapons.
  • The Constitution established new mechanisms for the protection and application of these rights, of which there are four. Only one of these is widely known – the acción de tutela. Don’t try to translate it, because you won’t be able to. It’s similar to a recurso de amparo in Spanish legal terminology, and similar in result to an injunction except that it is for protection of fundamental rights. It is the most popular legal mechanism in Colombia because it’s so easy to use: when a citizen feels his fundamental rights have been violated, he or a legal representative simply files an application before any judge specifying who violated what right and how, and the judge must respond within 10 days. As I said, the legal resolution is similar to an injunction – the one responsible is ordered to do or stop doing something. There were 4 million acciones de tutela between 1991 and 2011, and 454,500 in 2013 alone.
  • Semi-direct democracy, at least on paper, was introduced through new mecanismos de participación ciudadana which are elections, referendums, plebiscites, popular consultations, open council meetings, popular legislative initiative and recall (revocation of mandate). As I said, it’s mostly on paper – the legal requirements to go through with any of these forms of semi-direct democracy are so high and one needs to jump over so many fences that very little of these are used. For example, recalling a mayor or governor is theoretically possible, but the recall process is so tough that it has literally never succeeded.
  • Presidential runoff elections – since 1991, the president is elected through the two-round system.
  • National Senate constituency – since 1991, 100 of 102 senators are elected in a single national constituency rather than in each department.
  • An accusatory judicial system was established through the creation of the Fiscalía General de la Nación or Attorney General. Establishing the system took longer than expected, and after delays the full ‘switch’ was finally made in around 2004.
  • The establishment of the Constitutional Court as the supreme constitutional court. Judicial review existed since 1910, but the power was held by the Supreme Court of Justice.
  • The abolition of the state of siege (estado de sitio) from the 1886 constitution, which basically gave the president to declare a quasi-permanent state of emergency with very little legislative or judicial control. The 1991 Constitution replaced it with three states of exception – state of external warstate of internal disturbance and an economic, social and environmental emergency. The legislative and judicial oversight of the use of these states of exception is much stronger now: a state of external war requires a declaration of war by the Senate, the state of internal disturbance is valid for periods of 90 days renewable twice (the second time with senatorial approval), human rights and fundamental freedoms cannot be suspended, immediate transmittal of presidential decrees to the Constitutional Court for review, the state of emergency is valid for up to 30 days and no more than 90 days in a year, state of emergency decrees must specifically refer to the emergency etc.
  • The ways to change the constitution are less rigid – it may be changed by constitutional amendment passed by Congress, a constituent assembly or by the people in a referendum.
  • Dual citizenship is permitted.

Institutional Setting

Executive: President and Vice President

Rear view of the Casa de Nariño, the residence of the President

The President of the Republic (Presidente de la República) is the head of State, government and supreme administrative authority. Colombia is a presidential republic, like practically every other country in the mainland Americas south of the Canadian border. The president’s powers are listed in article 189.

The president must be a native-born citizen over 30 years old. He/she is elected to a single, non-renewable four year term using a two-round system. Of six presidential elections since 1991, two were won by the first round (2002, 2006). The 1991 Constitution created the office of Vice President, who, like in the United States (among others), is elected on a ticket with the winning presidential candidate. The VP takes over for the president in the case of temporary absence of permanent vacancy.

The president does not have an absolute veto power. The president may object to a bill passed by Congress for any number of reasons, in which case the Congress reconsiders it again and it is passed as law if Congress adopts it again with an absolute majority in both houses – except for objections for unconstitutionality, in which case the Constitutional Court takes it up and decides within 6 days.

The President can be impeached by the Senate if indicted by the Chamber of Representatives, but the Senate’s impeachment powers are more limited than in the US and, in the case of impeachment for common crimes, the matters goes to the Supreme Court of Justice for trial. The VP is tried by the Supreme Court of Justice after indictment by the Attorney General.

Term limits has been a hot matter of debate. The 1991 constitution initially banned reelection in full, even for non-consecutive terms. A 2004 amendment pushed by then-President Álvaro Uribe allowed for one consecutive or non-consecutive reelection, and both Uribe and the current president, Juan Manuel Santos, were reelected. A 2015 amendment repealed the 2004 amendment and returned to the initial text – consecutive or non-consecutive reelections are banned in full, except for a VP who held office for less than three months during a presidential term. In addition, the 2015 amendment ‘locked down’ this article – it can only be amended by referendum or constituent assembly (i.e., ain’t happening folks). There is also a kind of cooling-off period which states that anybody who holds a senior office of the executive, judicial, control, electoral and military branches (so, among other people, a VP, judge of any top court, minister, AG, ombudsman, comptroller, auditor, military commander, police commander) or a governor or mayor cannot run for president/vice president, unless he/she leaves office a year before.

Legislative: Congress

The Basics

Colombia has a bicameral legislature – interestingly, the only other bicameral country to border Colombia is Brazil. Shockingly, the legislature is called the Congress (Congreso de la República). Just as shocking, the upper house is the Senate. Somewhat more interestingly, the lower house is the Chamber of Representatives. The powers of Congress are straightforwards: makes the laws, controls the government (in theory), amends the constitution and elects some senior judges and officials.

The Capitolio Nacional, the seat of the Congress in Bogotá

The Senate (Senado de la República) has 102 members elected for four-year terms, 100 of which are elected from a single national constituency and the remaining two from a special national indigenous constituency. After 2018, a “loser’s seat” will be created for the second place presidential candidate in the Senate without adding to the number of seats. Senators must be natural-born citizens over 30, and indigenous senators must also have had a traditional authority role or led an indigenous organization. The electoral system is described in full detail later. The Senate’s exclusive powers include granting leaves of absence to the president, allowing the transit of foreign troops through national territory, declaring war, electing the AG, electing members of the Constitutional Court and trying of the president if indicted by the lower house.

The Chamber of Representatives (Cámara de Representantes) currently has 166 members elected for four-year terms. Currently, 161 of them were elected in territorial constituencies corresponding to the 32 departments and the capital district of Bogotá. Each territorial constituency elects at least two, with one more for every 365,000 inhabitants or fraction greater than 182,500 over and above the initial 365,000. Bogotá D.C. has the most representatives (18). 12 departments have two representatives. Only two departments besides Bogotá have more than ten (Antioquia – 17 and Valle – 13). In 2014, the remaining five seats were elected in three special constituencies: two from a national Afro-Colombian constituency, two from an international constituency for citizens abroad and one from a national indigenous constituency. In the next election, 2018, the number of expat seats will fall to one and there will be a special seat added to San Andrés and Providencia for the archipelago’s Raizal community. After 2018, a “loser’s seat” will be created for the second place vice presidential candidate in the Chamber without adding to the number of seats. Representatives must be citizens over 25. The Chamber’s exclusive powers including electing the Ombudsman, examining and finalizing the general budgetary and treasury account and bringing charges to the Senate (at the request of the investigation and accusation commission) for the impeachment of the president.

Congress as a whole can censure cabinet ministers, permanent secretaries and heads of administrative departments by approval (with an absolute majority) of a motion of censure.

Until 2015, the Chamber’s investigation and accusation commission had a broader field of action, to recommend indictment of the president but also all top court judges and the AG. Since no case ever resulted in impeachment and only one ever even made its way to the Chamber floor, the 2015 constitutional reform really weakened the commission’s powers and created a Comisión de Aforados to investigate and indict the aforementioned judges and Attorney General. It will be made up of five members elected by a joint session of Congress for individual eight-year terms, from lists sent by the Council of Judicial Government and elaborated through a public competition.

Congress has a bad reputation with Colombians – the most common word use to describe its members is ‘thief’, and the other terms are hardly better. After the parapolitics scandal of 2005-2010, in which over 70 sitting members were arrested for ties to illegal armed groups, it is understandable why many people would think of their representatives as greedy, thieving criminals. This on top of plenty of other scandals involving grubby self-serving congressmen selling their votes to the highest bidder, exchanging political support for pork-barrel spending (currently called marmalade or mermelada) or just being incompetent duds.

Rules of ineligibility and incompatibility; the investidura

In addition, there are common rules of ineligibility and incompatibility determined by the constitution for members of Congress. For example, ineligibility for election cover anybody who was judicially detained except for political crimes and culpable negligence; is a dual citizens who are not native-born; held a public employment position with political, civil, administrative or military authority or jurisdiction within the year prior the election; participated in business transactions with public entities or concluded contracts with them (or were legal representatives of entities which handled taxes or quasi-fiscal levies) within the six months prior to the election; lost their mandate (investidura) as members of Congress or anybody who holds ties of marriage or kinship with civil servants holding civil or political authority. Incompatibility bans elected congressmen from holding another public or private office outside of universities, concluding contracts with public entities or persons administering taxes or serving on boards of decentralized public entities or tax-administering institutions.

Violations of the rules of ineligibility, incompatibility, conflict of interest lead to the loss of one’s mandate (investidura) as congressmen; as does an absence (during the same session) to six plenary sessions, failing to take their seat within eight days following the first meeting of the house, improper use of public funds or duly proven influence peddling. The Council of State rules on the loss of mandate within twenty days of the request made by a citizen or the executive committee of the appropriate house.

Congressmen may only be arrested at the order of the Supreme Court of Justice and tried by said court.

What is la silla vacía?

Members of Congress do not have alternates (suplente) and are only replaced in the event of a temporary or permanent absences, as decreed by law, by the next non-elected candidate on the list from which he/she was elected ranked in order of registration or votes received. In the wake of the parapolitics scandal – more on that later – a 2009 political reform created the so-called silla vacía (empty seat) mechanism. It basically means that anyone who has been sentenced for membership, promotion or funding of illegal armed groups; drug trafficking; intentional wrongdoing against the public administration or mechanisms of democratic participation or crimes against humanity cannot be replaced by the next guy on the list. This also goes for a sneaky congressman who resigned after having been formally indicted in Colombia for any of these crimes or who is temporarily absent after an arrest warrant has been issued for any of these crimes. These rules not only apply to Congress, but to all other directly elected bodies – departmental assemblies, municipal councils and local administrative boards.

2004 and 2009 reforms ban access to public employment, elected office, electoral candidacy and participation in contracts with the State to anyone sentenced for crimes involving the State treasury, membership in illegal armed groups, drug trafficking and crimes against humanity.


Colombia has three supreme courts: the Constitutional Court, for constitutional matters; the Supreme Court of Justice, for civil and penal matters and civil and criminal procedure; and the Council of State, for administrative law.

The seat of the three highest courts in Bogotá

To serve as a judge on any of these three top courts, one must be a native-born citizen, a lawyer with fifteen years experience in law (in the courts, public ministry, as lawyer or professor) and have a clean criminal record. Judges of all these top courts serve non-renewable eight year terms.

The Colombian judiciary, in recent years, has tended to be very independent of the executive branch.

Constitutional Court

The Constitutional Court (Corte Constitucional) is the supreme constitutional court of Colombia, made up of nine judges or magistrates elected by the Senate to individual eight-year terms from lists of three names each presented by the President, the Supreme Court and the Council of State. The Court safeguards the integrity and supremacy of the Constitution. Its powers are:

  1. Deciding on petitions of unconstitutionality brought by citizens against constitutional amendments, only for procedural defects.
  2. Deciding, prior to the vote, on the constitutionality of acts convening a referendum or constituent assembly, only for procedural defects.
  3. Deciding on the constitutionality of referendums on laws, national consultation or national plebiscites; the latter two only for procedural defects.
  4. Deciding on petitions of unconstitutionality brought by citizens against any laws, for content or procedural defects.
  5. Deciding on petitions of unconstitutionality brought by citizens against decrees with force of law, for content or procedural defects.
  6. Deciding on the excuses for the absence of any natural or juridical person called before any permanent commission of Congress.
  7. Deciding on the constitutionality of decrees issued by the government during a state of exception.
  8. Deciding on the constitutionality of bills objected to by the government for unconstitutionality.
  9. Reviewing judicial decisions related to an acción de tutela. The Court selects a limited number of actions to be reviewed.
  10. Deciding on the constitutionality of international treaties and laws ratifying them.
  11. Resolving jurisdictional disputes arising between the different jurisdictions (new since 2015).

Any citizen may intervene to defend or challenge a legal norm. Legal challenges for procedural defects lapse after one year. Normally, the Court has 60 days to decide, although that is reduced by a third for decisions on decrees during a state of exception.

The Court’s jurisprudence has given a liberal meaning to ‘procedural grounds’ for reviewing constitutional amendments, arguing that because Congress derives its powers of amendment from the Constitution itself, it cannot replace or substitute it – and ‘replacing’/’substituting’ can mean modifying an essential or pivotal clause. In 2005, the Court ruled that allowing a second consecutive presidential term didn’t amount to a substitution of the constitutional regime, but in 2010, it ruled that allowing a third term would amount to a substitution of the constitutional regime.

The Constitutional Court has played a major role in contemporary Colombian politics, handing down landmark decisions of great importance on a number of issues, contributing to Colombia’s surprisingly progressive legislation on some ‘moral issues’. Among other things, the Court decriminalized personal possession of a small amount of drugs (1994), legalized medically-assisted suicide for terminally ill consenting patients (1997), decriminalized abortion in three cases (2006), extended legal benefits and protection to LGBT couples (beginning in 2007), struck down a law organizing a constitutional referendum on allowing the president to serve a third consecutive term (2010), declared the 2009 US-Colombia defence cooperation agreement to be unconstitutional, allowed for vague civil union-like contracts for homosexual couples (2011) and legalized gay adoption (2015).

Supreme Court of Justice

The Supreme Court of Justice (Corte Suprema de Justicia) is the highest appellate court in Colombia for the ‘ordinary jurisdiction’ – i.e. everything not falling under constitutional or administrative law. It is currently made up of a total of 23 judges, elected (co-opted) by the Court itself from a list of ten eligible names sent by the Council of Judicial Government after a public competition. It meets in full (full chamber), but is subdivided into three cassation chambers: civil and agrarian (7 judges), labour (7 judges) and criminal (9 judges) – with the presidents and vice presidents of each chamber forming a governing chamber. Its powers are:

  1. Act as a court of cassation.
  2. Try the President and members of the Comisión de Aforados.
  3. Investigate and prosecute members of Congress.
  4. Try, upon charges brought by the Attorney General or delegates thereof, the Vice President, cabinet ministers, Inspector General, Ombudsman, agents of the public ministry, directors of administrative departments, Comptroller General, ambassadors, heads of diplomatic or consular missions, governors, judges of tribunals, general and admirals for punishable acts.
  5. Take cognizance of all contentious issues of accredited diplomatic personnel in cases provided by international law.
  6. Other responsibilities assigned by law.

Council of State

The Council of State (Consejo de Estado) is the supreme appellate court for administrative law. It is currently made up of a total of 31 councillors or judges, elected (co-opted) by the Council of State itself from a list of ten eligible names sent by the Council of Judicial Government after a public competition. It meets in full (full chamber), but is subdivided into an administrative litigation chamber (27 members) and a consultation chamber (the rest). Its powers include acting as the supreme administrative court, deciding on petitions of unconstitutionality for decrees not in the purview of the Constitutional Court, acting as the supreme consultative body of the government in administrative matters (it opinion must be heard in certain matters), preparing and presenting constitutional amendment proposals, deciding on congressmen’s loss of investidura and – since 2009 – deciding on electoral disputes.

The Fiscalía General de la Nación: Attorney General

The Fiscalía General de la Nación is the office of the attorney general of Colombia, a creation of the 1991 Constitution. The Attorney General is elected to a single non-renewable four-year term by the Supreme Court of Justice from a list sent by the President, with the same rules of eligibility as for judges of the Supreme Court.

Its main duty is to investigate actions having the characteristics of a crime/offence provided that there are sufficient reasons and circumstances. Its other constitutional powers largely stem from that, including indictment or preclusion of investigations.

The incumbent AG is Eduardo Montealegre, a man of fairly left-leaning views. Among other things, he has proposed full decriminalization of abortion upon request.

Government and administration of the judicial branch

The government and administration of the judicial branch was one of the most important changes included in the 2015 constitutional reform. It abolished the Superior Council of the Judiciary (Consejo Superior de la Judicatura) and transferred its responsibilities to the new Council of Judicial Government (Consejo de Gobierno Judicial) and the National Commission of Judicial Discipline (Comisión Nacional de Disciplina Judicial). The old body mostly dealt with administering the judicial branch and disciplinary actions against judges and lawyers, but also prepared the lists of candidates for the election of judges and magistrates in most courts in the country.

The Council of Judicial Government will be in charge of defining the public policies of the judicial branch; drawing up the list of candidates for election of judges; regulating judicial and administrative procedures; setting the regulations for the control and oversight of the legal profession; approving the draft budget of the judicial branch and approving the ‘judicial map’ (basically defining the boundaries of judicial districts and circuits). It will be composed of nine members: the presidents of the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court of Justice and the Council of State; a manager of the judicial branch, who must be a professional with 20 years experience including 10 in business or public administration, appointed by the Council of Judicial Government for a four year term; a representative of the tribunals and judges, elected by them for a four year term; a representative of the employees of the judicial branch, elected by them for a four year term; and three permanent full-time members elected by the other members for a four year term. These permanent full-time members will be responsible for the strategic planning of the judiciary and proposing to the Council, for its approval, public policies of the branch. They must have 10 years experience in design, evaluation and monitoring of public policies, management models or public administration. No member may be reappointed.

The Management of the Judicial Branch (Gerencia de la Rama Judicial) is subordinated to the Council of Judicial Government, which is tasked with defining its organic structure, supervising it and accountable for its performance before Congress. The Management of the Judicial Branch is in charge of implementing the decisions of the Council of Judicial Government; providing the Council of Judicial Government will administrative and logistical support; preparing the draft budget for approval by the Council of Judicial Government; implementing the budget as approved by Congress; drafting plans and programs for approval by the Council of Judicial Government; administrating the legal profession; organizing public competitions; monitoring the performance of staff and offices and other administrative tasks.

The National Commission of Judicial Discipline will exercise disciplinary functions over the officials and employees of the judicial branch, including examining the conduct and punishing misconduct of lawyers. It will be made up of seven magistrates; four of which will be elected by Congress from lists sent by the Council of Judicial Government following a public competition and the other three of which will be elected by Congress from lists submitted by the President following a public competition. They will be elected for individual terms of eight years, and they may not be reappointed.

The judicial branch was very unhappy about these reforms, largely for reasons not immediately obvious to outsiders like you and me, but perhaps boiling down to their aversion to political intervention in their business.

Control Organisms

Colombia’s organismos de control – ‘control organisms’ – are independent institutions which oversee public accounts, fiscal management, the behaviour of public officials, compliance with the Constitution, protect human rights, defend the interests of society and so forth. They are the Comptroller General of the Republic (Contraloría General de la República) and the Public Ministry (Ministerio Público), led by the Inspector General (Procuraduría General).

The Procuraduría 

The Public Ministry is chaired by the Inspector General, better known in Spanish as the Procurador General. It is very tough to accurately translate this term in English, because it can easily be translated to ‘attorney general’ or ‘prosecutor general’, but that would lead to confusion with the Fiscal GeneralInspector General seems clunky and weird, but it is perhaps the best term which is not misleading.

The Inspector General is elected by the Senate for a non-renewable four-year term from lists of candidates submitted by the President, the Supreme Court of Justice and the Council of State.

The Procuraduría‘s role is to oversee compliance with the Constitution, laws, administrative decisions and judicial decisions; protect human rights; defend societal and collective interests; ensure the diligent and efficient exercise of administrative functions; intervene before judicial or administrative authorities when necessary to defend the legal order, the public domain, or fundamental rights and guarantees and – this is perhaps the most important – oversee the conduct of public officeholders (including elected ones), holding disciplinary power to initiate the appropriate investigations and impose the appropriate sanctions in accordance with the relevant statute. Under his powers, the Inspector General can discharge any public official for ‘grave’ offences – if they clearly violate of the Constitution and the law, derive clear undue material advantage from office, impede in a serious manner the Procuraduría‘s investigations or perform with gross negligence the investigation (or reporting) and punishment of disciplinary offences of their employees. Dismissal from office also involves disqualification from holding public office, for 10 to 20 years. In the case of less serious offences, other sanctions may be imposed – including suspensions, fines or warnings. The Inspector General also provides an opinion on constitutionality of laws before the Constitutional Court.

The current Inspector General is the very controversial and divisive Alejandro Ordóñez, who has made wide use of his power to remove politicians from office. Ordóñez is an ultraconservative traditionalist Catholic, a former member of the Society of St. Pius X and follower of French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, whose thesis criticized forms of government whose source of authority does not emanate from God and advocated for a quasi-theocratic Catholic State. In office, Ordóñez has opposed same-sex unions, gay adoption, abortion in any circumstances, euthansia/assisted suicide and personal possession of drugs. Several of his decisions removing public officials from office were controversial and seen, with reason, as political persecution of opposite-minded or left-leaning politicians, most famously former senator Piedad Córdoba or former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro.

The Defensor del Pueblo or Ombudsman

The Defensor del Pueblo or Ombudsman promotes and protects the exercise of human rights, notably raising awareness for or publicizing human rights. He/she is autonomous from the Public Ministry since 2015 and is elected by the Chamber of Representatives for a four-year term from candidates proposed by the President.

The Contraloría General de la República or Comptroller General

The Comptroller General is the head of the Contraloría, which oversees the fiscal management of the public administration or individuals/entities managing public funds and goods. The Comptroller is elected for a term equivalent to that of the President by Congress from lists drawn up from public competitions. Its main duties including verifying public accounts, reporting on the national debt and ensuring accountability for civil servant’s fiscal management. Among its powers, it can initiate preliminary penal or disciplinary investigations and may the immediate suspension from office of civil servants until the end of the investigation or trials.

Territorial organization and local government

The Constitution defines the country as a “unitary, decentralized Republic with autonomy of its territorial units” (Article 1). The Constitution guarantee political, administrative and fiscal autonomy to territorial units – the right to govern themselves under their own authorities, the power to exercise the responsibilities appropriate to them, to administer their resources, establish local taxes if necessary and participate in national revenues.

The country is divided into 32 departments (departamentos), as first-level administrative divisions. According to the Constitution, departments, as an intermediate between the central government and municipalities, coordinate and complement municipal action but also deliver some devolved services, especially in smaller municipalities lacking the necessary tools and resources. Each department is administered by a governor (gobernador), directly elected for four-year terms (and are not immediately re-eligible), who is the head of the local administration but also the agent of the president to maintain public order and implement national economic policy. Each department also has a departmental assembly (asamblea departamental), with 11 to 31 members based on the department’s population, with members serving four-year terms. Assemblies are not legislative bodies – only the Congress has legislative powers in the unitary State – but rather ‘political-administrative bodies’ which issue ordinances and resolutions, not laws.

Departments are further subdivided into municipalities (municipios) – whose exact number is somebody nobody agrees on. In 2015, 1,102 municipalities or their equivalents will hold elections. Each municipality is administered by a mayor (alcalde), directly elected for four-year terms (and are not immediately re-eligible), and has a directly elected municipal council (consejo municipal) made up of 7 to 21 members according to the municipality’s population, with members serving four-year terms.

Municipalities may be further subdivided into comunas in urban areas and corregimientos municipales in rural areas, with the aim of improving service delivery and promote citizen engagement in local administration. Each comuna/corregimientos municipales will have a directly-elected junta administradora local (JAL, or local administrative board), whose members serve four-year terms. JALs deal with municipal plans and programs for their area, oversee local service delivery, request investments for their area and distribute funds assigned to them.

Gobernación de Caldas, the departmental government of Caldas department (Manizales)
Gobernación de Caldas, the departmental government of Caldas department (Manizales)

Some areas of Colombia are not part of a municipality. These are sparsely populated and extremely remote areas of the Amazonian departments of Amazonas, Guainía and Vaupés which have both regular municipalities and corregimientos departamentales, of which there are currently 20. These entities are directly administered by the department, so they do not have an elected mayor or council. The department of the Archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina has only one municipality – Providencia and Santa Catalina – meaning that the main (and most populated) island, San Andrés, is not formally part of any municipality.

Bogotá, has a special status as a capital district (distrito capital). While Bogotá is also the capital of the department of Cundinamarca, the government of Cundinamarca has no authority over Bogotá’s territory (and it is not elected by Bogotá’s citizens) and the city is almost always represented as distinct from Cundinamarca. Bogotá is counted as a municipality, but it has the powers of both departments and municipalities. The capital is administered by a senior/principal mayor (alcalde mayor) elected for a four-year term (not immediately re-eligible), has a 45-member municipal council also serving a four-year term; the 20 localidades each have a directly-elected JAL with at least 7 members and a local mayor appointed by the senior mayor from a list submitted by the respective JAL.

The administrative complex of the municipality of Medellín and the department of Antioquia

While Bogotá was first recognized as a distinct special district in 1954, the ’91 Constitution recognized the cities of Barranquilla, Cartagena and Santa Marta as ‘districts‘ – Barranquilla as a ‘Special, Industrial and Port District’, Cartagena as a ‘Touristic and Cultural District’ and Santa Marta as a ‘Historic, Cultural and Touristic District’. In 2007, a constitutional amendment passed by Congress recognized Cúcuta, Popayán, Tunja, Turbo, Tumaco and Buenaventura as districts. However, most of the act was declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court, leaving only Buenaventura recognized as a ‘Special, Industrial, Port, Biodiverse and Eco-touristic District’. These districts are always counted as municipalities, and are basically only municipalities with some additional powers because of their locations or economy. Their councils are often referred to as ‘district councils’ instead, which can lead to confusion, but as far as I’m concerned this is meaningless nonsense done by congressmen with too much times on their hand

Article 319 of the Constitution allows for the creation and recognition of metropolitan areas (áreas metropolitanas) when two or more municipalities share economic, social or physical ties. Although some 20 metropolitan areas have been organized, only 6 have been formally constituted and recognized by law – Medellín (the Valle de Aburrá Metropolitan Area), Bucaramanga, Barranquilla, Cúcuta, Pereira (the Centre-West Metropolitan Area) and Valledupar. Again, this is not very important.

Departments actually have relatively few powers besides general ‘coordination’ between municipalities and limited service delivery in cases where the municipality is unable to do so by itself. In most cases, the municipality is the level with the most powers including important ones over education, public utilities, public transit, culture and the environment. Both levels are still quite dependent on central transfers (SGP), most of which are strictly earmarked, although municipalities do get about 30% of their revenues from own sources including property taxes, a kind of business tax and departments do get about a quarter of theirs from royalties (which since 2013 are more evenly spread).

Electoral organization

Colombia has two independent public bodies forming the electoral organization, each responsible for different aspects of the electoral process. These are the National Electoral Council or Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) and the National Civil Registrar or Registraduría Nacional del Estado Civil.

The National Electoral Council has nine members elected by the Congress for single four-year terms following consultations with legally recognized political parties. The CNE regulates, inspects, monitors and controls the electoral activities of legally recognized parties and other political groups. Most of its activities take place before and after electoral processes – recognizing and revoking the legal status of parties, regulating parties’ participation in the media, managing public financing of campaigns, deciding on the registration of candidates potentially disqualified for violating rules of ineligibility, administering laws and norms on political parties, certifying electoral results and deciding on challenges to electoral results (the Council of State may annul an election within one year).

The National Civil Registrar is chosen by the presidents of the three highest courts through a merit-based selection process for a single four-year term. Its duties include all tasks related to the civil registry (vital records) and national citizens’ identification (cédula de ciudadanía), although as far as this blog is concerned, its most important duties are those related to elections. It mostly directs and organizes elections, from guaranteeing the right to vote, managing the voters’ list (electoral census or censo electoral) to publicizing election results. As far as finding electoral statistics, the Registraduría is where you want to look.

Electoral system

The President is elected through the usual two-round system.

Governors and mayors are elected by first-past-the-post (FPTP), with a plurality of the votes sufficing.

The Congress, departmental assemblies, municipal councils and JAL are elected by a rather complex system of optional open party-list proportional representation, which was adopted in 2003 and amended in 2009. In these elections, parties and other political groups with ballot access present lists, with a number of candidates not exceeding the number of seats to be filled except for two-member constituencies in which a list can have three names.

Parties choose whether their lists are ‘preferential‘ (open) or ‘non-preferential‘ (closed) – in most cases, parties run open lists. When a party’s list is open, voters may vote for a single candidate on the party’s list (by marking the number of the candidate with an X, or marking both the candidate number and the party logo with an X) or just vote for the party (by marking the party logo). Candidates on the party’s open list are reordered based on the results, although votes cast only for the party rather than a candidate only count for purposes of seat allocation between parties (the threshold). If the party’s list is closed, voters only mark the party’s logo.

For the Senate’s 100 national seats, the national threshold to obtain representation is 3% of valid votes. For all other bodies, the threshold is half (50%) of the electoral quotient (total votes divided by total seats) or 30% of the electoral quotient in constituencies electing only two members.

Colombia uses the D’Hondt method or cifra repartidora to distribute seats between parties over the threshold. It is difficult to understand the official constitutional explanation, but you basically order the parties over the threshold in order of total votes and dividing these vote numbers by 1, 2, 3 etc. successively until obtaining the number of seats to be filled. It is much easier to understand with this nifty table from the Registraduría:

Since there were 9 seats to assign in the example, the first nine results of the mathematical operations (from largest to smallest) are taken and the last result is your cifra repartidora. You then divide the number of votes each party won by the cifra repartidora and you get your seat tally – here, we’d be looking at 4 for the pinks (rosado), 3 for the greys and one each for the fuchsia and comunal.

Eventually, I’ll explain to you the pre-2003 electoral system – magnificently insane.

Political parties and movements must obtain at least 3% of the national vote in elections to the Chamber of Representatives to obtain legal recognition, which they lose if they do not pass this threshold. ‘Ethnic parties’, supposedly participating in elections for the special ethnic minority seats, are excluded from this requirement. A number of sneaky politicians have discovered this and registered their parties as ‘ethnic parties’ to maintain their legal recognition. Thankfully, a number of them are now in jail.

Legally recognized parties may run candidates in elections, but candidates may also gain ballot access by obtaining signatures equivalent to 20% of the number of citizens divided by the number of seats to be filled, but no more than 50,000 signatures can be required in any case. Increasingly, legally recognized parties hold primaries (consultas), organized by the electoral organization, whose results are binding and with a ‘sore loser’ clause preventing anybody who participated in a primary for running for another party in the same election.

Electoral events

There are four kinds of regularly-scheduled elections in Colombia – congressional, presidential, departmental (also commonly called ‘regional’) and municipal. The Constitution specifies that presidential elections cannot coincide with any other election, and that congressional elections are held separately from local elections. In practice, congressional and presidential elections are held in the same year, with congressional elections taking place first on the second Sunday in March and presidential elections taking place afterwards on the last Sunday in May (first round) and the third Sunday in June (second round). Local elections – for governors, mayors, assemblies, municipal councils and JAL – are organized together the year after the congressional/presidential elections on the last Sunday in October.

The other mechanisms of popular participation are:

  • Referendum: To approve a new or repeal an existing law, constitutional amendment, ordinance, resolution or agreement. May be called by the government or a group of citizens. Is passed only if 50%+1 vote in the affirmative and turnout is over 25%.
  • Plebiscite: May only be called by the President, through which the people approves or rejects an executive decision. The Congress has one month to object to the presidential decision. Is valid only if turnout is over 50%.
  • Popular consultation: A general question of national, departmental or local transcendence asked by the President, governor or mayor respectively. May also be initiated by a group of citizens. The Senate pronounces itself on national popular consultations, and has one month to object. Is passed only if 50%+1 vote in the affirmative and turnout is over a third of the number of registered voters.
  • Recall/revocation of mandate: To remove an elected governor or mayor from office, after over 12 months in office if there is still over a year left in the term. The official is recalled if 50%+1 vote in favour of recall and turnout is at least 40% of the total number of valid votes cast in the original election.
  • Open council (cabildo abierto): A public meeting of a department assembly, municipal council or JAL in which citizens may directly participate to discuss issues of interest to the community or question elected officials and civil servants. The respective body must, within a week, give an answer to the issues raised.
  • Popular initiative: A group of citizens may present a bill (including constitutional amendments) to Congress, departmental assemblies, municipal councils of JAL for their consideration, debate and potential approval.
  • Constituent assembly: Congress may pass a law asking the people if they wish to convene a constituent assembly to amend the constitution. Is approved only if the number of votes in favour of a constituent assembly is over a third of the number of registered voters.

In the cases of popularly-initiated mechanisms (referendum, popular initiative, popular consultation, recall), a support committee must be organized and approved before collection of signatures can begin. The committee has six months to gather signatures. The amount required varies but is high:

  • For a constitutional referendum, popularly-initiated bills or constitutional amendment proposals or national popular consultation to be presented before the Congress: at least 5% of registered voters. Popularly-initiated constitutional amendment may also be introduced by 30% of assemblymen or councillors in the country.
  • Derogatory referendum (repealing a law): at least 10% of registered voters.
  • Popular initiative at the local level: at least 10% of registered voters in the territorial entity.
  • Local popular consultation: at least 10% of registered voters in the territorial entity.
  • Recall: registered voters of the territorial entity equivalent to at least 30% of the votes won by the official.
  • Open council: at the request of at least 5/1,000 of registered voters in the territorial entity.

Signatures must be verified by the National Civil Registrar, who may cancel a number of them for any number of them – even illegibility. In the case of popularly-initiated referendums on bills or constitutional amendment proposals, Congress must then pass a law convening the referendum.