Oligarchy: A form of government in which all power is vested in a few people or dominant classes/cliques.
In the 19th century, the landowning elite used its land to start developing agriculture and cattle ranch businesses. The economy stayed small and undeveloped, with very low levels of export which focused around gold. At the beginning of 1850, tobacco and coffee exports helped create a class of merchants. However, this slight economic boom disproportionately benefited those who were part of the economic elite- landowners and commercial dealers. All of Colombia’s coffee was grown on small farms, while the industry was lead by the wealthy elite distributors who controlled the sale and export of the crops.
As Colombia’s economy grew and began to modernize in the 20th century, the old landowning class joined forces with the commercial class created by the economic boom due to coffee exports.
Colombia’s elite has always been made up of predominantly of Colombian nationals unlike other Latin American countries, where the export industries were largely foreign-owned. The country’s economic and political elites have a large influence over political power.
In Colombia, the political life consists of an unending clash between Liberal and Conservative interests. Both represented the interests of the elite. Broadly speaking, Conservatives defended the Church and were closer to the landowning class, while Liberals favored a secular state and were closer to the commercial class. The Liberals and Conservatives fought a series of bloody civil wars from the mid-19th century, as the elites battled each other for the spoils of government via peasant farmers recruited into the militia of their local party boss. Clashes between supporters of the two parties were particularly fierce from 1930, after the Conservatives lost grip of a 45-year hold on power. This political fighting was accompanied by unrest in the countryside over unequal land distribution, and violent repression of collective action, most notably with the army’s massacre of hundreds of striking banana workers near Santa Marta in 1928.
The most extreme period of this conflict (lasting from 1948 to 1957) is believed to have resulted in at least 200,000 deaths and has become known as la violencia. This occurred mainly due to the unresolved crisis of land distribution- there were mass numbers of people displaced, as armed groups took those against them from their land and other landowners took advantage of the fighting to take land for themselves.
Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a Liberal politician, rose to national popularity after presenting powerful speeches that rallied against Colombia’s “oligarchy”. He accused the two parties of taking over the political system for their own needs and doing what they could to prevent real reform. Gaitán gained popularity all over the nation, particularly with the peasants and the urban working class, as he promised land redistribution and an end to the power of oligarchy. However, violence erupted throughout the whole country in April 1948 after he was assassinated in broad daylight on a street of the capital, Bogotá. The violence continued to escalate, with extreme brutality from both sides, during the regimes of two successive dictators (Laureano Gómez 1950-53, Gustavo Rojas Pinilla 1953-57), until a military junta took power on an interim basis in 1957.
As the violence continued, the two political sides of the elite saw that the turmoil in the countryside would threaten their positions. Therefore, the parties joined forces to support a military coup in 1953 against Conservative President Laureano Gómez, to replace him with General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, who promised to end La Violencia. This period was followed by one in which the Liberals and Conservatives agreed to collaborate to form the National Front government in 1958, which stated that the parties would take turns holding the presidency and would share all the government jobs equally between them for the next 16 years.
The next decades of power sharing, which excluded every other movement and gave an advantage to the elite fueled Colombian rebel groups. They made guerrilla groups scattered across the country, changing the conflict in Colombia from the Liberal-Conservative one, to a class war between the government and communist guerrilla groups. A number of guerrilla groups joined forces, to fight Colombia’s elite.
- The first called themselves the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, (fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia or FARC).They were Marxist and pro-Soviet, and many of those who joined were peasant groups who fought during la violencia.
- The second was made up of middle-class citizens who were closely aligned to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and called themselves The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional — ELN).
- The Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación — EPL), was Maoist (following Mao Zedong) group based on peasant fighters.
- The 19th of April Movement (Movimiento 19 de Abril — M-19), an urban guerrilla that carried out high-profile actions to attract students and other disaffected youth.
Organized crime began to spike in this era, due to the lack of government presence in the country. For example, failure to distribute land forced people to colonize remote areas of Colombia where illegal crops were the only way to make a living- such a marijuana and poppy. Illegal drugs created regional economic booms in the 1970s and 1980s, kick-starting certain industries, such as construction, bringing a flood of illicit dollars into the country, and creating massive wealth for some of those involved in the industry.