Colombia is the northernmost country in South America. It is the third most populous country in Latin America, after Brazil and Mexico, with 46 million people. It has a privileged geographic position, with ports on both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. It is one of the most bio-diverse countries in the Western Hemisphere, with more bird species than any other country in the Americas. In fact it has 14% of the biodiversity of the planet according to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. The country’s geography is varied, with high snow-covered mountains, broad rivers, a large area of plains in the east, and Amazon rainforests in the south. Recently Colombia has become the focus of a great deal of attention because of its great mineral deposits—of gold, silver, uranium, coal and other valuable substances. Several multinational corporations have obtained
concessions from the Colombian government to explore for valuable metals, particularly gold, while coal mines and oil-drilling facilities operated by multinational corporations have been a feature of Colombia’s economy for several years. Under Colombia’s Constitution, the subsoil belongs to the nation; thus, the government gives concessions to companies wishing to extract mineral wealth from the subsoil. Many critics have decried the small size of the royalty percentages charged by the government, as low as 4% for gold, and the tax exemptions and credits given to multinational businesses; Colombian government officials claim these very favorable terms are necessary to obtain the foreign investment they seek for their development plans.
Colombia has a diverse population, with the mestizo majority complemented by a large Afro-Colombian population and numerous indigenous communities. The country has a very unequal distribution of economic resources, with a small very rich governing elite and a large percentage of the country’s residents very poor. A recent report placed Colombia in third place in Latin America in terms of unequal income distribution.
The political and economic exclusion of most of the population has led to violent confrontation in the countryside, where the struggle for land spawned guerrilla forces. Colombia presents the facade of democracy. Elections for President are held every four years and several parties compete in these elections. Governors of Colombia’s departments (provinces) are regularly elected for 3-year terms and members of the Congress, mayors and council members are also elected directly by popular vote. Yet the political process has seen substantial violence and fraud for many years. Of course Colombian is well-known for the drug trade, as coca, heroin and marijuana have been produced there and exported for the last 4 decades. But armed conflict, due in large measure to the unequal distribution of land, long pre-dated the drug trade. The FARC and ELN guerrillas have been engaged in armed conflict with government forces since the mid-1960’s, but even before that conflict in the countryside dating back to 1946 took the lives of hundreds of thousands of Colombians. And paramilitary forces have also been active in Colombia for decades, at least since a United States military mission to Colombia led by Colonel Yarborough in 1962 suggested the use of paramilitary forces to maintain order in the countryside. The lack of economic opportunity resulted in poor rural residents desperate to maintain their families turning to the production of coca and other drug crops. When the coca trade turned into a very profitable business, paramilitary forces were put together by large landowners, cattlemen and merchants who wished to protect their properties from threats by the guerrillas. While the government, under prodding from the United States government, initiated a coca-crop spraying campaign focused on the south of Colombia, paramilitaries in the north forced many small-scale farmers off their lands, committed numerous massacres and took over the drug trade, sometimes even in collaboration with guerrilla forces in the region. Meanwhile, many members of the Colombian Congress have been convicted of collaboration with the illegal paramilitaries. The situation in the countryside remains very conflictive. More than 5 million people have been forced off their lands to become internally displaced within Colombia, mostly going to the cities where many become beggars or prostitutes, or going to the Amazon rain forest to clear land and plant coca, virtually the only crop economically feasible due to the lack of farm-to-market roads, price supports for small-scale farmers’ products, agricultural extension programs, and credit programs for small0scale farmers.
Colombia’s military and police meanwhile often collaborated with the paramilitaries, as a recent book by Olga Behar, Los Doce Apostoles, shows. The armed forces have historically had very substantial privileges. While Colombia has a strong Presidential system, one senses that no President could govern the country for any length of time if he were to try to curtail the power and privilege of the military. And when in the mid-1980’s an amnesty encouraged many who had taken up arms against the government to enter the political process through a new party, the Patriotic Union, the electoral success of that party in towns and cities throughout Colombia led to the murder of more than 5,000 members of the Patriotic Union, a virtual genocide.
One of the most remarkable characteristics of Colombia is the commitment of its people to struggle for a better life. Community organizations have in recent years emerged throughout the country in non-violent resistance to the status quo. But the killing of their courageous leaders continues.