BECK index

Colombia 1850-1935

by Sanderson Beck

   Colombia’s Republic & Civil War 1850-63
   Colombia & Radicals 1864-78 
   Colombia, Núñez & Civil War 1878-1903
   Columbia, Reyes & Conservatives 1904-20
   Colombia, Conservatives & Socialists 1921-35

Colombia’s Republic & Civil War 1850-63

New Granada (Colombia) 1830-50

      The Liberal General José Hilario López was chosen President of New Granada, later called “Columbia,” by a plurality in the 1848 election with slightly more votes than the two Conservative candidates. Congress met, and on 7 March 1849 they decided by narrow margins to elect López. Conservatives felt threatened and considered the Liberal government illegitimate. That month the Society of Artisans became the Democratic Society of Bogotá in order to mobilize Liberals. Conservatives supporting Mariano Ospina Rodríguez formed the Popular Society for Mutual Instruction and Christian Fraternity in Bogotá, the Society of Friends of the People in Cali, and the Popular Society of Republicans in Popayán. In January 1850 violence between the two parties’ societies began in Bogotá, and a few months later they fought in Cali. López by executive order expelled the Jesuits in May. Liberals with university educations joined the Escuela Republicana that began on September 25. Late in 1850 armed bands began attacking Conservatives’ haciendas in Cauca Valley.
      Liberals were influenced by the French writers Félicité de La Mennais and Alphonse de Lamartine who advocated democracy, equality, and the Christ while criticizing economic power and the Roman Catholic Church. José Maria Samper in a speech referred to these young radicals on Golgotha hill, and they were called “gólgotas” after the place where Jesus was crucified. The Secretary of Finance Manuel Murrillo Toro proposed decentralizing the government revenues. Democrats influenced by Alexis de Tocqueville wanted to strengthen local governments, and by 1852 they established 13 new provinces by dividing larger ones.
      Most tobacco in the Republic was privatized in May 1849, and in 1850 it was freed from state control. The Census of 1851 found the population was about 2,105,600 with 65% mixed-race people. The number of Europeans and mestizos doubled from 17% in 1851 to 34% in 1912. In May 1851 they passed a law that liberated the remaining 20,000 African slaves on 1 January 1852. Liberals gained large majorities in both houses of Congress in 1851. Reforms included redeeming church mortgages, ending the priests’ privilege of being tried by ecclesiastical courts, letting municipal councils choose parish priests, canceling academic degree requirements for professions except pharmacy, abolishing libel laws, and reducing taxes by giving them to the provinces. Property owners with quit-rents owned by the church were allowed to pay half the value to the government.
      In April 1851 Conservatives revolted at Pasto and in the Cauca Valley where they were soon put down. The insurrection spread to Antioquia in June and to the east during the summer. Finance Secretary Murrillo was determined to reduce the amount of public land a person could own and to deny public property to anyone who did not cultivate the land. Murrillo resigned in April 1852 because President López did not support his land policies.
      General Tomas Herrera of Panama led the effort that defeated Conservative rebels in 1851, and many radical Liberals supported him for president in 1852. Conservatives did not participate in these elections, and the Liberals elected General José María Obando.
      Congress had increased custom duties by 10% in 1849, and in 1852 they raised them again by 25% to enhance revenues and protect products against foreign competition, but artisans complained their products were not safe. Indian peasants and other workers moving from agriculture to tobacco and cinchona plant extraction caused a rise in food prices in 1852 to 1854. Artisans demonstrated before the Congress on 19 May 1853. Some of them assaulted Congressmen, and one artisan was killed.
      Against President Obando’s wishes the radical Liberals with some Conservatives approved a new Constitution in 1853 that weakened the federal government and had Supreme Court judges elected. They passed reforms such as civil marriage and divorce, separating church and state. They severely reduced the standing army and abolished the death penalty. In the spring the military sided with the artisans in street fights involving well-off youths.
      A new Constitution in 1853 included expanded male suffrage by eliminating property and income rules, though men had to be over 21 and married or previously married to vote. Although women could not vote, those of age could be elected and serve in a public office. Direct elections replaced the Electoral College. People began electing Supreme Court judges, the Attorney General, and provincial governors. Women gained the vote in the province of Vélez though the Supreme Court blocked it as unconstitutional. All citizens were guaranteed freedom of religion, and religious censorship was banned. The Catholic Church regained autonomy of clerical appointments while many Catholics did not like introducing civil marriage and the legalization of divorce.
      José Eusebio Caro and Mariano Ospina Rodríguez wrote a manifesto for the newly formed Conservative Party, and they opposed heterodox European writers. In the 1853 elections the Liberal candidate José Obando won a majority with over 70% of the 2,008 votes for the presidency, but Conservatives were elected as Attorney General and Supreme Court judges. Liberals were divided as the radical reformers and Golgatas were opposed by artisans who collaborated with young liberals in the Sociedad Democratica that began in Bogotá and was spread and by moderate Draconianos who opposed ending the death penalty and reduction of the army to 1,500 men. Gólgotas and Conservatives allied against the Draconianos and artisans.
      In 1854 the Liberal coalition in the Congress responded by reducing the standing army from 1,500 men to 800 with only one colonel and no generals on duty. This affected General José María Melo, and President Obando vetoed the bill. On April 17 General Melo, military officers, and artisans used his command in Bogotá to take control of the government, and he asked Obando to accept the coup. When he refused, Melo proclaimed himself a dictatorial president, but he had little support beyond the troops and the artisans. Conservatives and upper-class Liberals formed a “constitutionalist” alliance against the “Melistas” who were also called “dictatorials.” General Melo with the garrison and artisans controlled Bogotá, and military units backed them in the Cauca region. José Hilario López advised Constitutionalists not to condemn Obando. In 1854 politicians stopped funding the Colegio Militar, and it ceased to function.
      The Cauca Governor Antonio Matéus was a Liberal and was persuaded to lead a military unit against Melo in Bogotá, and Constitutionalists defeated the Melo regime in early December. Melo surrendered in the presidential palace and was banished, and about 350 of his followers were exiled in the less healthy province of Panama. Two months later Governor Matéus was removed, and he was murdered in 1855. The restored Congress impeached President Obando for allowing the coup. Vice President José de Obaldía became Acting President of New Granada on December 4 until 1 April 1855. The restored Liberal government sent some artisans into exile.
      In January 1855 a New York company that had hired various workers completed the 47-mile railway across the isthmus of Panama. Since 1849 the California gold rush had greatly increased the traffic across Panama. In February 1855 the Conservative Congress declared Panama a “sovereign federal state.” In the election that year the Conservative Manuel María Mallarino won and completed Obando’s term, and he appointed two Liberals to his cabinet. The Conservatives gained a majority in the Senate and a slight advantage in the Chamber of Representatives, and Congress repealed the legalization of divorce. Liberals in 1855 began publishing the newspaper El Tiempo in Bogotá. Manuel Morillo Toro led those who advocated decentralizing government. Their reforms also intended to lower tariffs and to end colonial taxes and imprisonment for debt. The Conservative Congress reunified the divided provinces of Bogotá, Antioquia, Pamplona, and Pasto.
      In 1856 they made Antioquia a state, and in 1857 new states included Santander, Cauca, Cundinamarca, Boyacá, Bolívar, and Magdalena. On 15 April 1856 a North American killed a melon salesman in Panama, and that caused a riot in which 15 North Americans and two Panamanians died. The United States demanded an indemnity of $400,000, self-governing municipalities, 10 miles of land on each side of the railway, and two islands in Panama Bay for a naval station. Colombia’s Foreign Secretary Lino de Pombo reacted by suggesting a claim against the United States of $150,000.
      In 1856 about 40% of the adult males who voted elected the Conservative Mariano Ospina Rodríguez to become President on 1 April 1857. He won by a plurality as he got 97,407 votes. The Liberal candidate Manuel Morillo Toro had 80,170 votes, and the National candidate Tomas Cipriano de Mosquera received 33,038. By 1857 the army was reduced to 500 men, and the military budget was one-third of 1853 spending. Rodríguez asked the British to protect Panama, and he allowed Jesuits to return. Conservatives supported the first federalist Constitution that centralized power, and in 1858 they changed New Granada into the Confederación Granadina.
      President Ospina and Congress passed laws that increased their power over the Liberal opposition. The provincial government in Santander, which was formed from Socorro and Pamplona, enacted liberal reforms such as abolishing the death penalty, allowing coined money, private schools, road-building, and taxing personal wealth. In February 1859 a Conservative rebellion against those newly elected Liberals in Santander began a civil war. In April the Conservative Congress enacted a law so that the national government could appoint the boards that administer the state elections for President and the national Congress. In May the national government appointed an inspector of the public force in each state. In July the Draconian Liberal Juan José Nieto led a revolt that replaced the Conservative government in Bolívar. Conservatives rebelled, and President Ospina proclaimed a public emergency in order to call out national forces.
      Liberal Cipriano de Mosquera was elected in 1857, and he governed the sovereign state of Cauca from January 1858 to August 1863. He challenged the new election law and led the liberal forces opposing President Ospina in May 1860. During the Civil War the Liberals were not participating in the presidential election, and the Conservatives elected the poetic journalist and politician Julio Arboleda Pombo with 58,506 votes over General Pedro Alcántara Herrán who got 21,390 votes. Mariano Ospina’s term ended on 1 April 1861, and he let the elected Inspector General Bartolomé Calvo succeed him as President. General Mosquera’s army captured the capital Bogotá, and on 18 July he seized power as the third President of the Confederación Granadina. He executed three prominent Conservatives without a trial.
      Fighting went on for another year, and on 13 November 1862 President Arboleda was assassinated. Ospina, who had appointed a successor, was arrested and exiled to Guatemala. Radical Liberal Mosquera as head of state claimed control of the Church. He appropriated church assets except for buildings being used for religion, and he expelled the Jesuits. The state took over the Church’s wealth and promised to pay back annually 6% of what was taken. They abolished most religious orders of monks and nuns. Archbishop Antonio Herrán complained and was arrested. Pope Pius IX excommunicated Mosquera. His administration issued treasury bills based on real estate sales that moved slowly. Clergy were no longer able to provide as much welfare and education, and the government was not doing much either.
      On 3 February 1863 a convention meeting at Rionegro in Antioquia provided a constitution even more federalist, and they renamed the nation Estado Unidos de Colombia with the 9 states Antioquia, Bolívar, Boyacá, Cauca, Cundinamarca, Magdalena, Panama, Santander, and Tolima. Each state was to have one vote to elect the President to a two-year term without immediate re-election. States could determine voting qualifications, and most made restrictions on male suffrage. The Constitution could only be amended by the consent of all nine states. Human life was affirmed, and the death penalty was banned for all offenses. Citizens were allowed to keep arms and trade them during peace-time. Mosquera became President of the United States of Colombia on May 14.
      The tobacco business was shifting from snuff and pipes to cigars, and by the 1860s tobacco would be more than a third of exports. This increased the wealth of merchants and owners of large estates.

Colombia & Radicals 1864-78

      The radical Liberal Manuel Murillo Toro was elected President and succeeded Cipriano de Mosquera on 8 April 1864. Conservatives in Antioquia overthrew the Liberal ruler whom Mosquero had been appointed, and they made Pedro Justo Berrío their governor 1864-73. He provided education with schools for girls and public works. He resisted national mandates for taking church property. President Murillo Toro declined to invoke his power to maintain order, affirming federal self-determination. Bogotá received its first telegraph message in 1865, and two years later an underground cable connected the capital to New York.
      Mosquera was elected President again in 1866, and he began serving on May 22. He ordered a review of confiscated church property to correct irregularities. He had to adjust these after the new owners complained. Congress objected to his trying to buy a warship in New York for Peru to use against Spain, and Mosquera dissolved the Congress and imprisoned radical leaders. He intervened militarily in Magdalena, and the Congress passed a law making the national government neutral on disputes in states. The National University of Colombia was founded in Bogotá in September 1867. When Mosquera ordered the military and artisans to back his policies, Constitutionalist officers overthrew him on November 1. General Joaquín Riascos was President for 47 days. Congress had made Santos Acosta the Vice President, and he became President until 1 April 1868. That year the radical Santos Gutiérrez was elected President, and he served for a two-year term. He used force to remove the Conservative regime in the state of Cundinamarca.
      General Eustorgio Salgar was elected President, and in his inaugural address on 1 April 1870 he advised people not to expect too much from his government. Yet he founded Colombia’s first railway company, and he started the corporation to provide Social Security. In November he issued the Organic Decree of Primary Instruction, and his Interior Secretary Felipe Zapata announced that primary schooling was free and required in all states with neutral and voluntary studies allowed on religion. Colombia’s Government provided only 4% of its budget for education, and 20% of that was for the National University. The students in primary schools increased from 60,155 in 1870 to 84,000 in 1874. In 1870 the population of Colombia was about 2.6 million including 80,000 “savage Indians.”
      The Liberal Manuel Murillo Toro was elected President again and served in 1872-74. In 1873-74 customs duties accounted for 80% of the national government’s revenues. In that period Columbia’s government had 3.3 million pesos of net revenue compared to all the states’ 2.1 million.
      Santiago Pérez de Manosalbas was a writer, teacher, and Director of Public Instruction, and he was President 1874-76. In 1875 the Anuario Estadistico de Colombia and in 1876 the Estadistico de Colombia reported on the need for accurate statistics to develop more advanced civilization. Colombian merchants and politicians were influenced by Britain, France, the United States, and Germany. Aquileo Parra had been a Senator and President of Santander. The Congress elected him President of Colombia after no one had a majority in a three-way election. The Liberal Party was divided between the Radicals led by Parra and the Independents under General Rafael Núñez. Parra became President on 1 April 1876, and on July 9 a bloody civil war began. The Radical General Eustorgio Salgar wanted to increase public education while Conservatives preferred Catholic schools, and the conflict was called the “War of the Schools.” Conservatives organized a military offensive in the state of Cauca, and it spread to Antioquia, Tolima, Cundinamarca, and Santander. The Liberals had about 25,000 troops and the Conservatives roughly 18,000. As many as 10,000 may have died before the war ended on 25 May 1877. The market for cinchona bark began declining in 1876, and it collapsed after 1883.

Colombia, Núñez & Civil War 1878-1903

      Julián Trujillo Largacha was President of Antioquia in 1877 when Mosquera, Murillo, and General Rafael Núñez persuaded him to run for President of Colombia. As Conservatives were not participating in the elections in this era, the Liberal Trujillo was easily elected and served 1878-80.
      Rafael Núñez Moledo had been President of the state of Bolívar, and on 8 April 1880 he became Columbia’s President. He was influenced by European positivists and the social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer that emphasized evolution and pragmatic policies. Núñez was an Independent Liberal, and yet he appointed Conservatives to important positions. He borrowed $1 million from a New York bank, and in January 1881 he founded the National Bank. The Constitution did not allow him to run again in 1882. The Radical Francisco Javier Zaldúa admitted he was dying when he accepted the Liberals’ nomination for President, and he died on 22 December 1882. José Eusebio Otálora was also an Independent Liberal, and he was President until 1 April 1884.
      Rafael Núñez became President again in 1884. Radicals were concerned that he was going to violate the Constitution, and at the end of 1884 they claimed there was voter fraud. They began an armed revolt in Santander that was defeated in August 1885. Núñez announced, “The Constitution of 1863 has ceased to exist.”1
      In September 1885 they formed a Council of Delegates to work on a new constitution. The Conservative Miguel Antonio Caro studied classics and was a devout Catholic. He became the leader of the National Conservatives in the Congress, and he wrote the new Constitution of 1886 for Núñez and the Republic of Colombia. He organized the National Party with his Regeneration program, and he was joined by Independent Liberals and some Conservatives. The government would be centralized as states became departments with elected assemblies but limited powers. They would no longer be allowed to collect duties on goods crossing boundaries, and the national government agreed to share 25% of increased import duties. The national government regained control over the mines, saltworks, and public land that had been given to the states. The President of Columbia would have a six-year term and would appoint the governors, and they would name the mayors. The President could also be elected again to succeed himself. Representatives were to be elected every four years and senators every two years. The death penalty was restored. Bogotá got telephones in 1884 and electric lights in 1890.
      The Constitution returned the Catholic Church to its former powers and prestige, and Núñez wrote the words for a national anthem which included “And all humanity, which groans in chains, understands the words of Him who died on the cross.”2 A concordat in 1887 and a new covenant in 1892 restored the privileges of the Roman Catholic Church in Colombia. The archdiocese of Bogotá would have 542 parish priests, 469 friars, and 731 nuns by 1891. That year Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical De Rerum Novarum affirmed nationalism and criticized capitalism.
      Núñez was re-elected President in 1886. That year the new Columbia established the Ministries of War, Development, Public Instruction, Interior, International Relations, and Treasury and Public Credit. To keep public order the army was increased to 6,500 men. Carlos Holguín became Minister of Foreign Affairs in June 1887, and on 7 August 1888 Núñez let the capable Holguín be Interim President for the next four years. Funding primary schools became the responsibility of the departments in 1892 while the national government took care of secondary schools and universities. In 1892 Núñez went home to Cartagena in declining health, and he let Vice President Miguel Antonio Caro act with presidential powers. After Núñez’s death on 18 September 1894 Miguel Antonio Caro completed Núñez’s last six-year term to 7 August 1898.
      Artisans in Bogotá were upset that government newspapers called them immoral, and in January 1893 about forty of them were killed in a riot. Before leaving office in August 1898 President Caro designated the 84-year-old Manuel Antonio Sanclemente as his successor with José Manuel Marroquín as Vice President. In 1896 Marroquín published his novel Blas Gil about Colombian bosses and violence in the capital. Sanclemente was in such poor health on 8 August 1898 that Marroquín took the oath of office for him at the inauguration. Sanclemente took up the presidency in November. By 1899 Colombia had 140,000 children in primary schools. From 1896 to 1904 the only two Liberals elected to the Chamber of Representatives were the black Magdalena lawyer Luis Antonio Robles and Rafael Uribe Uribe who became a Liberal leader in the Thousand Day War. Some Liberals were sent into exile, and a few opposition newspapers were shut down. On 16 October 1899 the government decreed that paper currency must be accepted, and they began to print an enormous amount.      On 17 October 1899 the Liberal Party in Santander was upset about an electoral reform, and their insurrection against the Conservative government began the Thousand Days’ War against the National Party. Fighting began on November 12 when about 2,500 Liberals led by Rafael Uribe Uribe attacked 1,200 Conservatives in Bucaramanga, and the Liberals suffered twice as many casualties and failed to take over the government. The Liberals retreated and claimed they took 200 prisoners. On December 15 Uribe’s army of 4,000 attacked 5,610 Conservatives by the Peralonso River, and they fought for two days. Each side had about 700 casualties; but 900 retreating Conservatives were captured, and about 2,000 deserted. In May 1900 a force of 21,600 Conservatives fought Uribe’s army of about 8,500 at Palonegro in Santander for 16 days before the Liberals withdrew. Each side lost about 4,000 killed, wounded or missing. The Liberals also lost weapons and equipment. After this battle the Liberals engaged in an extended debate between those wanting war and those asking for peace. Fighting continued in Panama and along the Caribbean coast, and Nationals hoped to end the war and keep other nations out.
      On July 31 the Conservative Marroquín took over the presidency of Colombia, and he was elected to a 4-year term that began on August 7. Venezuela’s President Cipriano Castro had recognized Uribe as President of Colombia, and he was sending aid to the Liberals. On 28-29 July 1901 the Conservative forces led by Marroquín besieged San Cristóbal in Venezuela. Conservatives led by Juan B. Tovar were defeating Liberals. Castro kept the war going in September by sending cannons, rifles, and a machine gun to the Liberal and Venezuelan troops in Colombia. The two sides agreed upon a cease-fire on 24 October 1902, and the final peace treaty was signed on the USS Wisconsin off the coast of Panama on November 21. Issuing paper money had greatly reduced the value of the peso. In 1903 the Colombia government decreed an end to paper money and returned to the gold standard.
      Ferdinand de Lesseps had successfully developed the Suez Canal by 1869, and in 1882 he began construction on a canal in Panama; but a sea-level canal there did not work, and his company failed in 1889. In September 1902 the Colombian chargé Tomás Herrán signed a treaty in Washington with the United States Secretary of State John Hay for the construction of a canal across the isthmus of Panama which would give the US a strip of land between the oceans. The United States acquired the rights for the canal from the New French Company in 1903. In early August 1903 after a senator from Panama withdrew, Colombia’s Senate unanimously rejected the Hay-Herrán Treaty. On November 3 a nonviolent revolution in Panama for independence was welcomed by the United States which then recognized the Republic of Panama.

Columbia, Reyes & Conservatives 1904-20

      From 1898 to 1905 Columbia’s population decreased by about 61,000, but in the next seven years it increased by over 1.8 million to 5,972,604. Between the independence of Panama in November 1903 and the beginning of an economic depression in 1929 Columbia experienced political stability and independent development under mostly Conservative regimes.
      Rafael Reyes Prieto was born on 5 December 1849 in Bogotá. He became a successful entrepreneur in the quinine business in the 1870s, and then he tried to colonize Amazonia near Colombia’s border and lost money. He became a soldier and was a General for the Conservatives in the rebellions of 1885 and 1895. During the War of a Thousand Days General Reyes at the Pan American Conference in Mexico City said,

In past times it was the Cross or the Koran, the sword
or the book, that made the conquests of civilization;
at present it is the powerful locomotive,
flying along the shiny rail, breathing like a volcano,
that awakens peoples to progress,
to well-being, and to freedom….
And those who are resistant to progress
are crushed under its wheels.3

Reyes stayed in Mexico during that three-year war until 1903 when President Marroquín appointed him to lead an army of 100,000 Colombian volunteers and three generals in an attempt to regain Panama. Learning of North American ships in the area persuaded them to turn this plan into a diplomatic venture. Reyes called for reconciliation between Liberals and Conservatives and for the Hay-Herrán Treaty which was rejected. He ran for president as a moderate Conservative, and he got some votes from Liberals despite their party not participating in the election.
      Rafael Reyes was President of Colombia from 7 August 1904 to 9 June 1909. He had been Secretary of Development and Public Works for about six months in 1886, and he chose two Liberals to be in his cabinet of five ministers. One of his first actions was to send 4,000 workers to extend the Northern Highway that was built from Bogotá farther toward Boyacá. He reformed the Army and made it more professional and less involved in partisan politics. Reyes intended to improve military education in line with the methods used in Chile based on German influence. His reforms encouraged Liberal parents to send their sons to military schools. One of his first actions was to disarm civilians so that only the state had access to weapons. This policy eliminated most of the banditry in rural areas. The government confiscated 53,427 weapons and about 20 bullets per gun, though some people hid away old rifles and pistols for later use.
      President Reyes asked the Congress for tax reforms, railroad contracts, and economic reconstruction after the war. Congress found reasons not to implement his policies, and he summoned a National Assembly. The delegates appointed by departmental administrators met in 1905 to revise the Constitution and approve emergency measures. This procedure provided more Liberals than the partisan voting. The National Assembly in six weeks approved guaranteeing minority representation in future elections, and they reorganized the country by establishing some new departments from what had been states in the federal era. They also extended the authority of the President in economic and fiscal issues. After four men were convicted of trying to assassinate the President in 1906, the Reyes government had them executed. He worked hard and met with many people. The historian Humberto Vélez estimated that Reyes granted 11,550 meetings in addition to 324 cabinet meetings. He issued 4,742 decrees and 1,316 presidential and fiscal accords, and he sent 58,750 telegrams. Local leaders criticized him for nationalizing departmental liquor, tobacco, and other monopolies. He survived two coup attempts and three plots against his life. On 1 June 1907 Reyes decreed the founding of the General José María Córdova Military School of Cadets. The Colombian military developed the tradition of not interfering with civil authority that lasted until 1946.
      President Reyes followed the economic policies of President Porfirio Díaz in Mexico which had 14,000 kilometers of railways. Reyes encouraged railroad construction, and Colombia’s 565 kilometers of railroads were extended to 901 kilometers by 1909. The Antioquia Railroad connected the industrial center of Medellín with the Magdalena River, and the Pacific Railroad linked Cali with the port of Buenaventura. Reyes initiated the Ministry of Public Works to improve river navigation and provide more roads for use by carts, carriages, and automobiles. Reyes was the first person to ride in an automobile in Bogotá. A major financial reform was to replace Colombia’s nearly worthless paper money with new pesos that were equal to 100 of the depreciated paper currency. This new peso was about equal to the US dollar. Reyes negotiated with foreign creditors and resumed payments on the national debt. This led to increased foreign investment in Colombia. The government also provided tax benefits and subsidies to agriculture exports and manufacturing. The Reyes tariff of 1905 provided revenues and protected Colombian industries by going beyond those of Rafael Núñez. The Reyes administration renegotiated the foreign debt so that they could get new loans.
      In 1909 Columbia’s revenues would be about 16 million pesos which was less than four dollars per person. In supporting economic development the Reyes  government was often criticized for graft and favoritism in granting benefits and contracts. The loss of Panama was a major issue, and Reyes negotiated with the United States which promised to pay Colombia a moderate indemnity and would give Colombians preferential treatment in using the future canal. Reyes put off the agreement, though similar terms would be negotiated in the Urrutia-Thomson Treaty. Many reactions to these agreements were hostile. Reyes met with students on March 11, and the next day public demonstrations disturbed Bogotá. On March 13 President Reyes turned over his power to the War Minister Jorge Holguín. On June 13 Reyes left Colombia on a freighter owned by the United Fruit Company, and his resignation became official on July 27. The Conservative Laureano Gómez founded the periodical La Unidad in 1909, and he was its editor until 1916. He served in the Congress 1911-18 and again 1921-33.
      The National Assembly elected Ramon Gonzalez Valencia the President of Colombia on 4 August 1909. In 1910 a constitutional reform guaranteed minority representation in Congress and other councils, and the President’s term was limited to four years, and immediate re-election was banned. There was to be no Vice President. After 1910 the next ten presidential elections would be by the direct vote of the people.
      On 15 July 1910 the Constituent Assembly elected Carlos Eugene Restrepo the President, and his four-year term began on August 7. He had been nominated by the new Republican Union coalition. He was a Conservative, and he followed the Reyes policy of appointing some Liberals. Restrepo founded the Colombian Red Cross. He increased taxes to eliminate the deficit. He supported increasing the exports of coffee, and they helped him pay off the national debt. He established a bipartisan commission on foreign relations. He had more hospitals built on the coasts to help prevent the spread of tropical diseases. He banned the issuing of any more paper money in order to return to the system of gold and silver. The government began providing lifetime retirement pensions for school teachers. The death penalty was abolished, and the military and police were not allowed to vote. He made military service compulsory. In 1913 a new tariff raised the duties on clothing and home sewing machines, and the tariffs on wheat and rice were multiplied by five.
      The Urrutia-Thomson Treaty on Panama was signed in April 1914. Colombia ratified it that June, but the United States did not ratify it and begin to pay the $25 million to Colombia until 1921. Colombian ships were allowed free passage in the canal. Restrepo supported freedom of religion and was criticized by Catholics. He vetoed so many bills which he considered not beneficial that he was called “Monsieur Veto.” When the Great War began in August 1914, he declared Colombia neutral. Conservatives dominated the elections and apparently did some fixing in the 1914 presidential election. This was the first direct election by the people since 1856, and about 380,000 voted. Restrepo backed the progressive José Vicente Concha to succeed him. Concha had varied political experience, and in 1911 he published Notes on Constitutional Law. The Conservative leader Marco Fidel Suárez backed Concha, who was easily elected with 89% of the votes over the Republican Esguerra. General Uribe helped Concha get Liberal votes. Uribe, who had supported Reyes, became a state socialist. On 15 October 1914 two workers attacked Uribe with axes and killed him.
      Liberals supported private schools that were not controlled by the church, and they gradually increased their power in the national government. Bogotá attracted intellectuals and writers and was called the “Athens of Colombia.”
      In 1914 the Conservative José Vicente Concha was elected President with 300,735 votes over the Liberal Republican Esguerra’s 36,763. Concha appointed Suárez the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Great War (World War I) severely reduced trade. On 15 July 1916 Suárez signed a treaty with Ecuador that defined their border and improved coffee exports which provided more than half of Colombia’s income. From 1912 to 1918 the population of Columbia went down by about 122,000. Since then Columbia’s population has steadily increased. The Nationalist Conservative Marco Fidel Suárez won the elections on 10 February 1918 with 216,595 votes over the Historical Conservative Guillermo Valencia’s 166,498.
      The influenza and typhoid epidemics in 1918 led to the founding of the Confederation of Social Action, and in February 1919 they affiliated with the Central Workers’ Union (Sindicato Central Obrero) which became the political arm of the Socialist Party. The Union’s president Manrique Paramo spoke to President Suárez in March. Tailors demonstrated on March 19 against the importing of military uniforms at the Presidential Palace. Suárez tried to explain that he had canceled the purchase and that the uniforms would be made in Colombia; but his voice was drowned out, and he withdrew. When they threw rocks, the soldiers fired at the crowd, killing 9 and wounding 11.
      Suárez promoted aviation, and with German help in 1919 he set up the Sociedad Colombo-Alemana de Transportes Aéroes as the first commercial airline in the Americas and the second in the world. That year a modest income tax began. Also in 1919 the American petroleum companies got the US Senate to delay paying the indemnity to Colombia because the Colombian government was restricting their ownership of subsoil rights. The value of imports doubled from the previous year, and in 1920 they were quintupled causing inflation.

Colombia, Conservatives & Socialists 1921-35

      In 1921 foreign trade fell by two-thirds and contributed to deflation. To reduce the fiscal deficit employees were laid off, and others had their salaries delayed. The United States had not paid the indemnity and amended the treaty which the Columbian Senate ratified in October. President Suárez appointed Concha the Minister of Foreign Affairs for two months in 1921. Then Suárez made Concha the ambassador to Italy, and he met Prime Minister Mussolini. Concha was also minister to the Vatican, and he returned the same year to be elected to Congress. On September 19 Suárez offered to replace his entire cabinet, and on October 13 Colombia’s Senate approved the Urrutia-Thomson Treaty. Suárez resigned on November 11 because United States dominance delayed paying the $25-million indemnity to Colombia. Reyes had resigned for the same reasons in 1909.
      Suárez recommended Jorge Holguín, and he was made the next President until 7 August 1922. He appointed the two Liberals, Enrique Olaya Herrera and Alfonso Lopez Pumarejo, who later became presidents. They had been negotiating the Salomón-Lozano Treaty with Peru, and Holguín ratified it on 24 March 1922. That month the US and Colombia confirmed their treaty, and Colombia received the first $10 million as the first installment on the indemnity. Congressmen had elected the radical Conservative Laureano Gómez president of the Chamber of Deputies, and on July 20 he accused Pedro Nel Ospina of working with Liberals to replace Holguín with Suárez and of delaying the Banco de la República. The plot was not verified, but later Ospina’s government did found that bank. Suárez approved a contract that allowed Standard Oil of New Jersey to use its subsidiary Tropical Oil to begin production in Colombia.
      The Liberal Benjamin Herrera ran for President in 1922, and he promised an 8-hour day and legal recognition for strikers. He did well in Bogotá, but the provinces helped the Conservative Pedro Nel Ospina win with 409,131 votes to 246,647. To vote one needed to have $1,000 in property or an income of $300. Liberals complained that electoral fraud was so bad in 1922 that their party would not participate in the 1926 elections. Ospina liked the policies of Rafael Reyes, and he became President for four years on 7 August 1922. That month Ospina got a $5 million loan from an American bank. In the 1920s US banks loaned about $200 million to Colombia with most of it coming in 1923-28. Ospina founded the Banco da la República in 1923 as a central bank to regulate the money supply and exchange rates. This reduced interest rates sharply. He promoted public health and worked to improve agriculture, and the first tractors were imported. Ospina was the first leader of a nation to use an airplane in his duties. He had eleven ministers in his cabinet. His spending policy was “probity and efficiency.” Colombia passed Venezuela to become second after Brazil in coffee exports.
      From 1922 to 1930 there were 83 strikes in Colombia, but the workers won only a few. Most of the foreign loans were spent on public works including railroads and highways. Those laboring on public works were paid five times what the agricultural workers received. Unemployment provoked a crime wave in Bogotá in 1923. On February 13 Liberals began giving classes on law and science at the Free University (Universidad Libre). Princeton economist Edwin W. Kemmerer came to Colombia to advise on monetary and banking issues. Ospina hired the Marconi Wireless Company to begin a national communications network using radio on April 12. In 1924 Ospina brought a pedagogical mission of three German educators to Colombia for two years. On March 17 archaeologists discovered a solar temple in Boyacá. The Minister of Industries opened the National Labor Office in 1924, and in 1926 a National Labor Code mandated that employees could not be required to work on Sundays. Ospina appointed Laureano Gómez the Minister of Public Works on 9 June 1925. By then Colombia had about 80 labor and Socialist newspapers. Nine of the 15 strikes in 1925 were in the transportation industry. The United Fruit Company persuaded the Ministry of Industries to classify their 25,000 laborers as contract workers instead of employees in order to avoid labor laws.
      The Conservative Miguel Abadía Méndez was not opposed and got 370,492 votes which was 99%. He became President on 7 August 1926 and served for four years. He had experience as a lawyer, in government, and as a magistrate on the Supreme Court. After putting down a strike by force in 1926 President Abadía granted workers an 8-hour shift, Sunday pay, and 15-day vacations. In 1926 José Osorio Lizarazo wrote “Mansions of Poverty” about the miserable living conditions on the banks of the Rio San Francisco. Abadía got extensive loans from the United States especially for public works, and American money helped Colombia’s Agricultural Mortgage Bank begin making loans. The coffee groves increased from 15% of the cultivated land in 1925 to 22% in 1937. Coffee prices went up by 50% from 1923 to 1928, the year coffee exports reached 88 million pesos. Colombia’s exports rose from about $86 million in 1924 to $131 million in 1928 while all imports went from $62 million in 1924 to $159 Million in 1928. Colombia’s foreign debt increased from $27.5 million in 1924 to $203 million in 1928.
      Colombians had more money to spend, and by 1929 they had over 40,000 imported automobiles. In the 1920s inflation was running between 3 and 8 percent per year, lowering the value of wages. The Conservative politician Vásquez Cobo, who lost the election to Abadía, helped the workers on the Pacific Railroad to get a 20% pay increase. In the first six months of 1926 Colombia’s cost of living index increased from 147 to 219. Many in the upper classes considered those with African ancestors as inferior.
      The Minister of War Ignacio Rengifo used troops to suppress a strike against Tropical Oil, killing two workers on 21 January 1927, and in March he increased Colombia’s armed forces from 1,200 men to 6,500. Rengifo in August learned that the Social Revolutionary Party (SRP) was planning a nationwide uprising. He warned the Governor of the Caldas Department that the SRP was going to hold a convention in La Dorada Department in September. Officials there arrested the party leaders, but they managed to distract the guards and conduct their meeting in the jail. They formed the Central Conspiratorial Committee to plan overthrowing the government.
      At a two-week Workers’ Congress in Bogotá that began on 21 November 1926 María de los Ángeles Cano helped found the Revolutionary Socialist Party (PSR). This organization in 1930 would become the Colombian Communist Party. On 27 June 1927 the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia was founded to promote the coffee business.
      Colombia’s Congress and newspapers debated the Heroic Law from February 1928 and passed it on 30 October. That month the PSR had persuaded a union of 25,000 banana pickers to go on strike. The United Fruit Company refused to negotiate, and on December 5 that strike by banana workers was violently suppressed. The next morning at 1:30 a slaughter occurred in Ciénega, Magdalena. After giving a crowd of thousands of strikers three minutes to disperse, about 300 soldiers fired at them and killed 13 people. The strike continued for days, and skirmishes on company property killed hundreds of banana workers.
      On 1 January 1929 President Abadía Méndez’s state of the nation message was printed in newspapers. He praised the Catholic Church and thanked foreign capitalists for contributing to Colombia’s economy. He promised to protect their companies from the demands of Colombian workers. Early in 1928 the United States had stopped giving credit to Colombia because of Abadía’s labor policies. He then cut back on public works programs. Coffee prices, which had been about 30 cents a pound in 1927, fell to 23 cents in early 1929, and by the end of the year a pound cost 17 cents. In December that year a radio station began broadcasting in Bogotá.
      A flurry of fires at Medellín in February 1929 made some wonder if builders there were reducing their losses by using arson. On June 5 Gov. Ruperto Melo of Cundinamarca fired Mayor Luis Augusto Cuervo of Bogotá. Students came out on to the streets, and police killed one. By July most of the Social Revolutionary Party’s leaders were either in prison or in exile. A minor Bolshevik uprising in El Líbano was crushed. On August 20 Archbishop Perdomo endorsed Vásques Cobo for President. Colombia’s economy had been in a crisis for one year prior to the New York stock market crash on 29 October 1929. In November many businessmen in Medellín sold most of their stocks. The popular student carnival in 1929 would be the last one because of the economic austerity in 1930. By the end of 1929 about 80% of those employed in Colombia’s public works programs had lost their jobs, and those remaining had their salaries cut in half. The National Liberal Directors met in November to plan their electoral strategy.
      The population of Bogotá increased by about 50% in the 1920s to 235,000 in 1928. That year Barranquilla had 140,000 people, and Medellín and Cali had 120,000. Rents went up 350 percent from 1918 to 1928, and in late 1927 tenants in Bogotá went on a rent strike. In 1929 in Colombia the cause of death could not be determined in 42% of the cases because there was no attending physician.
      In 1930 the average life expectancy in Colombia was 34 years. After 46 years without a Liberal president 824,000 Colombians voted and elected the moderate Liberal Enrique Olaya Herrera in 1930. He was Colombia’s ambassador in the United States, and he returned to Colombia in January 1930 and was welcomed by enthusiastic crowds. He formed an alliance of both parties named the Concentración Nacional. Conservatives still dominated the Congress and local governments. In the election on 9 February 1930 Olaya got 369,934 votes to 240,360 for Guillermo Valencia, and 213,583 for Vásques Cobo. Olaya’s four-year presidency began on August 7. At first he allowed the Conservatives to have equal representation in his government, but gradually the opposition was replaced. He protected national industries with tariffs, and during the Depression imports fell sharply. He approved infrastructure projects, and he promoted public schools. He established the Bank of Agrarian Credit to help the guilds, and the Mortgage Central Bank financed low-income housing. He supported the National Federation of Coffee Growers, and he approved reforms of labor laws.
      In 1931 the Princeton economist Edwin W. Kemmerer with six associates came to Colombia again for $100,000 in gold certificates. They designed a plan for fiscal austerity and revenue increases and maintaining the gold standard, and they helped Colombia get loans from New York. The Olaya government was able to institute rights for workers, protect contracts, and bring about negotiations. The 8-hour day and the six-day week were popular reforms. A decree authorized secondary schools to grant female students a degree that would enable them to attend the university. The civil code was also revised so that married women had the right to own and dispose of property the same way their husbands could.
      In 1932 Conservative militias were active in Boyaca. Stoning the Conservative directorate in Manizales in western Colombia on June 18 stimulated lawless behavior in the central cordillera of the Colombian Andes Mountains.
      The Salomón–Lozano Treaty was first signed on 24 March 1922 to help settle border disputes, and a representative of Colombia and one from Peru signed it in July. The Parliament of Peru approved this treaty on 20 December 1927, and it became effective on 19 March 1928. Some Peruvians objected to the imposition of a high tariff on sugar. Instigated by the rubber entrepreneur Julio César Arana, on 27 August 1932 a band of ten Peruvian adventurers occupied this territory, and they established the established the National Patriotic Junta of Loreto. They issued the Leticia Plan criticizing the Salomón–Lozano Treaty, and they seized the town of Leticia on September 1 with the consent of the Leticians. Colombian officers and police retreated across the nearby border into Brazil. On the same day Peru’s President Luis Miguel Sánchez sent two regiments to Leticia and Tarapacá.
      The Colombian government learned of the invasion on September 17, and Congressman Laureano Gómez called for war. Two days later El Tiempo reported that they received over 10,000 letters calling for a war to control Leticia, and that day thousands of students marched in the streets of Bogotá. The Colombian Senate funded an expedition, and cities contributed gold. Led by General Alfredo Vásquez Cobo they reached the mouth of the Amazon River in December 1932. Some 6,000 troops went up the river on 3 transport ships and 7 gunboats. Columbia also mobilized 14 airplanes. On 14 February 1933 the Peruvian Air Force tried to bomb the Colombian flotilla with little success. Colombia’s President Olaya on that day broke off diplomatic relations with Peru, and he ordered an attack that Peruvian forces engaged.
      Peru’s President Sánchez was assassinated on April 30. On May 15 his successor Óscar Benavides negotiated with Colombia’s Liberal Party led by Alfonso López Pumarejo, and on the 24th they agreed to let a League of Nations commission decide the issue. In this little war each side had suffered about 60 casualties. In 1934 representatives of the two nations met and signed the Protocol of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation at Rio de Janeiro on 24 May 1934 which confirmed the Salomón–Lozano Treaty.
      The Liberal Alfonso López Pumarejo was easily elected in 1934, and he appointed the outgoing President Olaya as the Minister of Foreign Affairs for eight months in 1935. López Pumarejo was a wealthy banker. Yet his liberal program was called the “Marching Revolution,” and it was supported by the Colombian Communist Party.


1. The Making of Modern Colombia by David Bushnell, p. 142.
2. Ibid., p. 144.
3. Ibid., p. 156.

Copyright © 2023 by Sanderson Beck

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Latin America & Canada to 1850

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