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A brief history of Colombia

The land that is now Colombia has been inhabited for about 11,000 years. Most prominent of the pre-Columbian cultures were the Chibchas, an agricultural people of the highlands. The great majority of Colombia’s population is concentrated either on the Caribbean coast or in the valleys and mountain basins of the Andes. The llanos and Amazonian rainforest take up two-thirds of Colombian territory, but only 2 percent of the population live there.

The first Spanish settlement was founded in 1525 on the Caribbean coast. Bogotá was founded in 1538 by a company of Spanish soldiers looking for El Dorado. “New Grenada,” as Colombia was then called, became for a time Spain’s principal source of gold. Emeralds, tobacco and sugar cane were other sources of wealth.

Independence from Spain was achieved in 1819 with General Simón Bolívar’s victory at the battle of Boyacá. By 1845 two contending parties had formed and they continue to dominate Colombian politics: the Conservative party, which favored strong central government and strong ties with the Catholic Church, and the Liberal party, which favored states rights and separation of church and state.

Colombia has one of the most violent histories in the Americas. A civil war (1899–1902) claimed 100,000 lives, and during the political unrest in the countryside known as “La Violencia” (1948–1962) more than 200,000 people were killed. Rapid migration from country to city coincided with a shift from agriculture to industrial production. This has intensified the concentration of wealth and led to political instability. Four different guerrilla groups fought the government for years. Except for the largest of these groups, M-19, which put down its arms in 1991 and joined the political process, they all continue their efforts to lead a revolution. Further destabilization comes from the immense economic power of a few drug czars who dominate world distribution of cocaine. With the government repression, guerrilla warfare and drug czars’ war against politicians that killed hundreds of people, including three presidential candidates in 1990, Colombia has been one of the most conflictive countries in the world during the last two decades.

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