U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
BACKGROUND NOTES: COLOMBIA
PUBLISHED BY THE BUREAU OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS
Republic of Colombia
Area: 1.2 million sq. km. (440,000 sq. mi.); about the size of Texas,
New Mexico, and Arkansas combined; fourth-largest country in South
Cities: Capital--Santa Fe de Bogota (pop. about 6 million). Other
major cities--Medellin, Cali, Barranquilla, Cartagena.
Terrain: Flat coastal areas, central highlands, volcanic mountains, and
eastern plains with extensive coastlines on the Pacific Ocean and
Climate: Tropical on coast and eastern plains, cooler in highlands.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Colombian(s).
Population: 36 million.
Annual growth rate: 1.7%.
Religion: Roman Catholic 95%.
Education: Years compulsory--9. Attendance--80% of children enter
school. Only five years of primary school are offered in rural areas.
Literacy--93% in urban areas, 67% in rural areas.
Health: Infant mortality rate--37/1,000. Life expectancy--67 yrs. men,
72 yrs. women.
Independence: July 20, 1810.
Branches: Executive--president (chief of state and head of government).
Legislative--bicameral congress. Judicial--Supreme Court,
Constitutional Court, Council of State.
Administrative divisions: 32 departments; Santa Fe de Bogota, capital
Major political parties: Liberal Party, Social Conservative Party,
Democratic Alliance/M-19 (AD/M-19), Patriotic Union (UP).
Suffrage: Universal age 18 and over.
GDP (1993): $50 billion.
Annual growth rate (1993): 5.3%.
Per capita GDP (1993): $1,390.
Natural resources: Coal, petroleum, natural gas, iron ore, nickel,
gold, silver, copper, emeralds.
Agriculture (21% of GDP): Products--coffee, bananas, cut flowers,
cotton, sugar cane, livestock, rice, corn, tobacco, potatoes, soybeans,
sorghum. Cultivated land--5% of total land area.
Manufacturing (21% of GDP): Types--textiles and garments, chemicals,
metal products, cement, cardboard containers, plastic resins and
Other sectors (by percentage of GDP): Financial services--15%; social
and miscellaneous services--14%; commerce--11%; transportation,
warehousing, and communications services--9%; construction--3%;
Trade (1993): Exports--$7.4 billion: petroleum, coffee, coal,
ferronickel, bananas, flowers, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, textiles
and garments, gold, sugar, cardboard containers, printed matter, cement,
plastic resins and manufactures, emeralds. Major markets--U.S.,
Germany, Netherlands, Japan. Imports--$9 billion: machinery/equipment,
grains, chemicals, transportation equipment, mineral products, consumer
products, metals/metal products, plastic/rubber, paper products,
aircraft, oil and gas industry equipment and supplies. Major suppliers-
-U.S., Venezuela, Japan, Germany, Panama.
Exchange rate: 817 Colombian pesos = U.S. $1.
Colombia is the third most populous country in Latin America, after
Brazil and Mexico. Movement from rural to urban areas has been heavy.
The urban population increased from 57% of the total population in 1951
to about 74% by 1994. The nine eastern departments, constituting about
54% of Colombia's area, have less than 3% of the population and a
density of fewer than one person per square kilometer (two persons per
sq. mi.). Thirty cities have 100,000 or more inhabitants. Residents of
the high Andes Mountains must cope with sometimes deadly volcanic
activity--more than 20,000 died in the 1985 eruption of Volcan Nevada
del Ruiz near the town of Armero in Tolima Department. The Galeras
Volcano near Pasto (Narino Department) is active and under observation
by the Colombian Government.
The ethnic diversity in Colombia is a result of the intermingling of
indigenous Indians, Spanish colonists, and African slaves. Today, only
about 1% of the people can be identified as fully Indian on the basis of
language and customs. Few foreigners have immigrated to Colombia,
compared to several other South American countries.
During the pre-Columbian period, the area now known as Colombia was
inhabited by Indians, mostly primitive hunters or nomadic farmers. The
Chibchas, who lived in the Bogota region, dominated the various Indian
Spaniards first sailed along the north coast of Colombia as early as
1500, but the first permanent settlement, at Santa Marta, was not
established until 1525. In 1549, the area was established as a Spanish
colony with the capital at Santa Fe de Bogota. In 1717, Bogota became
the capital of the viceroyalty of New Granada, which included what is
now Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. The city became one of the
principal administrative centers of the Spanish possessions in the New
World, along with Lima and Mexico City.
On July 20, 1810, the citizens of Bogota created the first
representative council to defy Spanish authority. Total independence
was proclaimed in 1813, and in 1819 the Republic of Greater Colombia was
After the defeat of the Spanish army, the republic included all the
territory of the former viceroyalty. Simon Bolivar was elected its
first President and Francisco de Paula Santander, Vice President. Two
political parties that grew out of conflicts between the followers of
Bolivar and Santander, the Conservatives and the Liberals, have
dominated Colombian politics. Bolivar's supporters, who later formed
the nucleus of the Conservative Party, advocated a strong centralized
government, alliance with the Roman Catholic Church, and a limited
franchise. Santander's followers, forerunners of the Liberals, wanted a
decentralized government, state rather than church control over
education and other civil matters, and a broadened suffrage.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, each party held the
presidency for roughly equal periods of time. Colombia, unlike many
Latin American countries, maintained a tradition of civilian government
and regular, free elections. The military has seized power only three
times in Colombia's history: in 1830, when Ecuador and Venezuela
withdrew from the republic (Panama did not become independent until
1903); in 1854; and in 1953-57. In the first two instances, civilian
rule was restored within a year.
Notwithstanding the country's commitment to democratic institutions,
Colombia's history has been characterized by periods of widespread,
violent conflict. Two civil wars resulted from bitter rivalry between
the Conservative and Liberal Parties. The War of a Thousand Days (1899-
1902) cost an estimated 100,000 lives, and up to 300,000 people perished
during La Violencia ("The Violence") of the 1940s and 1950s.
A military coup in 1953 brought Gen. Gustavo Rojas Pinilla to power.
Initially, Rojas enjoyed considerable popular support, due largely to
his success in reducing La Violencia. When he did not restore democratic
rule, however, he was overthrown by the military in 1957 with the
backing of both political parties, and a provisional government was
The National Front
In July 1957, former Conservative President Laureano Gomez (1950-53) and
former Liberal President Alberto Lleras Camargo (1945-46) issued the
"Declaration of Sitges," in which they proposed a "National Front"
whereby the Liberal and Conservative parties would jointly govern.
Through regular elections, the presidency would alternate between the
two parties every four years; the parties also would have parity in all
other elective and appointive offices.
The National Front ended La Violencia. National Front administrations
instituted far-reaching social and economic reforms in keeping with the
Alliance for Progress, an inter-American program of economic assistance
which began in 1961 with major financial backing by the United States.
Although the parity system established by the Sitges agreement was
terminated in 1978, the 1886 Colombian constitution, which was in effect
until 1991, required that the losing political party be given adequate
and equitable participation in the government. Although the 1991
constitution does not have that requirement, subsequent governments have
included opposition parties in the government.
Post-National Front Years
The National Front ended in 1974, having made efforts to resolve
problems of inflation, unemployment, and inequitable income distribution
while cutting government expenses. Between 1978 and 1982, the
government focused on ending the limited, but persistent, Cuban-backed
insurgency that sought to undermine Colombia's traditional democratic
system. The success of the government's efforts enabled it to lift the
state-of-siege decree that had been in effect for most of the previous
In 1984, President Belisario Betancur, a Conservative who won 47% of the
popular vote, negotiated a cease-fire that included the release of many
guerrillas imprisoned during the effort to overpower the insurgents.
The cease-fire began to unravel when Democratic Alliance/M-19 (AD/M-19)
guerrillas resumed fighting in 1985.
A vicious attack on the Palace of Justice by the AD/M-19 on November 6-
7, 1985, shocked Colombia and the entire world. Of the 115 people
killed, 11 were Supreme Court justices. Although the government and the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest guerrilla
group, renewed their truce in March 1986, peace with the AD/M-19 and
dissident factions of other guerrilla groups seemed remote as Betancur
The next administrations had to contend with both the guerrillas and the
narcotics traffickers, who operated with relative impunity within
Colombia. Narco-terrorists assassinated three presidential candidates
before Cesar Gaviria Trujillo was elected in 1990. With the death of
Medellin cartel leader Pablo Escobar in December 1993, indiscriminate
acts of violence associated with that organization have somewhat abated.
President Ernesto Samper assumed office in August 1994. Samper has
vowed to continue many of the economic and foreign policy goals of the
Gaviria administration, while also placing greater emphasis on
addressing social inequities and eliminating poverty.
The new constitution, enacted on July 4, 1991, strengthens the
administration of justice with the introduction of an accusatorial
system which replaces the previous Napoleonic Code system. Other
significant reforms under the new constitution provide for civil
divorce, dual nationality, the election of a vice president, and the
election of departmental governors. The constitution has expanded
citizens' basic rights, including that of tutela, under which an
immediate court action can be requested by an individual if he feels his
constitutional rights are being violated and if there is no other legal
The national government has separate executive, legislative, and
judicial branches. The president is elected for a four-year term and
cannot be re-elected. The 1991 constitution re-established the position
of vice president, who is elected on the same ticket as the president.
By law, the vice president will succeed in the event of the president's
resignation, illness, or death. The first Vice President, Humberto De
La Calle Lombana, took office on August 7, 1994.
Colombia's bicameral congress consists of a 102-member Senate and a 161-
member House of Representatives. Senators are elected on the basis of a
nationwide ballot, while representatives are elected on a regional
basis. The country's capital, Santa Fe de Bogota, is considered a
separate region and elects its own representatives. Members may be re-
elected indefinitely, and, unlike the previous system, there are no
longer alternate congressmen. Congress meets twice a year, and the
president has the power to call it into special session when needed.
Principal Government Officials
President--Ernesto Samper Pizano
Vice President--Humberto de la Calle Lombana
Minister of Foreign Relations--Rodrigo Pardo Garcia-Pena
Minister of Foreign Trade--Daniel Mazuera Gomez
Ambassador to the U.S.--Carlos Lleras de la Fuente
Ambassador to the OAS--Fabio Villegas Ramirez
Ambassador to the UN--Julio Londono Paredes
Colombia maintains an embassy in the United States at 2118 Leroy Place,
NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-387-8338). Colombian consulates are
located in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles,
Miami, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco, San Juan, Tampa, and
Colombia's Ministry of Defense, charged with the country's internal and
external defense and security, has an army, navy (which includes a coast
guard), air force, and national police under the leadership of a
civilian minister of defense. The armed forces number about 235,000
uniformed personnel: 145,000 military and 90,000 police. Many
Colombian military personnel have received training in the United States
or in U.S. military schools in the former Panama Canal Zone. The United
States has provided equipment to the Colombian military through the
military assistance program and foreign military sales.
Colombia undertook a profound economic reform program in 1990-94 that
opened up its economy to international trade and investment. The
government has pursued prudent fiscal, exchange rate, and monetary
policies and, since 1990, has implemented sweeping changes in the areas
of finance, labor, exchange rates, and trade. These measures have been
largely responsible for the sustained economic growth enjoyed by
Colombia; 3.8% average GDP growth during the 1990-93 period, and a
robust 5.3% in 1993.
In 1993, economic growth was accompanied by a decline in inflation (from
25.1% in 1992 to 22.6% in 1993) and a drop in unemployment (from 10.3%
in 1992 to 7.9% in 1993) due in large part to tight fiscal and monetary
policies. Economic growth in Colombia in 1993 was led by public and
private investment and domestic aggregate demand, compensating for a
less dynamic external sector. Private investment showed a healthy
increase, 37% in real terms, while public investment was up 15%.
Private and public consumption rose by 8.8% and 17.8%, respectively.
Public spending was a major stimulus to growth. Government spending
grew by 43%, thanks to higher revenues from sales taxes and import
duties. Colombia's GDP is expected to grow by 5% for 1994.
Colombia is the only major Latin American country which did not have to
reschedule its external debt during the debt crisis of the 1980s. The
nation paid both principal and interest to its foreign creditors. Today
it enjoys one of the highest credit ratings in the region. Colombia's
total foreign debt was $17.7 billion at the end of 1993, low relative
to GDP, while its debt service ratio was 32%. With a strong net
international reserves position ($7.9 billion at the end of 1993),
Colombia has successfully re-entered the international capital markets
in Europe, Japan, and the United States.
Mining and Energy
Colombia is well-endowed with minerals and energy resources. It has the
largest coal reserves in Latin America, is second to Brazil in
hydroelectric potential, and possesses Latin America's fourth-largest
oil and gas reserves. It also possesses significant amounts of
ferronickel, gold, silver, platinum, and emeralds.
The recent discovery of 2 billion barrels of high-quality oil at the
Cusiana and Cupiagua fields, about 125 miles east of Bogota, assures
Colombia's crude oil self-sufficiency until well into the next decade.
Production from those fields is expected to reach 150,000 barrels per
day (b/d) by mid-1995, and rise to 500,000 b/d early in 1998. However,
refining capacity cannot satisfy domestic demand, so some refined
products, especially gasoline, must be imported. Plans for the
construction of a new refinery are under development. Total crude oil
production in 1993 was 453,000 b/d; about 184,000 b/d were exported.
Coal production totaled 21.7 million metric tons (mt) in 1993.
Production from El Cerrejon--the world's largest open pit coal mine,
located on Colombia's Guajira Peninsula--accounted for 65% of that
amount. Colombia's exports of 18.4 million mt of steam coal in 1994
made it the world's fourth-largest exporter of this commodity. Private
and public investment in Colombia's coal fields and related
infrastructure projects are expected to enable the country to export
about 35 million mt at the beginning of the next decade.
While Colombia has vast hydroelectric potential, a prolonged drought in
1992 forced severe electrical rationing throughout the country until
mid-1993. The consequences of the drought on electricity-generating
capacity has caused the government to commission the construction or
upgrading of 10 thermoelectric power plants. Half will be coal-fired;
half will be fired by natural gas. The government has also begun
awarding bids for the construction of a natural gas pipeline system that
will extend from the country's large gas fields to its major population
centers. Plans call for the completion of this project, which will make
natural gas available to millions of Colombian households, by the middle
of the next decade.
Colombia had a $1.6-billion trade deficit in 1993. Imports in 1993
reached $9 billion--51% above the 1992 level. Imports of capital goods
rose by 86%, intermediate goods imports were up 16%, and imports of
consumption goods (most of them durables) jumped by 101%. The sharp
rise in imports resulted principally from the trade liberalization
program begun in 1991. Exports totaled $7.4 billion in 1993; an
increase of only 2%. The relatively small increase was due to
Colombia's strong peso and to the drop in international prices for major
exports such as crude oil, coffee, coal, and ferronickel. Colombia's
non-traditional exports compensated for the weak performance of
traditional exports. The value of non-traditional exports rose 11%,
with strong showings coming from exports of emeralds, sugar, cut
flowers, fruit, textiles, and leather products. Non-traditional goods
accounted for 56% of total exports in 1993.
The United States is Colombia's principal trading partner, purchasing
37% of Colombia's exports in 1993. Other important trading partners for
Colombia are Venezuela, Japan, Germany, and Panama. Diplomatic
relations with a number of Pacific nations were established during the
Gaviria administration. Regular diplomatic exchanges with Japan, China,
South Korea, and other Asian nations are designed to open these markets
to Colombian products.
In 1991 and 1992, the government passed laws to stimulate foreign
investment in nearly all sectors of the economy. The only activities
closed to foreign direct investment are defense and national security,
disposal of hazardous wastes, and real estate (the latter restriction to
control money laundering). Colombia established a special entity,
Coinvertir, to assist foreigners in making investments in the country.
Colombia received $436 million in non-petroleum related foreign
investment in 1993. Major foreign investment projects underway include
the $6-billion development of the Cusiana and Cupiagua oil fields,
development of coal fields in the north of the country, and the recently
concluded licensing for establishment of cellular telephone service.
The United States accounted for 63% of the $4.4-billion stock of non-
petroleum foreign direct investment in Colombia at the end of 1993.
Industry and Agriculture
The most industrially diverse member of the five-nation Andean Pact,
Colombia has four major industrial centers--Bogota, Medellin, Cali, and
Barranquilla, each located in a distinct geographical region.
Colombia's industries include textiles and clothing, leather products,
processed foods and beverages, paper and paper products, chemicals and
petrochemicals, cement, construction, iron and steel products, and
Agriculture accounted for 21% of Colombia's GDP in 1993. Its diverse
climate and topography permits the cultivation of a wide variety of
crops. In addition, all regions yield forest products, ranging from
tropical hardwoods in the hot country to pine and eucalyptus in the
Cacao, sugar cane, coconuts, bananas, plantains, rice, cotton, tobacco,
cassava and most of the nation's beef cattle are produced in the hot
regions from sea level to 1,000 meters elevation. The temperate
regions, between 1,000 and 2,000 meters, are better suited for coffee,
certain flowers, corn and other vegetables, and fruits such as citrus,
pears, pineapples, and tomatoes. The cooler elevations, between 2,000
and 3,000 meters, produce wheat, barley, potatoes, cold-climate
vegetables, flowers, dairy cattle, and poultry.
Narcotics Cultivation and Control
Colombia is the world's leading supplier of cocaine and is the source of
tons of refined cocaine, heroin, and marijuana shipped to the United
States and Europe each year. Although the yield of Colombian opium
poppies is low, Colombia now has more illicit poppy cultivation than
Mexico. In 1993, Colombia closed a bloody chapter in its continuing war
against narcotics trafficking with the death of drug lord Pablo Escobar
and the crippling of his notorious Medellin drug cartel. The remaining
Cali and other Colombian drug cartels, among the most sophisticated
criminal organizations in the world, virtually control cocaine
processing as well as international wholesale distribution chains and
Colombia is engaged in a broad range of narcotics control activities.
In Colombia's traditional cannabis growing zones, where intensive
eradication in previous years had virtually destroyed the crop, there
was a resurgence of cultivation in 1993 to an estimated 5,000 hectares.
Through aerial spraying and manual eradication, Colombia has attempted
to keep opium poppy cultivation from expanding. The government has
committed itself to pursuing eradication of all illicit crops, including
coca and marijuana, during 1995. Authorities aggressively fumigate
using a safe agricultural herbicide.
Corruption and intimidation by traffickers complicate the drug-control
efforts of many Colombian institutions. A major overhaul of the
Colombian judicial system shows promise, although changes have yet to
produce successful prosecution of narcotics traffickers. Colombia
passed a revised criminal procedures code in 1993 which permits
traffickers to surrender and negotiate more lenient sentences in return
for cooperating with prosecutors. The Colombian constitution now
prohibits the extradition of Colombian nationals, but the government
does extradite citizens of other countries.
Colombia seeks diplomatic and commercial relations with all countries,
regardless of their ideologies or political or economic systems. In the
1980s, it broadened its bilateral and multilateral relations, joining
the Non-Aligned Movement (which it will chair 1994-97), the Contadora
Group, and the Group of Eight (now the Rio Group). In addition,
Colombia has signed a free trade agreement with Chile and has negotiated
such an accord with Mexico and Venezuela.
Colombia has traditionally played an active role in the UN, the
Organization of American States, and their subsidiary agencies. Former
President Gaviria became Secretary General of the OAS in September 1994.
Colombia hosted the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)
meeting in February 1992 and led negotiations for the establishment of
the Andean Common Market, or Andean Pact, designed to reduce trade
barriers and coordinate economic policies among the Andean countries of
Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and Venezuela.
Colombia regularly participates in international forums on money
laundering, chemical controls, and drug abuse prevention. Colombia
participated actively in the Organization of American States' drug body
(CICAD) and in the CICAD-sponsored Caribbean Task Force meeting on money
laundering, but few measures have been adopted.
Colombia continues to be one of the primary money-laundering concerns in
the Western Hemisphere. While the Colombian Government ratified the
1988 UN convention on narcotics in 1993--the last of the Andean
governments to do so--it took important reservations, notably to the
money-laundering measures, asset forfeiture and confiscation provisions,
and extradition clauses. The convention will be formally ratified in
Colombia only after favorable review by the constitutional court.
In 1822, the United States became one of the first countries to
recognize the new republic and to establish a resident diplomatic
mission. Today, about 17,500 U.S. citizens live in Colombia, most of
them dual nationals. The U.S. and Colombian Governments closely
cooperate and consult on bilateral issues, especially in efforts to curb
narcotics trafficking and trade.
Recent U.S. bilateral assistance has focused on mutual efforts against
narcotics trafficking and the modernization of Colombia's judicial
system. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) commits
significant resources to judicial reform, focusing on the criminal
justice sector, including the five regional courts and prosecutorial
units charged with handling narcotics and terrorism cases; it assists
the prosecutor general's office as well. In 1993, USAID sponsored
training for more than 640 judges and prosecutors and 920 investigators,
forensic technicians, and others. Colombia also uses USAID-generated
funds to help finance local projects encouraging the voluntary
eradication of opium poppy. The U.S. and Colombian Governments worked
closely on methodology used in Colombia's 1993 national drug abuse
survey--the country's first--which indicated that Colombians
increasingly abuse drugs.
The United States is Colombia's principal trading partner, with about
38% of annual imports. Colombia now benefits from duty-free entry (for
a 10-year period) for the majority of its exports to the United States
under the Andean Trade Preference Act. The two countries have signed
agreements on asset sharing, chemical control, and money laundering.
Colombia improved protection of U.S. intellectual property rights
through the adoption of the Andean Pact but remains on the U.S. Special
301 watch list due to continuing concerns over deficiencies in
licensing, patent regulations, and copyright protection.
The petroleum and natural gas, coal mining, chemical, and manufacturing
industries attract the greatest U.S. investment interest. U.S.
investment accounted for 63% ($2.7 billion) of the total $4.3 billion in
foreign direct investment registered between 1967 and mid-1993. Worker
rights and conditions in the U.S.-dominated sectors are superior to
prevailing ones. Examples include shorter-than-average working hours,
high wages, and compliance with health and safety standards above the
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--Myles R.R. Frechette
Deputy Chief of Mission--John B. Craig
Political Counselor--Thomas P. Hamilton
Economic Counselor--John L. Pitts
Consul General--Thomas L. Randall, Jr.
Commercial Counselor--Kathryn Haughton
Administrative Counselor--Thomas Tighe
Defense Attache--Col. Stephen W. Justus
Agricultural Attache--Clyde Gumbmann
Public Affairs Officer (USIS)--L.W. Koengeter
Regional Security Officer--Bob Brittain
USAID Director--Lars Klaussen
Consular Officer--Marvin Brown
The U.S. embassy in Colombia is located at Calle 38, No. 8-61, Bogota
(tel. 320-1300). The U.S. consulate in Barranquilla is located at the
Centro Commercial Mayorista, Calle 77 Carrera 68 (tel. 45-7088). The
mailing address for the embassy and the consulate is APO AA 34038.
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