Colombia is located in northwestern South America. It shares borders with Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil to the south, Panama to the north, and Venezuela to the east. Most of Colombia’s population lives in the mountainous west, and on the northern coast. The southern and eastern portions of the country are largely rainforest, and are sparsely populated, mostly by indigenous tribes. There is also a large area of plains that forms most of the border region with Venezuela.
Colombia is an extremely mountainous country, with three Andean mountain chains, or Cordilleras, running through it north to south. Bogota, Medellin, and Cali, Colombia’s largest three cities, are located in the center of the country, all roughly equidistant from each other in a triangular formation.
Colombia’s Caribbean coast includes large cities like Cartagena, Barranquilla, and Santa Marta, while the largely undeveloped Pacific coast has only one city, the port of Buenaventura. Colombia is unique among South American countries in that it has both a Pacific and Atlantic coast.
Although the Spaniards arrived in Colombia in 1499, it was not until the founding of Santa Marta in 1525 and Cartagena in 1533 that permanent settlements emerged. Colombia declared its independence from Spain in 1810, and under the leadership of Simon Bolivar and Francisco Paulaner de Santander, defeated the Spanish forces, and was recognized as an independent nation in 1819. The defining moment in the military conflict was the epic Battle of Boyaca, a department north of Bogota, where the Spanish were routed.
Colombia subsequently pertained to Gran Colombia, along with present Ecuador, Venezuela, and Panama, until the state disintegrated in 1830. 1849 saw the formal establishment of the two political parties that would dominate Colombia’s history: the centralist Conservatives and the federalist Liberals. Much of Colombia’s history has been marked by political instability and violence, and the 19th century saw numerous civil wars and rebellions. These culminated in the horrific War of the Thousand Days in 1899, when over 100,000 Colombians died.
During this time of domestic strife, the United States used the opportunity to encourage a secessionist movement in Panama, which at the time was a part of Colombia. They subsequently used the nascent nation to build and gain control of the Panama Canal, a landmark in global transportation, which facilitated dramatically more efficient Atlantic/Pacific ocean transport.
The defining moment of twentieth century Colombia was the 1948 assassination of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, a populist icon and presidential candidate. Riots followed throughout Bogota, known as the Bogotazo, which spread throughout the country, eventually leading to civil war between the Liberal and Conservative parties. This period of time was known as La Violencia.
While the two parties eventually reached a power sharing agreement, the armed conflict paved the way for the establishment of two guerrilla groups that continue to this day: the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas/Armed Revolutionary Colombian Forces) and the ELN (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional/National Liberation Army).
The 1980s and 1990s were times of great unrest and disorder in Colombia as, in addition to the guerrilla groups, drug cartels, and paramilitary groups took power. It was estimated that the FARC controlled 30% of Colombian territory at its height. Overland travel was impossible, due to violence, and millions of Colombians were displaced from their homes and land by the armed conflict.
In 2002 Alvaro Uribe came to power, and successfully pursued a ruthless campaign against the guerrillas, pushing them out of urban areas, and into the border regions with Ecuador, Venezuela, and Panama. Uribe was reelected in 2006, and remains a popular figure today.
Following eight years of Uribe, the Supreme Court ruled that Uribe could not run for a third term, paving the way for his defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, to take over the reigns. Santos is currently pursuing peace talks with the FARC in order to bring an end to the armed conflict.
Santos has pursued a somewhat more conciliatory approach than his predecessor, while still continuing aggressive military campaigns against the guerrillas. He has notably greatly improved relations with Venezuela and its iconoclastic president Hugo Chavez, who was long the arch-enemy of Uribe.
Corruption remains a pervasive problem in Colombia, but the situation is improving. Human rights advocates have also pointed to troubling problems with the military and the police, and cases of “false positives”, where alleged guerrillas are later discovered to have been civilians.
However, while not perfect, Colombia is far from a dictatorial or authoritarian state. Dissent and protest are alive and well in Colombia, and Uribe and Santos are less than popular with many students and intellectuals. No better example of this can be seen than the 2011 student protests which shut down major Colombian cities for days at a time, and force Santos to withdraw his education reform bill.
Colombia is a middle-income economy with a growing middle-class. A close economic and political ally of the United States, it has recently signed numerous free trade agreements with the US and other nations. A free-market economy, its recent administrations have pursued growth through export-oriented strategies, and by enacting policies to facilitate massive foreign investment.
The two most important exports in Colombia are petroleum and coffee. Colombia is the world’s third largest coffee exporter, behind only Brazil and Vietnam. Oil, which is mostly concentrated in the eastern plains, is typically located in politically unstable areas. Additionally, there are concerns about new investments in exploration to offset decreased production.
While Colombia has been relatively economically stable through the Uribe/Santos years, concerns about debt, government spending, and unemployment remain. Colombia has, however, never defaulted on its debt, making it unique among Latin American countries. Inflation has been relatively low as well, especially in comparison to some of its neighbors.
Colombia has a relatively high degree of inequality in distribution of wealth, although this is improving. The main challenge ahead for the Colombian economy lies in incorporating greater percentages of its population into the middle class, while maintaining sound fiscal discipline, and adequate social spending. Additionally, Colombia must seek to bring an end to its long-standing internal armed conflict.
Colombia has a warm and vibrant culture, oriented towards nightlife. Visitors are often surprised that, despite Colombia’s pariah reputation, it may be friendliest country in the world. The Salsa and vallenato are the two most important types of music and dance, although reggaeton, cumbia, bachata, and merengue are quite popular as well.
Colombian food is characterized by rice, beans, potatoes, arepas, chicken, beef, and soups. With an extremely fertile climate, and a year-round growing season, Colombia also is highly conducive to fruit and vegetable cultivation. Colombians are enthusiastic about their aguardiente, a licorice-flavored liquor infused with the anise seed. Beer and rum are also quite popular throughout the country.
In the world of arts and literature, Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Medellin’s Fernando Botero are two standouts, while Juanes and Shakira have taken Latin America and the world in general by storm with their music. And, most recently, Barranquillera Sofia Vergara has risen to prominence throughout the United States and Latin America with her role on the mockumentary sitcom Modern Family.