new internationalist
issue 257 - July 1994

Country profile: Colombia

Where is Colombia? Colombia is a country of paradoxes. Nobel prize-winning writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez set his mythical town of Macondo in the Caribbean coastal region of Colombia and for many observers the strange goings on in his town pale in comparison with those of the republic as a whole.

A central paradox is the way the country's history of electoral competition, thriving intellectual and cultural life has existed alongside a history of civil war and political violence between the two parties that continue to dominate Colombia (Liberal and Conservative). Since the last of these civil wars in the 1950s, when more than 250,000 people died, the two traditional parties have negotiated a pact but in so doing have closed the political order to all other forces.

The last few decades have been characterized by the often violent efforts of other groups (such as the M-19 guerrilla movement) to force an entry into the political system. Underlying these demands for participation are the extreme injustices of a deeply unequal social and economic order.

Another of Colombia's paradoxes is located in the economy. The formal sector is now fairly healthy, having been modernized and diversified away from dependence on coffee. But most people live and work in the unmeasured, unregulated informal sector.

In a few decades Colombia has changed from having a 70 per cent rural population to having a 70 per cent urban one. People in the countryside have been forced to go and search for land in ever remoter parts as commercial agriculture and cattle ranching have taken over the best lands. Often their only means of survival since the late l970s has been to grow coca, the plant that yields cocaine. Meanwhile the State has abandoned those who migrated to the cities. With no welfare and little formal sector work, survival includes anything from street selling to criminal activities, in particular those associated with the rise of the cocaine industry. Cocaine has brought with it a gun culture and murder rates in Medellin are amongst the highest in the world.

Cocaine-related violence frequently hits the headlines but a less publicised violence is also commonplace: that carried out by the forces of the State against opposition movements. Using the excuse of anti- guerrilla warfare, the army and paramilitary groups have targetted all opponents of the status quo, in particular peasant leaders, social and political activists. Over 1,500 leaders of the Patriotic Union party for instance have been assassinated since it was set up in 1985. Amnesty claims that over 20,000 people have been killed for political reasons since 1986.

Though formally viewed as one of Latin America's democracies, Colombia is a country whose élites have stopped at nothing to defend their wealth and privileges.

Jenny Pearce


LEADER: Presidential election run-offs between Ernesto Samper and Andrés Pastrana.

ECONOMY: GNP per capita US $1,260 (US $22,240).
External debt (1991) US $18,086 million. Coal and oil coming on stream will enable diversification from coffee (Colombia is second largest producer after Brazil). Also bananas, flowers, tobacco, cotton, sugar cane and cocoa. Dollar earnings distorted by huge receipts from cocaine.
Monetary unit: Peso
Main exports: Coffee, coal, petroleum.
Main imports: Mechanical and electrical equipment; chemical products.

PEOPLE: 33.4 million Health Infant mortality 17 per 1,000 live births (US 9 per 1,000).

CULTURE: About 2 per cent population are Indians, about 6 per cent black descendents of slaves, rest are of European descent or mestizo, mixed indigenous/white.
Religion: Roman Catholicism
Languages: Spanish and Indian languages.

Sources: Human Development Report 1993, Inter-American Development Bank report, 1992 The State of the World's Children 1994, The Americas Review 1993/4.

Last profiled in January 1982



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INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Very unequal: lowest 40% of households have 12.7% of income.

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LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
87% High levels of adult literacy, but inadequate schooling in many rural areas.

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SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Coal and oil reserves will ease dependence on coffee; huge earnings from cocaine.

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FREEDOM [image, unknown]
Official democracy/press freedom, but high levels of state political violence.

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POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Weight of Catholicism and machismo heaviest on poor urban and rural women.

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LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
69 years. Among the highest in South America (US 76 years).

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Politics now

Politics then

Liberal party; executive presidency.


NI star rating

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