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Colombia in the threshold of modernization: Structural change, social

conflict and the origins of contemporary political violence

Fernando A. Medina Gutiérrez
B.A., MSc, PhD


Adopting a critical perspective, this article aims to contribute to unravelling the
deep, structural causes of the violent conflict that has engulfed Colombia for the last
seventy years. For that end, it presents an analytical overview of Colombia’s history during
a period that broadly corresponds to the first four decades of the Twentieth Century.
Deeply marked by the conflicts stemming from the process of structural change that was
taking place in the economic, social, demographic and political spheres, this period started
in the midst of the Thousand Days war (1899-1902), and ended with the ‘Pause in the
Revolution’ decreed by President Santos (1938-1942), an elitist reaction to the attempts of
a modernizing bourgeoisie to incorporate the lower classes into the oligarchic system of
domination that up to that point had characterized the Colombian society.
The failure of the elite to compromise on the need to widen the polity in order to
accommodate the legitimate aspirations of the emerging classes, as well as those of a
land-hungry and politically mobilized peasantry, created the conditions for the eruption of a
violence that since then has changed in his trends, but never entirely receded.

The Colombian Protracted Conflict
The Colombian conflict is part of what has been described as Protracted (Azar,
1990), Deep rooted (Kriesberg, 1992), and very difficult to solve. To a great extent,
it remains unexplained. Many of the works that have been written in order to
understand political violence point to this as an atypical case (Paige, 1975;
Wickham-Crowley, 1992) that does not comfortably fit their tested hypotheses. This
‘explanatory failure’ remains despite the fact that during the last 30 years,
academic institutions, think tanks and policy makers alike have produced a

massive body of sophisticated analyses of the Colombian situation. Perhaps the
difficulty in drawing some agreed conclusions stems from the fact that the conflict
has endured for at least four decades. Throughout these years, the nature and
scope of the conflict have been affected by its own dynamics, as well as by the
many changes that have taken place at the local, national and international level.
One aspect that has captured the analyst’s attention is the fact that an
overview of the country’s history can easily lead to the conclusion that violence has
been an ever-present feature of its polity.
My argument here is that making sense of a protracted conflict like the
Colombian, demands the adoption of a long range, historically rooted approach.
That is precisely the aim of the present work that builds on previous research
conducted, at different spatial levels, and from the perspective of many field
specialists, and covering a long period corresponding to what could be described
as the progressive modernization of Colombia during the first half of the twentieth
A core element of this modernization process was the introduction of the first
Agrarian Reform Law in 1936. The influence it exercised in the pattern of land
tenure and agricultural exploitation, as well as the impact that it had on the process
of social mobilization that preceded its enactment, have particular relevance for our
purposes. The third section of the present work will be dedicated to cover these
But before reviewing the immediate antecedents and consequences of the
Agrarian Reform, Law 200 of 1936, and in order to keep the chronological and
analytical framework adopted for the exposition of our arguments, in the first two
sections I will briefly consider to relevant issues: (i) The conflictive nature of the
relations between classes and factions within them, (ii) the extent to which the
dynamics of the Colombian society has been affected by its violence-prone,
bipartisan, oligarchic, factious and fanatic polity.
In this order of ideas, section one will be dedicated to the analysis of the
impact of the Thousand Days war, a conflict that in more than one sense marked
the end of an era. Section two will be devoted to the review of the processes that

brought about the Conservative hegemonic breakdown of 1930, and prompted the
sweeping institutional changes introduced under a renewed Liberal leadership.
During this period, a new set of actors, interests, beliefs, actions and conflicts
came to the fore. As a response, the strengthening of the State and the widening of
the polity were two of the main strategies that an enlightened elite devised to cope
with the pressures of modernization.
In section three, as part of the immediate antecedents to the introduction of
Law 200 of 1936, the serious and often violent conflicts that emerged in regard to
the access of the sharecroppers to the cultivation of coffee in the areas of large
estate predominance will be considered.
In section four, we will focus on other social, economic and political conflicts
that run in parallel to the agrarian conflict. In it we will show how, by the end of this
period, the level of intra and inter-party confrontation in regard to the pace and
scope of the changes to be introduced in order to respond to the multiple
manifestations of what was then referred as the ‘social question’ acquired a
dangerously high level.
1. In the Threshold of a New Era
The Thousand Days War (1899-1902) was, in more than simply a
chronological sense, the last war of the Nineteenth century. When Colombia
started its lengthy recovery from all the wreckage and bloodletting brought about
by a protracted and cruel confrontation, many things had been changed: First and
foremost, amidst the prevailing state of anarchy and stagnation, and with the open
intervention of the US government which had developed substantial interests in the
operation of the inter-oceanic canal, Panama seceded from Colombia.
The loss of Panama marked a watershed in the process of creating and
intra-elite consensus to promote economic development. This consensus is well
expressed in the phrase “Put the Fatherland above the parties” with which General
Benjamin Herrera, one of the two leaders of the rebel Liberal armies, signed -
aboard the US battleship Wisconsin - the armistice that ended the war.
But this intra-elite consensus had other underpinnings apart from nationalist
feelings and developmental concerns. Regardless of the ups and downs, so

characteristic of a non-regulated market of a primary product with low income
elasticity such as Coffee, by the end of the Nineteenth century Colombia’s exports
had reached 531,437 bags of 60 kilos each, a triple of the figure 10 years before.
At this point in time, and with international prices once again in the upward trend,
coffee represented around 70 per cent of the value of total exports (Bergquist,
1978: 23).
Coffee production, and all the financial, commercial, industrial and other
economic activities it stimulated, helped to create new wealth and new sources of
political power that were badly damaged as a result of political extremism and
revolutionary adventurism.
Men in the apex of the social pyramid had been the political and military
leaders of the revolutionary armies. On the side of governmental forces, no less
wealthy or respectable gentlemen volunteered as officers, often bringing with them
their clients and dependent labourers as common soldiers. While reluctantly
supporting the Nationalist government in the war, these Caballeros de Empresa
also attempted to forge a peace settlement with the Liberals in order to avoid the
risks of losing control over the warring parties. These fears were also shared by
some of the Liberal leaders of the revolt, and they were not ill-founded. When the
war started, there were all kind of reasons to expect that it was going to be a short
conflict of the kind so common in that period’s history. Both sides in the
confrontation showed some restrain in their methods of recruitment, financing and
fighting. But,

“[after] seven months of fighting the ‘gentlemanly’ phase of the war came to an end
and a new and more desperate struggle began that was to drag on for more than
two and one-half more years, raise the war death toll to perhaps a hundred
thousand men [A very high figure for a total population of around 4 million], and
threatened the social foundations of Colombia” (Bergquist, 1978: 133).

After the Liberal Armies were badly defeated in Palonegro, Santander, on
May 25, 1900, the only way of continuing their struggle was to resort to guerrilla
tactics. The geography of the conflict also changed. Having started in depression

hit coffee producer Santander, where the most important regular battles took place,
in the new phase it concentrated in the mountainous interior, predominantly in the
departments of Cundinamarca and Tolima. (On this see map.1) These were the
zones where sizable coffee haciendas had been set up by rich landowners and
Guerrilla warfare also opened the avenues of ascendancy for lower class
men. Whether they had joined the revolutionaries ‘like the steer is led to the
slaughter’ as many contemporary witnesses claimed, or out of the identification
and loyalty they felt, an irregular war became an open avenue for social mobility in
a stagnant society.
Members of the lower classes also participated as soldiers in the
government armies, or combatants for the guerrillas set up by Conservative
hacendados. Conscription was the means at hand to fill these armies. ‘Indians
appropriate for military service’, as bluntly put by a government General, were to
be caught by armed squads that raided market places, general stores and cantinas
where common folk gathered. Road gangs and other government employees were
also targeted for conscription.
The duress and duration of the war and the extreme cruelty that it acquired
as time went by also debilitated the discipline of the government army. Desertion
became common. Fearful of having one of their members conscripted, families left
their homes, often carrying their livestock and meagre utensils with them and
hiding themselves in the forests.
Guerrilla tactics worsened the effects of the coffee depression, because they
disrupted production and commerce. Paradoxically, the stronger and more
independent from the traditional leadership the Liberal guerrillas grew, the more
they helped to strengthen the position of the most intransigent and bellicose of the
Conservative leaders. The need to finance the increasing costs of the war, and the
inability of obtaining revenue from badly damaged traditional economic activities,
forced the government to emit paper money which spurred inflation. In the eyes of
the elites of both parties, as a consequence of the war the very foundation of the
society was starting to crumble.

Well before the war started, General Rafael Reyes, moderate Conservative
and high rank official in the government troops, warned his fellow members that if
the economic, fiscal and political situation continued deteriorating, as it finally
occurred, “[Falling wages in the coffee zones would leave workers ready to join]
‘any revolutionary movement of the worst imaginable sort’ [And fraud and violence
as a means of keeping control of the State would only serve to] ‘throw the country
into a disastrous war with pernicious characteristics of social revolution which could
carry us to dissolution” (Quoted by Bergquist, 1978: 64).
When the troops under the command of General Benjamin Herrera made
Panama the main battlefield and the US landed marine troops, the fear of a
Panama secession became a face-saving device to put an end to the war. And so
they did. In the minds of the coffee growers, merchants, bankers, high fly
bureaucrats and Catholic hierarchs that made up the bulk of Colombia’s oligarchy,
“(…) the tempest [should] cease in order that people and things return to occupy
the position and level for which, given their background and their conduct, they are
suited” as was so sharply advised by Liberal personality Celso Roman, in a letter
written in 1902. (Quoted by Bergquist, 1978: 192).
Regrettable for him, the end of the war had also marked the end of an era.
Next section is dedicated to the analysis of the policies implemented in the
aftermath of the peace agreement.

2. From Republicanism to Hegemonic Breakdown
When the war ended, the government found itself trapped in the middle of
serious monetary and fiscal difficulties, stemming out from a depressed economy
badly damaged by three years of violence and destruction. Step by step, the
government moved from recalcitrant to more moderate policies in both economic
and political matters. The extended executive powers emanating from the
declaration of ‘State of siege’ were curtailed, press censorship was lifted, and
Conservative extremists left the Cabinet and were replaced by more restrained and
compromising figures.

The crucial presidential election of 1904 was won by General Rafael Reyes,
the public candidate of moderate Conservatives and the secret candidate of the
Liberals. He won on a platform promising a bipartisan government of Concordia
Nacional (National Concord) and promoting a strong centralization of authority in
Bogota. Reyes represented a new type of leader: A man of action more than ideas,
he had received little formal education.
Reyes’s government (1904-10) pursued a policy of political reconciliation
and reform, although he increasingly used authoritarian means to achieve his
goals. With the support of the Uribe Uribe faction of the Liberal Party, and the
increasing opposition of the followers of Liberal Benjamin Herrera and a majority of
disaffected fellow Conservatives, Reyes introduced important political measures in
order to curb the power of the regional Caudillos who still controlled the political life
in their domains “by deciding who would hold political office, what municipios and
individuals would receive public monies, and even the extent to which national laws
would be obeyed (…) Reyes’s chief weapon against them was the reduction of
their power through subdivision of the departments” (Henderson, 1985: 52).
One of the most important initiatives introduced with the aim of
strengthening the central state was the reform of the Army. After taking office, he
implemented a programme of weapon collection with the aim of disarming the local
strongmen who had large quantities of arms after the end of the war. He also
enforced the rules concerning the universal military service in order to give the
army a bipartisan composition. At the time, this was a process common to most
Latin American countries and was achieved by the hiring of Prussian, French, and
British military missions, and by sending officers abroad for training.
Beyond the political aspects of his government, Reyes “worked to follow
sound principles of fiscal administration, stabilize the monetary system, return to
the gold standard, restore Colombian credit abroad, attract foreign capital, improve
the nation’s transport system, and encourage export agriculture. All of these goals
were heartily approved by export-import interests” (Bergquist, 1978: 229).
Regardless of the elite support enjoyed by the Reyes administration, the
fiscal situation of the country impaired many of its initiatives. And it was precisely

his attempts to introduce a fiscal reform what marked his falling out of power: In
1908, Reyes nationalized the departmental match, tobacco, and liquor monopolies
and also introduced some new direct taxes. “All the departments, led by Antioquia
(…) vigorously opposed the new revenue measures. Coalescing around banker
Carlos E. Restrepo’s ‘Republican Union’ movement, they forced Reyes from power
in 1909. The following year, Restrepo was elected as President for a four-year
term” (Henderson, 1985: 54).
Once again, a Constitutional reform (1910) was introduced in order to
consolidate what the President erroneously assumed to be as the deep-seated
republicanism of both traditional parties. A direct and popular election of the
President, departmental assemblies, and municipal concejos was introduced. A
system of proportional representation replaced the previous winner-take-all under
which, with the help of the machinery and force, the Conservative party had
controlled the political power for a quarter of a century.
But all the good will demonstrated by Restrepo crumbled under the burden
of the recent history of bigotry, fanaticism and open inter-party violence. Suspicions
that one side would take advantage of the other soon emerged, and the most
prominent Liberals withdrew their support to the government.
The reasons for this political failure are beyond the scope of the present
work. For the moment, it will suffice to say that for the elites of the two traditional
parties and their factions, losing control of State power just because of changing
voting majorities was simply beyond their grasp.
But the fact that Restrepo’s government could not get rid of the old practices
of political clientelism, factionalism and electoral fraud should not prevent us of
recognizing that it clearly helped to create a new political order in Colombia. The
unstable political system of the nineteenth century, characterised by fundamentalist
ideological confrontation, exclusionary governments, civil wars and partisan and
ephemeral constitutional reforms, gave way to a more stable polity. “Colombian
politics during the teens and twenties and even in the thirties and early forties,
while not free of party conflict, partisan polemics, and a significant degree of rural

violence and unrest, was nevertheless qualitatively different from the political
chaos of the previous century” (Bergquist, 1978: 247).
The government of Restrepo was followed by that of orthodox Conservative
Jose Vicente Concha (1914-1918). The Concha Administration was deeply marked
by the effects of the First World War. At the time, and although the volume of
Colombia’s coffee export had grown an average of 7.4 per year during the first two
decades of the century, it roughly represented a mere 4 percent of the world

“At this time Colombian elites were still looking for other possible options. In the
[Caribbean coast] with the modernization of cattle-raising (…) exported to Panama
and Cuba. Sugar was also being sent to Panama. These experiments, however,
could not compete with Texas beef and Cuban sugar. Coastal cattle-raising ended
up supplying growing domestic markets in the coffee regions of Santander and
Antioquia (…) Still, Colombia could rely in Antioquia’s gold (…) Another promising
product at this time was Amazonian rubber. It would take several years of high
prices for coffee to be recognized as the best option” (Safford and Palacios, 2002:

In any case, the coffee bonanza, the increasing importance of banana
exports - an embryonic industry that had started in the coastal region near Santa
Marta where extensive lands had been acquired in 1901 by the U.S. United Fruit
Company – and the take-off of the oil production (also a U.S. enclave), marked the
beginning of an era characterised by rapid economic growth. This trend was
greatly stimulated by the influx of money from abroad, up to the point that this
period of Colombia’s history has been termed as ‘{The} Dance of the Millions’
(Fluharty, 1957), a clear allusion to the fact that much of the prosperity experienced
by the country was acquired at the price of high indebtedness.
Much of this money went to support the infrastructural projects of the coffee
producing regions of Antioquia and Viejo Caldas. Railroads, the channelling of the
Magdalena River, and the improvement of the ports of Buenaventura, Barranquilla
and Cartagena demanded almost half of the loan money. Inflation became the

centre of political debate. Regional interests and political factions competed to get
control of the bonanza.
The urban lower classes, badly stricken by the effects of the rampant
inflation, started to make their voices heard. In 1919, under the government of
Marco Fidel Suárez, the tailors of Bogota protested against the importation of
military uniforms. The remonstration ended with a bloody clash with the police
forces in the Plaza de Bolivar, the political epicentre of the country.
In this context, it is easy to understand why the 1922 presidential election
generated such level of inter-party confrontation. Ospina was replaced in office by
orthodox Conservative Miguel Abadía Méndez. By this time, after such a long time
in power (1886-1929) the Conservative hegemony was already in crisis.
Corruption, the squandering of millions of dollars of the foreign loans, inefficiency
and the growing social instability impelled by the structural changes brought about
by the ‘Dance of the Millions’, compounded to weaken the government. The
situation aggravated as a consequence of the 1929 World depression.
The crisis of the Conservative party was aggravated by the fact that the
Catholic hierarchy proved incapable of choosing between the two aspiring pre-
candidates. As a result of the split, the Conservative hegemony collapsed. In 1930,
moderate Liberal Enrique Olaya Herrera, legal advisor for U.S. oil companies, and
Colombia’s representative to the Pan American Conference of 1928, won the
presidency by a simple majority, while the conservative candidates divided the
majority of the vote.

3. Appeasing Rural Unrest

In their compelling work, Safford and Palacios (2002) characterize the years
between 1903 and 1946 as ‘The Republic of Coffee’. “Coffee, whose principal
market was in the United States, provided the basis for development of
transportation and communications, for the flow of foreign investments and
international credit” (op. cit: 266).

The importance of Coffee grew as the twentieth century went by and the
early 1900s marked the shift in the axis of Colombian production away from the
eastern cordillera (Santander, Boyacá and Cundinamarca) to the central cordillera
(Antioquia, Caldas, Northern Tolima and North-eastern Cauca), a result of the
process of Antioqueño Colonization. Table 4.1 below presents a broad vision of this
shift in Coffee production.

Table 4.1 Colombia, Production of Coffee by Regions, Selected Years, 1874-
1956 (Percentage Distribution by Regions)

Region 1874 1913 1932 1943 1953-57 (3 year
1. Bolivar, Atlantico 0.2 2.4 0.6 0.5 1.3
2. Antioquia, Caldas 2.2 35.4 46.9 48.9 49.2
3. Cauca, Narino, Valle 1.7 7.8 12.4 16.7 16.5
4. Tolima, Huila 0.9 5.5 14.4 15.5 17.9
5. Cundinamarca, Boyaca 7.5 18.7 12.4 9.6 9.9
6. Santander 87.6 30.2 12.2 8.9 5.1
7. Other areas - - 1.0 - -
Total 100 100 100 100 100
Thousands of 60-kilo 114 1.085 3.453 5.177 5.944
Source: McGreevey, 1971: 196

The geographical shift in the areas of Coffee cultivation and the opening of
new lands for cultivation under the Antioqueño Colonization (Parsons, 1948) that
drove it, created two different paths in land tenure and agricultural organization: In
the areas of south-eastern Antioquia, Northern, but also parts of southern Tolima,
and Northern Valle, a more democratic pattern of land tenure and family based
coffee production became predominant. On the other hand, in the areas of western
Cundinamarca and Eastern Tolima, extensive coffee haciendas were set up with
the financial and entrepreneurial support of members of the merchant elite, mostly
affiliated to the Liberal party. These were also the areas where, during the
Thousand Days war, the Liberals applied their guerrilla tactics more fully and where
people from the lower classes emerged as military and political leaders of their
The duration of the Thousand Days War; the horrors it bestowed, and the
level of autonomous organization of the lower-classes in their struggle for survival
that the war entailed, were all factors that had a great impact in the social conflicts
that were so extended during the first decades of the Twentieth century. Not
surprisingly, the rural agitation that led to the introduction of the first Land Law, 200
of 1936, started in the areas where the coffee hacienda was dominant and where

social and economic conflicts, inherent to this pattern of land exploitation, were
In order to understand these conflicts it is important to underline how,
regardless of the fact that the Haciendas had been set up by the urban merchant
elite, and that they were inextricably linked with the international capitalist
economy, they rested on pre-capitalist pillars.

“Coffee is a very labour intensive crop, which does not present any economies of
scale in plantation. Topography defies mechanization. These factors explain the
fundamental strategy of the haciendas in relation to their labour force. As there are
no labour-saving techniques available, the hacienda tries to impose forms of work
organization which economize on wages and monetary costs” (Palacios, Op. cit:

These labour-saving techniques were reflected in the diverse obligations
falling on the share-croppers. The haciendas had been established on the areas of
subtropical forests cleared by burning. The process started with the handing over
of about 3 hectares to each share-cropper family, followed by a cycle of (1) burning
and clearing (2) sowing of basic crops such as maize, yuca, kidney beans and
plantains (3) planting of grasses and sugar cane, as sources of fodder for the
beasts of burden as well as alimentary raciones for the workers (4) after two or
three harvests, the young coffee trees that had been grown in nurseries along with
the shade trees, were planted.
But the seasonal character of the labour impeded the hacienda to rely
exclusively on its permanent workers to carry it out. Some of the conflicts stemmed
from the different working conditions enjoyed by the permanent and occasional
workers, given the fact that the former enjoyed higher incomes, greater job stability
and more possibilities to save. But regardless of his relative well-being, the
arrendatario depended entirely on the hacienda. The hierarchical character of the
social organization of the hacienda fell heavily on the shoulders of the workers of
indigenous or mestizo origin. Disciplinary measures prevented them from
developing contact with the outside world, so did the poor roads and great

distances between estates and towns. The sources of power remained
monopolized in the hands of the hacendado.
It was within this inauspicious context that the first peasant organizations
appeared, and rural agitation began. By 1918, a strike broke out on the coffee
haciendas in the lower valley of the river Bogotá, the Tequendama and Sumapaz

“The peasants burned the public buildings of Viotá and refused to work without a
raise in salary and improvement in working conditions. The strike caused great
alarm among the landlords who generally lived in Bogotá, where they were able to
pressure for the intervention of public troops (…) The Colombian government
answered with force, but in 1919 it conceded the right to strike to the workers who,
at the same time, received a significant increase in pay” (Gilhodes, 1970: 412).

The agitation on the coffee haciendas continued. In 1925, the arrendatarios
of the haciendas claimed the right to cultivate coffee in their own plots. The
hacendados strongly opposed because they sensed that, once the workers
acquired a cash income of their own, they would turn into a less reliable labour
force. “Almost all of the haciendas of the valley of the Bogotá and Sumapaz rivers
were affected by these strikes in which the militants of the recently formed
Revolutionary Socialist Party, an alliance of Marxists and trade unionists, who
came from the capital, intervened” (Gilhodes, Op.cit: 412).
After 1928, the peasants founded the Sumapaz Agrarian Movement, and
Juan de la Cruz Varela emerged as a leader in the struggle in which the peasants
became squatters on the unexploited latifundia. All over the country the situation
was of general unrest.
During Olaya Herrera’s term in office (1930-1934), a Junta was set up with
the task of suggesting proposals to deal with the Agrarian Conflict. Many of its
conclusions were the backbone of the bill presented by the government to
Congress, and adopted three years later as Law 200 of 1936. Under the leadership
of Liberal Alfonso López Pumarejo, the law represents an attempt to overcome the
case-by-case approach that up to that point had prevailed in dealing with the

“[strikes], confrontation, the eviction of the families from the haciendas, attacks on
haciendas by groups of peasants, the burning of homes, and invasion of
haciendas” (Machado, 1975: 27) so widespread in the previous years.
The Law established a presumption of ownership in favour of those who
were occupying the land and making ‘economic use’ of it. In this manner, it sought
to remove the uncertainty derived from the unclear definition of boundaries and the
dubious validity of titles.
Paradoxically, the Law created an area of common interest between the
landowners who did not have clear titles, and the squatters who could no longer be
expelled through summary procedures and who acquired the right to be fully
compensated, in cash, for the value of the improvements they had made to the
land from which they were eventually evicted.
Additionally, the Law ruled that those lands that were left uncultivated for ten
consecutive years were to revert to public domain. This was obviously one of the
articles that had less application. Even further, in 1944, landowners were granted
an incentive in the form of a five-year extension to the initial ten-year term.
By the end of 1935 the rural unrest had gradually receded. The reformist
policy of the government bore its fruits. For the time being, the political system
regained the control of the rural masses. President Alfonso López Pumarejo, the
popular leader of the Liberal Party and twice President of the country (1934-1938)
and (1942-1945) had made clear his purpose in promoting the adoption of the Law:

“There is deception…when the attempt is made to create the opinion that the
government is an enemy of the rural proprietor who, through his efforts, has
succeeded in establishing enormous haciendas within which the greater part of the
area is developed and in permanent production. In dealing with these landowners
the government does not intend to follow another policy than that of ensuring
favourable and humanitarian conditions for the working class – day laborers,
arrendatarios, and peons – and of preventing the continuance of certain feudal
forms in the labour contracts and in the relationship between the owners of the land
and the workers. (…) If the agricultural proprietors …find it advantageous to be
governed merely by the law of supply and demand in the labour market, being free

to employ cheap hands and dismiss the more costly ones, they must accept the
consequences…The miserable, uprooted, wandering masses who go about from
one place to another in search of work, without finding it amid favourable
conditions, will always be disposed to listen to the voices of the agitators who play
upon their instinctive desires for usurpation and awaken them to the unjust contrast
between their economic situation and that of the landowners. The campesino seeks
stability, not revolution. He aspires to have a plot of ground of his own, where he
can rear a family without fear of returning to vagabondage and misery” (López’s
Address, in Lynn Smith, 1965: 85).

In the next section we will analyse some of the reasons that explain the
ultimate failure of this attempt of incorporating the lower classes into the oligarchic
economic, social and political system that prevailed in Colombia.

4. The Politics of Modernization

By the end of the 19th century, the French Ambassador to Colombia, Monsieur
Daloz, bitterly criticised the stagnation that prevailed all over the country.
Confronting the radical intellectual Anibal Galindo, he posed:

“But what defense do you allow, Señor Galindo, for the fact that in your eighty years of
national independence you have not been able to build a highway – not even a cart
road – eighteen leagues long connecting the highlands and the river port of Honda on
the Magdalena, and to the fact that you still make use of the same mule trail, though
much deteriorated …which the Spanish left you upon fleeing the country in 1819, in
spite of the fact that even the least of your revolutions consumed a hundred times what
construction of the highway would have cost?” (Henderson, 1985:49)

Galindo had no answer. Perhaps there was none for the level of
underdevelopment prevailing in the country that was, by the same time, cause and
consequence of the history of social and political unrest and violence we have
reviewed so far.

By the mid 1920s this situation was starting to change. With the opening of the
Panama Canal in 1914, the Antioqueño colonization area of coffee production
became effectively integrated into the world market. Cali, situated in between the
coffee areas and the port of Buenaventura in the Pacific, became a transportation
and commercial hub for the area. Exports through Buenaventura gained pace with
the construction of railroads.

“In 1931 the government’s priorities in transportation shifted from railways to highways.
In good part under the stimulus of coffee, rapid progress occurred. During the next
twenty years, Colombia constructed an annual average of 850 kilometres (531 miles)
of highway. By 1950, 21,000 kilometres (13,125 miles) of highway integrated the
country in a way that would have been unimaginable at the end of the nineteenth
century” (Safford and Palacios, 2002: 273).

In section two, we analysed how all this process of structural change was
funnelled by a massive influx of money from abroad. The Dance of the Millions
prompted thousands of people to leave their villages and move to the cities and
public work sites to take advantage of the comparatively high wages. In a note
published by the daily ‘El Tiempo’ on February of 1926, Cesareo Pardo, President
of the Sociedad de Agricultores de Colombia (Colombia’s Agriculturalists Society, a
landowners’ association) complained about the situation:

“The cause and the basis of this national economic crisis has its root exclusively in the
undertaking of multitudes of private and public enterprises throughout the republic,
sustained by copious national, departmental, and municipal loans (…) Oil exportations
that are intensified day to day, construction of the oil pipeline, multiplication of the
banana plantations, increase in the transport enterprises, advance of the railway,
highways, and roads to departments (…) construction of palaces, urban works and
buildings dedicated to housing, banking and commerce in many cities and towns, the
organization of large cattle ranches in the Intendency of Meta (…) And, inasmuch as
the firms backed by foreign capital and the official works can and do pay elevated
wages, Colombian agriculture cannot resist the competition for manpower, and for this

reason it has been left without even and indispensable minimum of workers ” (Quoted
by Ocquist, 1980: 93).

In the context of this accelerated development, a new class of workers sprang
up, and soon the new urban proletariat began to explore ways of increasing its
leverage within society. This situation of labour mobilization and unrest was
reinforced by the beginning of the industrialization process in Colombia.
As happened all over the world, the emergence of a modern proletariat was
accompanied by the attempt of its members to organize themselves, first on a
factory or workplace basis and for industrial purposes only, and later, on the
grounds of a progressively acquired class identity, and with the aim of giving this
class a political expression. The capitalists, with the backing of the State,
strongly opposed these attempts.
Some of the strikes in the emerging centres of capitalist development took
place by the same time that the rural areas of western Cundinamarca and eastern
Tolima were under severe unrest, a result of the agrarian conflicts analyzed in the
previous section. A state of agitation prevailed and the alarm was to continue well
into the next decade. “Labour [flexed] its muscles. The workers of the American
owned Tropical Oil Company went on strike in 1924, in 1926 and again in 1927. On
the last occasion the strike was forcibly suppressed”. (Dix, 1969: 80)
In a different region of the country, the union organization that, under the
influence of anarcho-syndicalist groups, had been created by the workers of the
United Fruit banana plantation began to struggle to improve their appalling work

“In October 1928 a union guided by the Revolutionary Socialist Party, a precursor
of the Communist Party, declared a strike, and 25,000 members stopped cutting
bananas. The movement was smashed two months later, in a series of massacres
of strikers, their family members, and people considered suspicious (…) On
December 5, 1928, some two thousand to four thousand strikers gathered at the
railway station of Cienaga, with the intention of marching to Santa Marta. The
government declared a State of Siege and imposed a curfew on the region. Troops

arrived in Cienaga with orders to disperse the workers. At 1:30 A.M. on December
6, the army commander read to the strikers the State of Siege decree and the
curfew order and ordered them to disperse in minutes. The strikers responded with
‘vivas’ for Colombia, the strike, and the Colombian army. The bloodbath that
followed came to be known as the ‘massacre of the banana plantations’” (Safford
and Palacios, 2002: 281).

The strike ended at the cost of tens of fatalities. It acquired universal
relevance when Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez, a native of a small
town in the banana zone, turned the episode into a massacre of apocalyptic
dimensions in his masterful One Hundred Years of Solitude.
In 1929, Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, the popular leader of the Liberal Party whose
assassination in 1948 rang the bell for open civil war, visited the zone and gave
extensive reports in Congress on the Masacre de las Bananeras. When these
events became known, the country was disturbed, the government party split, and
the president lost still more prestige. This, undoubtedly, contributed to erode the
legitimacy of the conservative hegemony, and prompted its break-down in 1930.
Of course, it was not only Gaitán who recognized the importance of the
workers as a source of political power. The liberals, back in power after 45 years of
conservative hegemony, saw in the organized workers a pillar of their power and
tried to make the unions what the Church was for the Conservatives. During the
Olaya Herrera administration, the timid legislation that had been adopted during
the 1920s and that up to that point remained mostly unapplied was broadened,
following more closely the Mexican labour system of 1931.
When López Pumarejo came into power in 1934, the organized workers
were a strong base of support for his ‘Revolution on the March’. In article 40 of the
Constitutional Reform of 1936, Labour was defined as ‘a social obligation and it
shall enjoy the special protection of the State’. Article 44 established that ‘the right
to strike is guaranteed except in the public services’. “A series of laws gave unions
firmer guarantees in the negotiation and enforcement of labour contracts, and
grated sick pay, paid vacations, and an eight-hour day. Under the twin umbrellas of

the Liberal Republic and of the new amendments to the constitution the
unionization of urban workers waxed as it never had before” (Dix, 1967: 87).
The other element worth emphasizing is that, once again, the pragmatic
spirit of López helped him to overcome the fear of entering in a tacit alliance with
the Socialists and Communists who had great ascendancy within the unions, and
among the rural and urban working classes.
The Constitutional Reform introduced by López as a central element of his
‘Revolucion en Marcha’ had the effect of polarizing the country between liberals
and conservatives. One of the most contentious issues was the transformation
introduced in the concept of property rights. The New Constitution defined property
rights as ‘a social function that implies obligations [for the owner]’. Among these
obligations was that of efficiently exploiting the property in accordance to its nature
and the needs of the society, from which it derived the possibility of expropriation
‘for reasons of social utility’. This was precisely the base for the enactment of the
Agrarian Reform Law 200 of 1936.
For the Conservatives, these changes had a clear ‘Socialistic’ or
‘Communistic’ flavour. And regardless of the mildness of the Land Reform, López’s
measures received bitter opposition from those sectors whose interests felt more
affected. Landowners and Industrialists coalesced in an opposition movement
under the banner of a ‘National Association of Patriotic Entrepreneurs’.
In a clear departure of the economic liberalism practiced by both traditional
parties, the Constitutional Reform accorded the State a new role in the economic
life of the country: It was to promote economic development and diversification,
and to protect the domestic industry and consumers.
In an attempt to broader the space of political participation, the literacy and
property qualifications in the voting for President and for the Chamber of
Representatives were removed.
In a more ideological front, the fact that for the first time in the history of the
Republic the Constitution did not recognize God as the ultimate source of authority,
and established the freedom of religious beliefs, was bitterly rejected by the
Conservative Party and the traditionalist sectors of the society.

“The Conservatives …were disenchanted with López. In a manifesto issued in
March 17, 1936 [they] accused the Liberals of embarking on constitutional reforms
which struck at the very foundations of Colombian institutions (…) The Church
hierarchy, led by the archbishop of Bogotá, felt equally endangered and issued a
protest on the same day and in a similar tone to that of the Conservative Party:
‘This declaration is not a menace nor an instigation to rebellion…but when the
moment comes to fight for justice, neither we nor our clergy, nor the faithful will
remain defenceless and passive’” (Dix, 1967: 92).

Some other aspects of State reform, especially those that sought to
strengthen its role in the economy and society are well beyond the purpose of this
work. Here it will suffice to point out how, although timid in purpose and limited in
efficacy, the reforms introduced by the Revolución en Marcha were bitterly
opposed not only by the Conservative Party and the Catholic Church, but also by
the more traditional sectors of the Liberal Party itself.
The election of moderate Eduardo Santos to the presidency in 1938 brought
the ‘revolution’ to a standstill. Once again, the Conservatives were called to
integrate the government, which sought to break the alliance developed by López
with the organized labour and intellectual reformists. This coming back of the old-
line liberals and their conservative allies implied that the governmental agenda
concentrated in the protection of the civil and political freedoms, as they were
enjoyed by a tiny minority of the population; that the Church recovered many of its
privileges and its role as part of the apparatus of social and political domination;
and, most important of all, that the elite rejected the idea of promoting a more
positive role for the State in the economic and social spheres.

As a conclusion

Taking a critical and structural approach as its departing point, this article
demonstrates how, during the first four decades of the twentieth century, Colombia

underwent a process of structural change characterised by five broad and
interconnected trends:

(1) The level of involvement of the national economy into the world
capitalist system became more extended, both in breadth and depth, as
the Republic of Coffee became the dominant feature of the country.
(2) As a consequence of the latter, wider sectors of the population were
increasingly incorporated into socio-economic relationships that were
either of a clear capitalistic nature or were strongly determined by this
process of ‘capitalist transformation’ that was taking place in the context
of an underdeveloped and dependent economy
(3) The wide encompassing changes that took place in the social and
economic spheres prompted the emergence of new sources of conflict
both within and between the different classes whose interests were
affected by the processes of industrialization, urbanization and
increasing national integration that characterised this period.
(4) The need to give direction to this process of socio-economic
development, as well as to maintain the social order in the context of a
weakening traditional system of domination, made it necessary to
centralize the power of the State and strengthen its ability to manage
the situation of unrest brought about by the many conflicts unleashed by
this accelerated, although uneven, process of change
(5) The political system had to be reformed in order to accommodate the
demands of the lower classes, both rural and urban, that were
beginning to organize and mobilize in the defence of their interests.

In a historical turn, political clientelism and ideological fanaticism prevented the
most radical wings of the two traditional parties from creating a common ground of
measures to peacefully deal with the strains brought about by the process of
growth and structural change that the country was undergoing. In this context, the
failure of the democratizing attempt represented in President López’s ‘Revolution

on the March’, was due to have a major impact in the situation of violence that has
characterised the Colombian society since the middle of the twentieth century.


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