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Colombia – Social and Political Background

Colombia is one of the most beautiful countries on the planet with a friendly people, a vibrant culture, a varied and in many places pleasant climate, an abundance of natural resources and a fertile soil providing some of the best coffee, fruit and produce in the world. In a striking contrast it is at the same time home to some of the gravest human rights abuses, social injustices, repression and violence against a civilan population ever caused by modern day imperialism, neo-colonialism, neo-liberalism1 and multinational corporations.

Colombia is located in the northwestern-most part of the South American continent and is bordering Panama, Educador, Peru, Brasil and Venezuela. The country has both a Carribean coast to the north and a Pacific coast to the west, is intersected by the Andean mountain range and completed with the Amazonian rainforest in the south-east.

The country has a diverse population of 41 million people made up of decendants of the Spanish colonisers, people of African origins who are decendants of the slaves brought to the country, immigrants and some 700.000 indigenous people who represent over 85 distinct cultures. As a result of the current political situation there are over 3.5 million internally displaced persons in Colombia, the highest number of any country in the western hemisphere and the second highest in the world, after Sudan.

Colombia endures a 40 year, protracted civil conflict between leftist armed insurgents and national oligarchies controlling the state apparatus. At its root is the historic failure of comprehensive land reform perpetuating deep social inequalities and the violent exclusion of popular demands from the mainstream political system (Hylton 2003:52).

Colombian democracy is characterized by a bipartisan struggle between the liberal and conservative parties representing factionalized elite interests. It exemplifies the notion of polyarchy coined by Dahl (1971) and advanced by Robinson (1996). “Polyarchy refers to a system in which a small group actually rules and mass participation in decision making is confined to a leadership choice between competing elites” (Robinson 1996:49). Unlike Robinson’s concept however, the exclusion of mass participation is not made possible by consent, but through violence.

Over the last 20 years, and particularly during the last 4 years, elites representing agrobusiness and favouring transnational over national capital have gained pre-eminence in the political system (Hylton 2003, Higginbottom 2005). These groups, aligned to the US and multinational business interests, have pushed through successive reforms including the deregulation of investment controls, labour rights and environmental protections, reduced social spending and comprehensive privatisation (those measures associated with/referred to as neoliberal globalisation).

Several European multinationals are participating in this process. British oil and mining companies such as BP, French service companies, Spanish banks and telecoms giants, German manufacturers, Swiss and Italian food conglomerates are all making huge profits from the exploitation of Latin America’s human and natural resources including Colombia’s oil, gold, emeralds, coffee, sugar and cheap labour.

Following the re-election in May 2006 of president Alvaro Uribe by 27.6% of the electorate, a re-election made possible by a constitutional amendment without popular referendum, the process to further the interests of the Colombian elite and the US is continuing through the negotiation between the two of Free Trade Agreements together with a package of new legislation that is set to be introduced hand-in-hand with the FTAs.

Whilst inequality and conflict in Colombia have a long historical base, both have been aggravated by the neoliberal project (Escobar 2004a; 2004b). According to the UN, in 1995, 60 percent of the population were living below the poverty line, by 2001 this had risen to 67 percent. During the same period inequality also increased with Colombia falling two points on the worldwide Gini coefficient standard (UN 2004). In 2001 the richest 10 percent of the population earned 60 times more than the poorest 10 per cent (Atherton 2002).

Increased social stratification and conflict pose a threat to US and Colombian elite interests and have required increased military spending to maintain social order. According to the Colombian Embassy in Washington “there are now 60% more combat soldiers ready to fight than four years ago, 10,000 new police officers and up to 100,000 paid civilian informants”. The Government has committed to increasing defense expenditures from the current level of 3.6% of GDP to 6% of GDP by 2006. These increases will help to fund the enlargement of security forces by 250,000 troops (150,000 military and 100,000 police) over the next four years” (Colombian Embassy in Washington 2004).

These increases have been made possible by Plan Colombia, a $1.3bn US military aid package which makes Colombia the third highest recipient of US military aid in the World (CIP, 2000). Plan Colombia’s core stated objective is drug eradication though also involves the strengthening of the Colombian military to fight armed insurgents, termed “narco-terrorists” since 9/11. It is carried out on the ground by a combination of US and Colombian state military, paramilitary groups and private military contractors. The policy serves US interests by securing valuable natural resources and access to markets, whilst serving Colombian elite interests by providing the military capability to maintain a deeply unequal social order. In contrast to the stated objectives of Plan Colombia the United Nations World Drug Report 2006 shows an increase in cultivation of the coca bush in 2005 with levels at least twice as high as in the early nineties with few, if any, viable alternatives available for coca-producing campesinos.

Today Colombia remains the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist or social movement leader. In 2001 90% of all trade unionists killed worldwide were Colombian (Hylton 2003: 52). Since 1986, 4000 trade union leaders have been killed by paramilitary groups (CUT 2003, ICTUR 2003).

The paramilitary groups form part of a mafia-like criminal network in Colombia and are largely financed through drug-trafficing. They carry out massacres, killings, forced disappearances, displacements, kidnappings, torture and extortion and serve a useful purpose for the state and the multinational corporations in carrying out activities where responsibility can be officialy denied. The paramilitary groups are in fact institutionally linked to the state. Human Rights Watch reports “abundant, credible evidence of continued collaboration with and support for the paramilitary groups responsible for most human rights violations in Colombia” by the state’s security and armed forces.

In order to demonstrate a commitment to the rule of law, human rights and peace the the government passed law 975 in 2005 named the “Justice and Peace law” which offers reduced sentences for those paramilitaries who demobilise and hand in their weapons. The law has been opposed by Human Rights Watch, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission on human rights, as well as the Colombia Solidarity Campaign, for being inconsistent with international standards on truth, justice, and reparation, and because, according to Human Rights watch, it is “unlikely to further the dismantlement of paramilitaries’ powerful criminal networks”.

Colombia’s Consitutional Court made a ruling in May 2006 that seeks to correct major flaws in the law but there is currently no adequate process to ensure that the obligations of the law are met and it remains to be seen how the government will comply with the ruling of the Constitutional Court.

Working against these numerous and strong forces are indigenous groups, workers unions, students, afro-american groups and campesinos in Colombia who are organising for social justice and human rights despite of the severe and often lethal climate of repression – groups who deserve our solidarity.


1. The term “neo-liberalism” is used in this article to describe a political-economic philosophy for maximising profits by moving away from state control or protection of the economy and related protection of labour rights, the environment and social justice and towards an unregulated “free” market, in effect under corporate control, favouring the exploitation of global cheap labour, raw material and markets through the use of diplomacy, economic pressure and, for some neoliberals, military might.


Atherton, Liz, US Imperialism in Colombia Colombia Peace Association (CIP),
November, 2002.

CIP – Center For International Policy

Colombian Embassy in Washington

Escobar, Arturo, ‘Beyond the third world: Imperial Gobality, Global Coloniality, and Anti-globaliztion Social Movements’,
Third World Quarterly, 25(1), pp. 207-230, 2004.

Escobar, Arturo, ‘Development, Violence and the New Imperial Order’,
Development 47(1), pp. 15-21, 2004.

Higginbottom, Andy, ‘Globalisation, Violence and the Neoconservative Project in Colombia’,
Paper to Latin America at the Crossroads?, 2005.

Hylton, Forest, ‘An Evil Hour, Uribe’s Colombia in Historical Perspective’,
New Left Review, 23, pp. 51-93, Sept/Oct, 2003.

Robinson, William, ‘Promoting Polyarchy: Globlaization US Intervention and Hegemony’,
Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Stokes, Doug, ‘Terrorizing Colombia’,
Zed Books, 2005.

Human Rights Watch, ‘Colombia?s Killer Networks: The Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States’,
New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996

Human Rights Watch, ‘The ?Sixth Division?: Military-paramilitary ties and U.S. policy in Colombia’,
New York: Human Rights Watch, 2001

Human Rights Watch, ‘Human Rights Overview – Colombia’, December 2005,

Human Rights Watch, ‘Colombia: Court?s Demobilization Ruling Thwarts Future Abuses’,
Human Rights News, Washington, July 2006

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, ‘World Drug Report 2006’

United Nations Commission on Human Rights, ‘Chairperson’s statement – Situation of human rights in Colombia’, May 2005

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