U.S. Department of State Background Note
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Colombia is the third-most populous country in Latin America, after Brazil and Mexico. Thirty cities have a population of 100,000 or more. The nine eastern lowlands departments, constituting about 54% of Colombia's area, have less than 3% of the population and a density of less than one person per square kilometer (two persons per sq. mi.). Ethnic diversity in Colombia is a result of the intermingling of indigenous peoples, Europeans and Africans. Today, only about 1% of the people can be identified as fully indigenous on the basis of language and customs.
HISTORY AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
During the pre-Columbian period, the area now known as Colombia was inhabited by indigenous societies situated at different stages of socio-economic development, ranging from hunters and nomadic farmers to the highly structured Chibchas, who are considered to be one of the most developed indigenous groups in South America.
Santa Marta was the first permanent Spanish settlement founded in 1525. Santa Fe de Bogota was founded in 1538 and, in 1717, became the capital of the Viceroyalty of New Granada, which included what are now Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. Bogota was one of three principal administrative centers of the Spanish possessions in the New World.
On July 20, 1810, the citizens of Bogota created the first representative council to defy Spanish authority. Full independence was proclaimed in 1813, and in 1819 the Republic of Greater Colombia was formed to include all the territory of the former Viceroyalty (Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama). Simon Bolivar was elected its first president with Francisco de Paula Santander as vice president. Conflicts between followers of Bolivar and Santander led to the formation of two political parties that have since dominated Colombian politics. Bolivar's supporters, who later formed the nucleus of the Conservative Party, sought 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 control over education and other civil matters, and a broader suffrage.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, each party held the presidency for roughly equal periods of time. Colombia maintained a tradition of civilian government and regular, free, elections. Notwithstanding the country's commitment to democratic institutions, Colombia's history also has been characterized by widespread, violent conflict. Two civil wars resulted from bitter rivalry between the Conservative and Liberal parties: The War of a Thousand Days (1899-1903) claimed an estimated 100,000 lives and La Violencia (the Violence) (1946-1957) claimed about 300,000 lives.
La Violencia (The Violence) and the National Front
In July 1957, an alliance between former Conservative President Laureano Gomez (1950-53) and former Liberal President Alberto Lleras Camargo (1945-46) led to the creation of the National Front. It established a power-sharing agreement between the two parties and brought an end to "La Violencia." The presidency would be determined by regular elections every 4 years and the two parties would have parity in all other elective and appointive offices. This system was phased out by 1978.
Post-National Front Years
A new constitution in 1991 brought about major reforms to Colombia's political institutions. While the new constitution preserved a presidential, three-branch system of government, it created new institutions such as the Inspector General, a Human Rights Ombudsman, a Constitutional Court and a Superior Judicial Council. The new constitution also reestablished the position of Vice President. Other significant constitutional reforms provide for civil divorce, dual nationality and the establishment of a legal mechanism ("tutela") that allows individuals to appeal government decisions affecting their constitutional rights. The constitution also authorized the introduction of an accusatory system of criminal justice that is gradually being instituted throughout the country, replacing the previous written inquisitorial system. A constitutional amendment approved in 2005 allows the president to hold office for two consecutive 4-year terms.
Colombian governments have had to contend with the combined terrorist activities of left-wing guerrillas, the rise of paramilitary self-defense forces in the 1990s and the drug cartels. Narco-terrorists assassinated three presidential candidates during the election campaign of 1990. After Colombian security forces killed Medellin cartel leader Pablo Escobar in December 1993, indiscriminate acts of violence associated with his organization abated as the "cartels" were broken into multiple and smaller trafficking organizations that competed against each other in the drug trade. Guerrillas and paramilitary groups also entered into drug trafficking as a way to finance their military operations.
In November 1998, Pastrana ceded a sparsely populated area the size of Switzerland in south-central Colombia to the FARC's control to serve as a neutral zone where peace negotiations could take place. The FARC negotiated with the government only fitfully while continuing to mount attacks and expand coca production, seriously undermining the government's efforts to reach an agreement. Negotiations with the rebels in 2000 and 2001 were marred by rebel attacks, kidnappings and fighting between rebels and paramilitaries for control of coca-growing areas in Colombia. In February 2002, after the FARC hijacked a commercial aircraft and kidnapped a senator, Pastrana ordered the military to attack rebel positions and reassert control over the neutral zone. FARC withdrew into the jungle and increased attacks against Colombia's infrastructure, while avoiding large-scale direct conflicts with the military.
In December 2003, the Colombian Self-Defense Forces (AUC) paramilitary group entered into a peace agreement with the government that has led to the collective demobilization of over 31,000 AUC members. In addition, over 10,000 members of the AUC and other illegal armed groups have individually surrendered their arms. In July 2005, President Uribe signed the Justice and Peace Law, which provides reduced punishments for the demobilized if they renounce violence and return illegal assets, which are to provide reparations to victims.
The ELN and the government began a round of talks with the Colombian Government mediated by the Mexican Government in mid-2004. The ELN withdrew from the talks after the Mexican Government voted to condemn Cuba's human rights record at the United Nations in April 2005. In December 2005, the ELN began a new round of talks with the Colombian Government in Cuba that led to two more meetings, the latest one being held in July 2007. The dialogue is expected to continue.
As a result of the government's military and police operations, the strength of the FARC has been reduced in major areas. Since 2000, the FARC has not carried out large scale multi-front attacks, although it has mounted some operations that indicate it has not yet been broken. The FARC has rejected several government proposals aimed at bringing about an exchange of some 45 hostages. Three American citizens, who were working on counternarcotics programs, were captured by the FARC in February 2003. Their safe return is a priority goal of the United States and Colombia.
Colombia maintains an excellent extradition relationship with the United States. The Uribe administration has extradited more than 500 fugitives to the United States. Among those extradited in 2005 were Cali Cartel leaders Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela and his brother Miguel, and FARC leaders Juvenal Ovidio Palmera Pineda (aka "Simon Trinidad") and Omaira Rojas Cabrera (aka "Sonia").
In 2004, the Uribe government established, for the first time in recent Colombian history, a government presence in all of the country's 1,099 municipalities (county seats). Attacks conducted by illegally armed groups against rural towns decreased by 91% from 2002 to 2005. Between 2002 and 2006, Colombia saw a decrease in homicides by 37%, kidnappings by 78%, terrorist attacks by 63%, and attacks on the country's infrastructure by 60%.
Although much attention has been focused on the security aspects of Colombia's situation, the Uribe government also is making significant efforts on issues such as expanding international trade, supporting alternate means of development, and reforming Colombia's judicial system.
President Uribe was reelected with 62% of the vote in May 2006. In congressional elections in March 2006, the three leading pro-Uribe parties (National Unity, Conservative Party, and Radical Change) won clear majorities in both houses of Congress. In late 2006, the Supreme Court began investigations and ordered the arrest of some members of Congress for actions on behalf of paramilitary groups.
In January 2007, Colombian leaders presented a new strategy to consolidate and build on progress under Plan Colombia, called the "Strategy to Strengthen Democracy and Social Development." The new strategy continues successful Plan Colombia programs while increasing state presence by improving access to social services, and supporting economic development through sustainable growth and trade.
Colombia's Ministry of Defense is charged with the country's internal and external defense and security, and exercises jurisdiction over an army, navy--including marines and coast guard--air force, and national police under the leadership of a civilian Minister of Defense. Real spending on defense has increased every year since 2000, but especially so under President Uribe. Colombian spending on defense grew over 30% after inflation from 2001 to 2005, from $2.6 billion to more than 3.9 billion. Projected defense spending for 2006 was $4.48 billion. The security forces number about 350,000 uniformed personnel: 190,000 military and 160,000 police. President Uribe instituted a wealth tax in 2002, which raised over $800 million, with 70% used to increase 2002-2003 defense spending. A similar tax to be imposed from 2007-2011 is expected to raise up to $3.6 billion.
Many Colombian military personnel receive training in the United States or from U.S. instructors in Colombia. The United States provides equipment to the Colombian military and police through the military assistance program, foreign military sales and the international narcotics control program.
Narcotics and Terrorism
The Colombian Government is committed to the eradication of all illicit crops, interdiction of illegal drug shipments and financial controls to prevent money laundering. Between 2004 and 2006, Colombian security forces interdicted 562 metric tons of cocaine, coca base, and heroin. Coca cultivation decreased by 15% from 2001 to 2005, while opium poppy cultivation decreased by 68% from 2001 to 2004.
Terrorist groups in Colombia are actively engaged in narcotics production and trafficking. The FARC is believed responsible for more than half of the cocaine entering the United States.
Colombia is a free market economy with major commercial and investment ties to the United States. Transition from a highly regulated economy has been underway for more than 15 years. In 1990, the administration of President Cesar Gaviria (1990-94) initiated economic liberalization or "apertura," with tariff reductions, financial deregulation, privatization of state-owned enterprises and adoption of a more liberal foreign exchange rate. These policies eased import restrictions and opened most sectors to foreign investment, although agricultural products remained protected.
Unlike many of its neighboring countries, Colombia has not suffered any dramatic economic collapses. The Uribe administration seeks to maintain prudent fiscal policies and has pursued tough economic reforms including tax, pension and budget reforms. A U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) study shows that Colombian tax rates (both personal and corporate) are among the highest in Latin America. The unemployment rate in December 2006 was 11.4%, down from 15.1% in December 2002.
The sustained growth of the Colombian economy can be attributed to an increase in domestic security, the policies of keeping inflation low and maintaining a stable currency (the Colombian peso), petroleum price increases and an increase in exports to neighboring countries and the United States as a result of trade liberalization. The Andean Trade Preference and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), which has been extended through February 2008, also plays a pivotal role in Colombia's economic growth. Signing a free trade agreement in November 2006 portends further opportunity for growth once it is approved by the legislatures of both countries and implemented.
Industry and Agriculture
Colombia's diverse climate and topography permit the cultivation of a wide variety of crops. In addition, all regions yield forest products, ranging from tropical hardwoods in the lowlands, to pine and eucalyptus in the colder areas. Cacao, sugarcane, 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, flowers, corn and other vegetables, 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.
Colombia has improved protection of intellectual property rights through the adoption of three Andean Pact decisions in 1993 and 1994 as well as an internal decree on data protection. The United States remains concerned over deficiencies in licensing and copyright protection.
Mining and Energy
Colombia is presently the 16th-greatest coal producing country, accounting for about 1% of the world's total annual coal production, and the largest producer in Latin America (65.8 million tons in 2006). Colombia has proven recoverable coal reserves of about 7.4 billion short tons, the majority of which are located in the north of the country. Ferronickel production decreased from 116 million pounds in 2005 to 112.7 million pounds in 2006. Colombia historically has been the world's leading producer of emeralds, although production has fallen in recent years. Emerald production fell from 116.3 million carats in 2005 to 112.7 million carats in 2006. Colombia is also a significant producer of gold, silver, and platinum.
In 1969, Colombia, along with Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru, formed what is now the Andean Community. (Venezuela joined in 1973 and announced its departure in 2005; Chile left in 1976 and returned in 2006.) In the 1980s, Colombia broadened its bilateral and multilateral relations, joining the Contadora Group, the Group of Eight (now the Rio Group) and the Non-Aligned Movement, which it chaired from 1994 until September 1998. In addition, it has signed free trade agreements with Chile, Mexico and Venezuela. The U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement was signed by President Bush in November 2006, and is awaiting congressional approval as of September 2007.
Colombia has traditionally played an active role in the United Nations and the Organization of American States and in their subsidiary agencies. Former President Gaviria became Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) in September 1994 and was re-elected in 1999. Colombia has participated in all five Summits of the Americas, most recently in November 2005, and followed up on initiatives developed at the first two summits by hosting two post-summit, ministerial-level meetings on trade and science and technology. In March 2006, Bogota hosted the Sixth Regular Session of the Inter-American Committee against Terrorism.
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 25,000 U.S. citizens are registered with the U.S. Embassy as living in Colombia, most of them dual nationals.
Currently, there are about 250 American businesses conducting operations in Colombia. In 1995-96, the United States and Colombia signed important agreements on environmental protection and civil aviation. The two countries have signed agreements on asset sharing and chemical control. In 1997, the United States and Colombia signed an important maritime ship-boarding agreement to allow for search of suspected drug-running vessels.
During the Pastrana administration, relations with the United States improved significantly. The United States responded to the Colombian Government's request for international support for Plan Colombia by providing substantial assistance designed to increase Colombia's counter-narcotics capabilities and support human rights, humanitarian assistance, alternative development and economic and judicial reforms.
The U.S. has continued close cooperation with Colombia under the Uribe administration. Recognizing that terrorism and the illicit narcotics trade in Colombia are inextricably linked, the U.S. Congress granted new expanded statutory authorities in 2002 making U.S. assistance to Colombia more flexible in order to better support President Uribe's unified campaign against narcotics and terrorism.
The results thus far have been impressive, but much remains to be done. U.S. policy toward Colombia supports the Colombian Government's efforts to strengthen its democratic institutions, promote respect for human rights and the rule of law, intensify counter-narcotics efforts, foster socioeconomic development, address immediate humanitarian needs, and end the threats to democracy posed by narcotics trafficking and terrorism. Promoting security, stability, and prosperity in Colombia will continue as long-term American interests in the region.
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
U.S. Consular Agency in Baranquilla
Other Contact Information
U.S. Department of Commerce, Trade Information Center, International Trade Administration
Colombian-American Chamber of Commerce
TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION
For the latest security information, Americans living and traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs Internet web site at http://www.travel.state.gov, where the current Worldwide Caution, Public Announcements, and Travel Warnings can be found. Consular Affairs Publications, which contain information on obtaining passports and planning a safe trip abroad, are also available at http://www.travel.state.gov. For additional information on international travel, see http://www.usa.gov/Citizen/Topics/Travel/International.shtml.
The Department of State encourages all U.S citizens traveling or residing abroad to register via the State Department's travel registration website or at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate abroad. Registration will make your presence and whereabouts known in case it is necessary to contact you in an emergency and will enable you to receive up-to-date information on security conditions.
Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll free in the U.S. and Canada or the regular toll line 1-202-501-4444 for callers outside the U.S. and Canada.
The National Passport Information Center (NPIC) is the U.S. Department of State's single, centralized public contact center for U.S. passport information. Telephone: 1-877-4USA-PPT (1-877-487-2778). Customer service representatives and operators for TDD/TTY are available Monday-Friday, 7:00 a.m. to 12:00 midnight, Eastern Time, excluding federal holidays.
Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at 877-FYI-TRIP (877-394-8747) and a web site at http://www.cdc.gov/travel/index.htm give the most recent health advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking water safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled "Health Information for International Travel" (HHS publication number CDC-95-8280) is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.
Further Electronic Information
Export.gov provides a portal to all export-related assistance and market information offered by the federal government and provides trade leads, free export counseling, help with the export process, and more.STAT-USA/Internet, a service of the U.S. Department of Commerce, provides authoritative economic, business, and international trade information from the Federal government. The site includes current and historical trade-related releases, international market research, trade opportunities, and country analysis and provides access to the National Trade Data Bank.
Revised: Sep. 2007