By Subodh Jain:
An explorer, colonizer, and navigator, born in the Republic of Genoa, in what is today northwestern Italy, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and initiated what came to be known as the “New World“. Little did this man, Christopher Columbus, know that a constitutional republic, officially known as the Republic of Colombia will be named after him!
Republic of Colombia, more popularly known as “Colombia“, recently commemorated its 202nd year of independence, attained on July 20th, 1810. “202“! Yes, that’s a big number; but the question to be pondered over is whether Colombia is truly independent or not.
Colombia is a democratically-elected representative government with a strong executive. The deep political divisions shaping Colombia’s modern development have strong historical roots, emerging shortly after independence from Spain. It was shaped by the rivalry between the conservative right and the free-thinking left in the 19th and early 20th century. However, over time, Colombia was plagued by political instability. In the 19th and 20th century a political volley existed between the elite members of the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party, who competed and cooperated with each other. However, the political violence that followed resulted in one of the most notorious periods, the War of a Thousand Days (1899-1902) and La Violencia (1948-66). The turbulent political history of Colombia is riddled with civil wars, which not only uprooted the government functions but also adversely affected the peasants and urban masses.
Colombia has suffered from an internal armed conflict for over forty years. The “democratic security policy” adopted by the current Colombian Government to bring greater stability and security to the country has, however, yielded some success. But Colombia still has a long way to go to in solving its problems. By April 2006 over 30,000 paramilitaries had demobilized. This process is being monitored by representatives of the Organization of American States (OAS).
During the 1990s, Colombia led the world in kidnapping rates, and was almost as high in murder rates, particularly in its cities. Colombia largely suffers from the problems of drug trafficking, violence and crime. Elements of all the armed groups have been involved in drug-trafficking. In a country where the presence of the state has always been weak, the result has been a grinding war on multiple fronts, with the civilian population caught in the crossfire and often deliberately targeted for “collaborating“. Human rights advocates blame paramilitaries for massacres, “disappearances“, and cases of torture and forced displacement. Rebel groups are behind assassinations, kidnapping and extortion.
Colombia has evolved as a highly segregated society, split between the traditionally rich families of Spanish descent and the vast majority of poor Colombians, many of whom are of mixed race. The Colombian government’s response to crisis has been criticized as being deficient. While over 90 percent of Colombians over the age of 15 can read and write, education in the rural provinces is often inadequate, with poorly qualified and underpaid teachers offering only the basics of primary school education, with no vocational or higher education opportunities.
Current issues include deforestation resulting from lumber exploitation in the jungles of the Amazon and other regions; illicit drug crops grown by peasants in the national parks; soil erosion; soil and water quality damage from contamination by the use of chemicals in the coca-refining process, spillage of crude oil into the local rivers as a result of guerrilla sabotage of pipelines, and overuse of pesticides; air pollution from vehicle emissions; and preservation of wildlife. However, in the last few years, Colombia’s GDP growth has been constant, unemployment has not risen and rates of poverty, including rates of extreme poverty, have dropped several percentage points–all of which has attracted increasing national and international investments.
Life in Colombia is difficult, not only because of political turmoil but also because walking out of the house can cost one, one’s life. 202nd year of independence, but clearly the Republic of Colombia still has a long way to go before Colombians can truly understand the meaning of “independence“.