Colombia - A Country Overview

Information on Colombia; its place geographically, history, government, climate, security, tourism and foreigners living in Colombia...

Geography

Located on the far northwest side of South America, Colombia is bordered by Brazil and Venezuela to the east, Peru and Ecuador to the south and the Central American country of Panama to the northwest. It has a northern coastline situated on the Caribbean Sea and a western coastline on the Pacific Ocean.

Colombia's terrain is very diverse with the extreme north of the Andean mountain range, tropical grasslands and a part of the Amazon rainforest all situated within the country. It is one of the world's 17 recognised megadiverse countries due to its extreme range of biodiversity.

It has a landmass of just over 440,000 square miles (1.141 million square kilometres) making it the 26th largest country in the world.

The Colombian mainland is divided into five official regions.

  • Amazon region: To the south of the country, borders Brazil and Peru
  • Orinoco region: To the east of the country, borders Venezuela
  • Caribbean region: North of the country, borders Panama and the Atlantic ocean
  • Pacific region: To the west of the country, borders the Pacific Ocean and Ecuador
  • The Andean region: This is the centre of the country, where the Andes mountain chain crosses Colombia. The country's capital Bogotá is situated here and it borders Ecuador

In addition to its mainland, Colombia also administers the archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia y Santa Catalina in the Caribbean Sea.

History

Its location on the corridor between the Andes and the Caribbean made the area known today as Colombia an attractive place to settle. As such the country was inhabited by numerous indigenous tribes and remains have been discovered dating back to 14,000 years BC at the Pubenza and Totuma sites.

After 11 years of tentative exploration of the area, Spanish explorers founded the first permanent settlement on the continent, Santa María de Antigua del Darién, in 1510. By 1538 they had established control over a large portion of the region (including modern-day Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama), which they called New Kingdom of Granada and had established a capital city at Santa Fe de Bogotá. In 1542 this area, along with all other Spanish territories in South America, became part of the larger Viceroyalty of Peru which was administered from Lima.

Over time the numbers of indigenous people in the area began to decline due to European diseases. The Spanish crown repopulated the area with colonials from Spain and slaves from Africa.

In 1717 the Viceroyalty of New Granada was created out of the Viceroyalty of Peru, for which Santa Fe de Bogotá was the capital. It became one of the principle administrative centres in the region along with Mexico City and Lima.

Independence

A 14 year struggle from 1810-1824 seeking outright independence from Spain saw Venezuelan-born Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Paula Santander eventually proclaim a Republic in 1819 and pro-Spanish resistance was finally defeated by 1824. The area became known as the Republic of Colombia with Simón Bolívar as its president and Francisco de Paula Santander the vice-president.

Politics and territorial divisions led to Venezuela and Ecuador seceding in 1830, while the modern day liberal and conservative parties were formed in 1848 and 1849. Slavery was abolished in Colombia in 1851.

The second half of the 19th century was characterised by constitutional changes and political violence culminating in the Thousand Days' War (Guerra de los Mil Días) between 1899 and 1902.

In 1903 Colombia lost its influence in the Panama region after it refused to lease the Canal Zone to the US. Panama declared its independence soon after.

Political tensions escalated again at the end of the 1940s after the assassination of a Liberal presidential candidate. A civil war known as La Violencia comprising paramilitary political forces spread across the country killing an estimated 200,000 people. In 1953 Gustavo Rojas seized power and cooled tensions by negotiating with the armed bandoleros.

Civilian rule was re-established in 1964 under a National Front power sharing scheme between the Liberals and the Conservatives whereby power would be exchanged every four years. Politically motivated guerrilla groups began to formally appear and plunge the country into violence and instability once again, continuing into the 1990s. Since then the former Presidents Uribe and Pastrana have overseen a decrease in violence and the numbers of guerrilla organisations.

Politics and Government

The modern Colombian constitution was established in 1991. It is a presidential democracy divided into three branches.

  1. Executive: Headed by the President in his dual role as head of state and head of government, the branch further consists of the Vice-President and a council of ministers. The presidential elections are held every four years with a maximum of two terms in office. Regional power is subordinated to provincial governors, mayors and administrators.
  2. Legislative: Legislation is passed by Congress, made up of a lower-house 166 seat Chamber of Representatives (Cámara de Representantes) and an upper-house 102 seat Senate (Senado de la República de Colombia). A popular vote is required to elect members to both houses two months before the presidential elections.
  3. Judicial: Headed by the Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia de Colombia) and including the Council of State, Superior Council of Judicature and Constitutional Court of Colombia. Colombia uses an adversarial civil law system.

Economy

Colombia has the third largest economy in South America and is part of the CIVETS group of emerging markets. Historically based on agriculture, the country's economy has developed rapidly in recent decades, and now benefits from a wide range of industries including food and agricultural products, textiles, machinery, automotive, electronics, oil, mining, financial services, IT services and military hardware in recent times.

The Zona Franca del Pacifico free trade zone has contributed to economic growth and foreign investment. Colombia's main trading partners are the EU, the USA, China and India.

It is estimated that Colombia's GDP is ranked among the top 30 nations in the world in regards to size. Despite that, the Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadística reported in 2013 that an estimated 30 percent of the population were living below the poverty line and the GDP per capita stands at around US$11,600.

The unit of currency in Colombia is the Peso.

Climate

Colombia is characterised by five climatic regions.

  1. Tropical mountain - Varying climatic conditions depending on the height. Found in the Andes mountains.
  2. Tropical rainforest - Hot with high humidity and heavy rainfall. Found in the jungles surrounding the Amazon and Magdelena river basins.
  3. Tropical savannah - Rainy season and a dry season with temperatures in the mid-20s. Found in the Llanos and Caribbean plains.
  4. Steppe - Little rainfall with a climate similar to a desert for five months of the year. Found on the Plains of Bolívar and in some areas of the Andes.
  5. Tropical desert - High temperatures and little rainfall. Found in the Guajira and Tatacoa deserts.

Security

Although in recent years there has been less activity, Colombia has a history of political unrest and violence. There is an ongoing terrorist and kidnapping threat in some areas of the country and in the cities.

Crime rates are higher in cities and while instances of kidnappings and violent crime have decreased, caution should be exercised.

Colombia also has a degree of seismic activity with some areas more vulnerable to earthquakes.

Immigration

Immigration into Colombia has traditionally been lower than into other South and Central American countries due to political unrest and harsh immigration laws. However, recent years have seen an increase in people moving to the country from all over the world. Immigration is managed by Migración Colombia.

According to the 2005 census the largest number of migrants to Colombia came from neighbouring Venezuela. The second largest expat population, with approximately 15,000 nationals is the United States, while several other South and Central American countries have nationals living in the country.

Tourism

Tourism in Colombia is an industry on the rise and is fast becoming an important sector in the country's growing economy. In 2011, Colombia received three million foreign tourists.

As well as historical tourism to places such as Cartagena and Bogotá, visitors travel to see traditional festivals and fairs such as the Bogotá Summer Festival (Festival de Verano de Bogotá) and the annual carnival (Carnaval de Bogotá).

Eco-tourists are attracted by the wide range of flora and fauna in the national parks across the country as well as the unspoilt coastlines, mountains, volcanoes, rainforests and animal life. Colombia has seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Further Information