Colombia’s history is rich and complex; what follows is a super-simple recap of the most important events that led to Colombia being what it is now.
Colombia’s history began long before anyone called the country Colombia, when indigenous groups began migrating from North to South America. The majority of people continued southward and founded the massive civilizations that we know internationally today, like the Inca in Machu Picchu. However, smaller groups stuck around and settled in the coastal and Andean regions.
Once colonists arrived in 1536 and began taking over the country on a never-ending search for gold (El Dorado is in Colombia) and began importing slaves at massive rates, things started getting a bit…bloodier. First the colonists bloodied the lands as they defeated the indigenous groups to take control. Then in the late 18th century when colonial unrest began, uprising against Spain began. It wasn’t until 1819 that independence was gained, in a final battle in Boyacá led by Simón Bolívar, the first president and the namesake to both a department and one of my schools. When the first government, which actually united Colombia, Panamá, Venezuela, and Ecuador into one massive state called Gran Colombia, was taking shape, there were two dissenting ideas: one centralist, one federalist.
The massive state was short-lived, soon breaking into Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia with Panamá as a province of the latter. The centralist and federalist groups grew, and they grew unhappily, forming political groups simply called Liberals and Conservatives. While it seems the fighting should have been over (independence! freedom!), it continued (my way is better than your way!). Between 1863 and 1885 there were over 50 antigovernment revolts, with a major civil war finally breaking out in 1899 as the result of a Liberal revolt. The war, known as the Thousand-Day War, left more than 100,000 dead and victory in the hands of the Conservative party. The United States saw the vulnerability of the state and swooped in on Panamá, starting their revolution for independence essentially so that the US could build the Canal under its control.
Colombia lived in peace for a few years…then in 1948 the Liberal leader was assassinated, and his people took up arms, starting what is known as La Violencia (The Violence). It was extra bloody, leaving 300,000 dead – one of the deadliest wars in the western Hemisphere. In 1953 there was a military coup, but the resulting dictatorship only lasted 4 years before the Liberals and Conservatives signed an agreement creating the National Front, in which they agreed to alternate power every 4 years, and abolished the existence of any other political party.
Around this same time, Cold War conflicts starting planting seeds in the outsiders’ minds, and leftist dissidents took to the rural regions to build their independent communities. Basically, communist civilizations were taking root. Back in the cities, rich people began fearing the breakdown of their capitalist civilization and began creating militias. With these new leftist ideologies prohibited from entering the standard political scene by the National Front, the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia or Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia) was created and took up arms against the government. Only it wasn’t just the government that they were left to fight, but also the capitalist militias. FARC was not the only group to enter the scene; there were dozens of leftist guerrilla groups taking up arms, but FARC, ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional or Army of National Freedom), and M-19 (Movimiento 19 de abril or Movement of April 19) are the best-known.
Initially these groups had support from the likes of Moscow and Havana, but as the global political landscape began shifting with the fall of communism, they soon had to look for other sources of income. One of their well-known sources of financing is kidnapping; they also got involved in robbery, extortion, and drug trade. Guerrillas primarily controlled the countryside, but they did so in a big way- up to 40%. In 2002 the USA and EU added the guerrillas to their lists of terrorist organizations.
Meanwhile, back in the cities, the drug trade was growing quickly. It is estimated that 80-90% of the world’s cocaine is produced in Colombia, and by the 1980’s, massive drug cartels were formed. The most well-known cartel leader was Pablo Escobar (please watch Netflix’s Narcos now). Early on, he built his smokescreen around a political career. He gave and gave to the poor to win their affection. He appeared powerful thanks to his connections with politicians and business leaders. Behind the scenes, however, he had started the ley de plata o plomo – the law of silver or lead. Most politicians took the bribes, but Escobar’s cartel was responsible for countless deaths thanks to this “law.” He was the richest criminal in history, at the height of his career making $60 million USD per day.
So you’ve got these drug cartels, who for a while were funding the capitalist paramilitary groups.
You’ve got these leftist guerrilla groups, who were fighting the capitlist paramilitary groups and the government itself.
The government finally started fighting the drug cartels after a presidential candidate was assassinated and the US government, thick in the War on Drugs, offered extradition to any criminals.
Things were really bloody again.
But then there was hope – the president who took office in 1990 banned extradition, and the cartel leaders surrendered. They were placed in high-security remote prisons, where they lived like kings thanks to their smuggling skills. That is, until people began to infiltrate and assassinate their members. During the government’s attempt to move Escobar and his people to a safer spot, Escobar escaped and lived on the run until he was found and killed in 1994.
While the cartel violence stopped in the mid-90’s, guerrilla warfare continued and resurged.
In 2002, super-conservative Álvaro Uribe took office largely on an anti-guerrilla platform; he was the first third-party president since the National Front. During his 8 years in office (thanks to a controversial constitutional amendment that allowed him a consecutive second term), murder rates went down 40%. His acknowledgement of the guerrilla groups as terrorists won him major US support in the form of lots of money, which helped in getting stuff done. However, his success rate is also a bit shady – there were numerous corpses dressed up posthumously in guerrilla gear, and he almost started a war with neighboring Venezuela during Chavez’s rule.
He was replaced in 2010 by Juan Manuel Santos, who ran by uniting Uribe supporters to create a new party. In 2012, Santos began peace talks with the heads of FARC and ELN (M-19 demobilized in 1990). After four years of negotiations, on August 24, 2016, a peace accord was signed. The deal enables the group to become an official political party, and creates a calendar for the demobilization of its members. This isn’t concrete yet, though: on October 2, 2016, the people of Colombia will vote in a referendum whether to accept or reject the deal. While peace is something everyone wants, there is some uncertainty as to whether this is the deal that the government should be accepting: it allows the guerrilla group members who ordered or committed monstruous crimes to pay reparations through community service rather than any jail time.
This history is not over.
Colombia is a big place with multiple geographical features, so the following is specific to Barranquilla. Being on the coast only 10 degrees from the equator equals hot & humid. There isn’t a ton of variation in the temperature – the average high is between 88-91 year round, and the low is between 74-76. Rather than summer/fall/winter/spring, the seasons are dry/rainy. April-June and August-November are the rainy seasons, during which the torrential downpours can cause flash-flooding due to poor drainage in the cities and towns.
It’s hard for me to make you understand just how hot it is. It does, occasionally, get hot like this back at home. But imagine that heat without an air conditioner. Forever. The sun feels like it is touching your skin. But what is sometimes even worse than the hot sun is the cloudy humid days. weatherspark.com explains it best:
Dew point is often a better measure of how comfortable a person will find the weather than relative humidity because it more directly relates to whether perspiration will evaporate from the skin, thereby cooling the body. Lower dew points feel drier and higher dew points feel more humid.
Over the course of a year, the dew point typically varies from 70°F (muggy) to 79°F (oppressive) and is rarely below 67°F (muggy) or above 81°F (very oppressive).
During the summer, I am jealous of my northern boyfriend when he’s sending me sunset pictures at 9:30pm and our sunset was over 3 hours prior. However, I enjoy that during the winter months I can rub in that it is still light at 6:00pm while the sun is setting in Minnesota at 4:30pm.
I wrote a blog post about this during Pre-Service Training, so you can read that here, but here is a quick overview:
Lunch is the biggest meal here. A typical lunch, which can be purchased at a local restaurant for $5-8mil COP (~$1-3 USD) consists of:
- Salad (lettuce with tomato and onion or a root vegetable/mayo mixture similar to potato salad)
- Rice (sometimes plain white, sometimes cooked with tiny little noodles, sometimes with carrots)
- Fried sliced plantains
- Lentils or beans (always sweet)
- A piece of beef, chicken, pork, or fish
- Agua de panela (basically sugar water)
Breakfast and dinner are often fried/fast foods. Some favorites include:
- Arepa de huevo – two cornmeal patties with an egg in between
- Carimañola – meat pie made with yuca
- Empanadas – pastries stuffed with meat or chicken
- Hot dogs – they are what they sound like, but are totally different than the US version in their big bun loaded up with toppings like lettuce, fried little potato strings, and sauces like tartar and pineapple
- Papas rellenas – seasoned meat surrounded by a layer of mashed potatoes, deep fried
- Salchipapas – French fries covered in hot dogs/sausage/sometimes other meats, lettuce, those fried little potato strings, and sauces like tartar and pineapple
Some more traditional plates include:
- Arroz de pollo – a rice cooked with chicken and various vegetables
- Fried fish with rice cooked in coconut milk and fried plantains
- Guandul soup – a delicious salty and sweet bean soup
- Sancocho soup – a soup prepared with meat, plantain, and pieces of yucca root
Here are some people you may have heard of who are Colombian:
- Sofia Vergara
- John Leguizamo
- Paulina Vega (2015 Miss Universe)
- Juan Pablo Montoya
- Gabriel García Márquez
- Fernando Botero
Other things you may have heard of that are popular in Colombia (based on internet searches):
- Music & dance – as mentioned above, Shakira and Juanes are both Colombian. The most popular styles of music where I live are vallenato and salsa.
- Carnaval – Colombians know how to party; Barranquilla’s Carnaval celebration is the second largest behind Río’s!
- Soccer – the men’s team made it to the quarter-finals in 2014. The women’s didn’t quite fare as well, unfortunately.
- Cycling – although Colombian cities are generally not welcoming to cyclists due to a lack of infrastructure and driver awareness, there are exceptions, and cycling as a sport is pretty popular. Bogotá was the first city to implement Ciclovía, or Open Streets.