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Colombia - SOCIETY

Colombia - The Society and Its Environment

COLOMBIA IS THE FIFTH LARGEST country in Latin America and has the third largest population (28 million) in the region. Unlike most of its Andean neighbors, Colombia is a nation of cities; almost 70 percent of the people lived in urban areas in the late 1980s. In addition to Bogotá, the capital, which had an estimated population of 5 million in 1988, three other cities had populations of 1 million or more: Cali, Medellín, and Barranquilla. Fourteen other urban centers had populations of between 100,000 and 500,000. More than 100 cities had 10,000 or more inhabitants.

Three-fifths of the country was sparsely populated tropical lowlands and jungle. Ninety-eight percent of the population was concentrated in the interior two-fifths of the national territory-- mainly in the narrow valleys and intermontane basins formed by the three ranges of the Andes Mountains that divide the country from north to south. The dominant language was Spanish, and the vast majority of the people were (at least nominally) Roman Catholic. Seventy percent of the population was of mixed blood; Caucasians, Indians, and blacks accounted for the rest. The country's economic and political elite remained predominantly white, however.

Over the past nearly 500 years, Colombian society has been highly stratified, with a castelike elite, correlation between skin color and class membership, and limited vertical mobility. Modern social structure was the offspring of a colonial society that was rigidly segregated into two groups: the white elite of educated, cultured, rich, and politically powerful persons and the mass of proletarians and peasants. A small middle group, composed of merchants and minor officials, actually belonged with the lower class in terms of powerlessness.

Independence did little to change this configuration, and prestige continued to be determined by birth and landownership. The postindependence period did not encourage a revolutionary change in the stratification system but instead reinforced the status quo. The continuing political anarchy, the difficulty of economic development because of ineffective use of capital and resources, and the lack of an urban labor movement inhibited change throughout the nineteenth century and discouraged the growth of an independent, viable middle class.

The rugged terrain and inadequate transportation system reinforced social and geographic distance, keeping the numerically superior but disunited masses fragmented and powerless. The nascent middle sector lacked a collective consciousness, preferring to identify individually with the upper class. The elite was the only social group with sufficient cohesion to articulate goals and make them known to the rest of the society.

In the twentieth century, the society began to experience change--not so much in values or orientation but in broadening of the economic bases and an expansion of the social classes. Improvements in transportation, communication, and education-- coupled with industrialization and rapid urban growth--opened the society somewhat by expanding economic opportunities. Individuals moved up from the masses into the lower, the middle, and infrequently the upper classes. Nevertheless, the traditional upper class continued to dominate the country by maintaining strict control over forces that encouraged change and by absorbing or coopting other social sectors into the economic and political system. Generally, however, the upper class did not admit these upwardly mobile groups to the inner circle of power cliques and informal social contacts.

Colombia - Population

Population Trends

At the outset of the twentieth century, Colombia's population was approximately 4 million. By 1951 it had grown to more than 12 million. In mid-1988 it had reached an estimated 28 million. Population growth rose from 2 percent annually in the 1940s to a peak of 3.4 percent in the 1950s. It then slowed to the 2 percent rate by the mid-1970s and appeared to have stabilized at that level through the 1980s. Even at this lower rate of growth, however, the population was projected to reach 38 million by the year 2000.

When modern methods of disease control were adopted by an expanding public health system and average income growth began to rise in the late 1940s, the death rate fell rapidly. The birth rate remained at high levels until the early 1970s.

Life expectancy at birth was estimated to have grown steadily from forty-five years in 1951 to fifty-eight years in 1970, whereas the fertility rate remained nearly seven children per woman until the mid-1960s. The resulting rate of natural population increase between the late 1950s and the late 1960s was more than 3 percent annually, one of the highest rates in the world. Despite a net emigration during the 1960s, total population growth remained close to 3 percent through the end of the decade. Fertility began declining sharply in the mid-1960s to about four children per woman in the mid-1970s. The corresponding drop in the birth rate over the same period was among the most dramatic declines experienced in any country. Taking into account net emigration, the World Bank calculated the actual population growth rate at about 2 percent annually in the mid-1970s.

Since 1966 total fertility had fallen by about 45 percent. At the same time, life expectancy at birth had been extended by about 9 percent, whereas the infant mortality rate had dipped by 27 percent. A sharp decline in the dependency ratio also occurred over the same period, primarily the result of the steep decline in the birth rate.

The Colombian experience is remarkable in the abruptness and magnitude of the declines in mortality and fertility, particularly given the absence of radical changes in the social, political, or economic order. Similar declines have taken place in Cuba and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), but only under conditions of drastic regime change.

A variety of factors combined to produce the fertility decline in Colombia. As in most countries, fertility patterns varied widely among Colombian socioeconomic groups. In the late 1960s, for example, Colombian women living in rural areas who had not completed primary education had a total fertility rate of 8 children, compared with 3.4 children for urban women with at least a full primary education. Since the beginning of the steep fertility decline in the early 1960s, substantial shifts have occurred in the socioeconomic composition of Colombia's population. Typically, low-fertility groups, such as better-educated urban women, have increased their share of the population at the expense of high-fertility groups. Thus, even if reproductive patterns within different socioeconomic groups had not changed, the average fertility rate would have declined.

Family planning programs did not initiate the fertility decline because such programs did not begin until after the onset of the rapid fertility decline. Nevertheless, Colombia's well-organized family planning programs helped to keep the growth rate down. Information about and use of contraceptives increased rapidly after 1969, when the government began its support of family planning. In that year, the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal--PL) administration of President Carlos Lleras Restrepo (1966-70) began providing subsidized family planning services in local health centers through the maternal and child health program of the Ministry of Public Health. In 1972 and 1973, the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador--PC) government of Misael Pastrana Borrero (1970-74) extended services to postpartum cases in about ninety hospitals throughout the country. Family planning services were substantially more accessible in urban than rural areas and more widely available through the private sector in urban areas; as much as 50 percent of the services were probably obtained from private entities. The government also subsidized consumers of contraceptives. Between 1969 and 1976, the proportion of women with knowledge of contraceptives rose from 51 percent to 72 percent. By 1976 about 95 percent of married women had this knowledge; 59 percent of married women had put this knowledge to use in 1976--a large jump from 34 percent in 1969.

Despite the dramatic fertility decline, the World Bank emphasized that a considerable gap remained in the 1980s between existing fertility levels and those prevailing in modern industrial societies. Thus, the demographic transition in Colombia was far from complete. The experience of more industrialized countries suggested that eventually fertility would decline to the twochildren level. Whether this occurred quickly (by 2000) or slowly (by 2020) would greatly affect the eventual size of the country's population, the expansion rate of the labor force in the 1990s and beyond, and thus the social overhead investment and fiscal burden that the society would have to underwrite.

<>Urbanization, Migration, and Immigration

Updated population figures for Colombia.

Colombia - Urbanization, Migration, and Immigration

Colombia had one of the highest urbanization rates of any Latin American nation. The proportion of the population living in urban areas increased from 31 percent to nearly 60 percent from 1938 to 1973. Over the 1951 to 1964 period, the rate of urbanization averaged 5.5 percent per year. In the 1980s, however, the rates of both population growth and urbanization fell.

Massive rural-urban migration since the late 1930s was the main factor in increasing the urban share of the population from less than one-third to almost two-thirds in 1982. Urban growth between 1951 and 1973 was dominated by the growth of the four largest cities: Barranquilla, Cali, Medellín, and Bogotá--all of which were already large metropolitan areas of more than 500,000 people in 1951. The share of total population in these four cities nearly quintupled from 5 percent in 1951 to 25 percent in 1973--compared with an increase in the total urban share of less than 50 percent during the same period.

Observers disagreed about whether the growth of these cities, which averaged 5.2 percent a year between 1964 and 1973, persisted into the late 1980s. Since city size determined the allocation of federal funds for various public programs, the controversy was charged with heightened political and economic interest. Preliminary results from a survey of households indicated that the growth rate of Bogotá declined from nearly 6 percent during the 1964-73 period to less than 4 percent between 1973 and 1981.

The decline in the urban growth rate was mainly the result of lower fertility in the more recent period and a higher base size of the cities, rather than a dramatic reduction in the pace of migration. Indeed, it appears that throughout the 1970s the absolute number of persons migrating to urban areas continued to increase. However, after 1979 the slowdown in economic activity, particularly in manufacturing and trade, probably lowered the pace of rural-urban migration somewhat as job opportunities in the cities declined.

Colombia has experienced little foreign influence or immigration. During the colonial period, Spain discouraged the admission of non-Spaniards into the colonies. After independence there were few economic attractions for immigrants. Civil wars were another deterrent. The country generally lacked a clear policy on immigration but never favored it on a large scale. Those who entered from abroad came as individuals or in small family units.

Immigration laws provided for the admission of persons who did not jeopardize the social order for personal, ethnic, or racial reasons. In 1953 the Institute of Land Settlement and Immigration was set up to direct the colonialization of the underdeveloped regions of the country and was given the power to organize immigration for this purpose. After World War II, Colombia encouraged the immigration of skilled technicians, and in 1958 procedures were specified for the admission of refugees. Little was done, however, to implement these measures.

There were several identifiable ethnic groups of foreign origin in Colombia, all of them small. The Jewish population was estimated at 25,000, although in the 1980s many of them emigrated because of widespread kidnapping for ransom. There was a constant trickle of Spanish immigrants, many of them members of the clergy. Residents from the United States were mainly in business or missionary work. Germans, Italians, and Lebanese--usually referred to as Turks (turcos) or Syrians because they came from the Christian Lebanese part of Syria that formerly belonged to Turkey--were active in commerce, particularly in the port cities of Barranquilla, Cartagena, and Buenaventura.

Germans, as well as other foreigners, found acceptance in the upper class and frequently married into the white group. Some Lebanese married into the Guajira Indian tribe, but immigrants generally were most closely associated with the white upper class, which was generally receptive to ties with foreigners.



The population is descended from three racial groups--Indians, blacks, and whites--that have mingled throughout the nearly 500 years of the country's history. No official figures were available, but according to rough estimates in the late 1980s, mestizos (white-Indian mix) constituted approximately 50 percent of the population, whites 25 percent, mulattoes (black-white mix) and zambos (black-Indian mix) 20 percent, blacks 4 percent, and Indians 1 percent.

Recognizing the impossibility of objective racial classification and not wishing to emphasize ethnic or racial differences, the national census dropped references to race after 1918. Nevertheless, most Colombians continued to identify themselves and others according to ancestry, physical appearance, and sociocultural status. Social relations reflected the importance attached to certain characteristics associated with a given racial group. Although these characteristics no longer accurately demarcated distinct social categories, they still helped determine rank in the social hierarchy.

The various groups were found in differing concentrations throughout the nation, largely reflecting the colonial social system. The whites tended to live mainly in the urban centers, particularly in Bogotá and the burgeoning highland cities. The large mestizo population was predominantly a peasant group, concentrated in the highlands where the Spanish conquerors had mixed with the women of Indian chiefdoms. After the 1940s, however, mestizos began moving to the cities, where they became part of the urban working class or urban poor. The black and mulatto populations were also part of this trend but lived mainly along the coasts and in the lowlands.

Descendants of Indians who survived the Spanish conquest were found in scattered groups in remote areas largely outside the national society, such as the higher elevations of the southern highlands, the forests north and west of the cordilleras, the arid Guajira Peninsula, and the vast eastern plains and Amazonian jungles, which had only begun to be penetrated by other groups in the twentieth century. The Indian groups differed from the rest of the nation in major cultural aspects. Although some continued to speak indigenous languages, Spanish, introduced by missionaries, was the predominant language among all but the most isolated groups.

Historical Development

In the first fifty years after the discovery of the Americas, the Spanish began to settle in present-day Colombia, introducing their culture and social system and imposing their values on the African slaves they imported and the indigenous population they conquered. Spanish colonists settled in the Caribbean coastal zones, the highland plateaus, and the areas along the major rivers but were initially unsuccessful in settling Chocó, the eastern plains, and the Amazon Basin. Patterns of colonial settlement were reinforced throughout later periods, leaving frontier areas-- usually less hospitable land--open for settlement by nonwhites-- especially blacks, mulattoes, and retreating Indian tribes.

The Spanish created a hierarchical society in which they occupied the top stratum in terms of prestige, wealth, and power; slaves and Indians occupied the bottom. White skin became synonymous with being Spanish and therefore of high status. Offspring of mixed unions fell somewhere in between, adopting the dominant culture if recognized by their Spanish fathers, remaining on the social periphery if not. As the character and value system of the nation were formed, notions of color, class, and culture merged to elevate whites, subjugate blacks and Indians, and allow upward mobility for mulattoes and mestizos who dissociated themselves from the heritage of their nonwhite ancestors in favor of becoming "Spanish."

Probably more than any other Latin American people, Colombians remained conscious of their Spanish heritage. The persistent supremacy and relative purity of the Spanish heritage was brought about by a combination of factors. The indigenous population was sparse, heterogeneous, and thus relatively easily subdued, driven into less accessible and less desirable areas or absorbed by the Spanish population during the colonial era. Blacks, viewed as slaves until the mid-nineteenth century and as manual laborers thereafter, remained segregated economically, geographically, and socially. Although Indians and blacks outnumbered whites and people of mixed blood in certain regions, they remained minorities without shared identity or cohesion on the national level. The lack of immigrants from other European nations and the emphasis on traditional Spanish institutions--particularly Roman Catholicism-- helped white Colombians retain their Hispanic identification. Finally, a diverse geography and resultant regionalism exacerbated the lack of communal feelings among the masses and provided little basis for national cohesion within any group except the tightly knit white elite.

As Colombian society developed, there was little change in its rigid stratification. Various intellectuals, clergy, and politicians unsuccessfully attempted to debate the status of Indians and blacks and to prevent discrimination against them. Being a recognized member of the national society and thereby eligible for its benefits and a chance at upward mobility required allegiance to a culture and a behavioral pattern based almost entirely on traditional Spanish values. Anything outside this pattern was anomalous and was considered un-Colombian.

Independence did little to alter the colonial framework of the society. In the struggle for independence, the peninsulares (those born in Spain) were backed by Spanish troops, and the criollos (those born in the New World of Spanish descent) were backed by mestizo and mulatto troops; nonetheless, the values and outlooks of the two factions were similar. Many of the peninsulares left after independence, allowing the criollos and some persons of mixed blood to take over their positions in the society. To this extent, the system was opened up to qualified mestizos and mulattoes, but those who moved up did so as individuals whose mobility was based on education, wealth, and culture rather than on a change in the status of their group. No attempt was made to upgrade the status of blacks, who remained on the periphery of the national society, or Indians, who remained almost completely outside it.

Both Indians and blacks continued to reside on the outskirts of national life, as much because of their class and culture as their color. As a group, however, blacks were more integrated into the national society and left a greater mark on it for several reasons. First, they had been a part of Spanish society since the Middle Ages, whereas Indians were relative newcomers. The Spanish had long possessed Africans as personal servants and did not find them as alien as the Indians they encountered in the New World. Moreover, it was more difficult for the blacks to maintain their original culture because, unlike the Indians, they could not remain within their own communities and did not initially have the option of retreating into isolated areas. They did not arrive in and were not grouped into organized social units, and, coming from different areas of Africa, they often did not share the same language or culture. Although slave revolts sometimes occurred, no large community of escaped slaves survived in isolation to preserve its African heritage, as did the Maroons in Jamaica. Finally, despite their position on the bottom rung of the social ladder, black slaves often had close relations--as domestic servants--with Spaniards and were therefore exposed to Spanish culture much more than were the Indians.

Blacks thus became a part, although a peripheral one, of Colombian society from the beginning, learning Spanish and adopting the ways of the Spanish that were permitted them. They thought of themselves as Colombians by the end of the colonial period and felt superior to the Indians, who officially occupied higher status, were nominally free, and were closer in skin color, facial features, and hair texture to the emerging mestizo mix.

The proportion of white ancestry has been an important measure of status for the mixed groups since the colonial era, when each degree of mixture was recognized as a distinct category. The plethora of terms for color still being used in the 1980s reflected the persistence of this colonial pattern and a continuing desire among Colombians to classify each other according to color and social group. A complex racial terminology led to persons of the same class using different terms to define themselves racially. These terms also cut across class lines so that persons at one level defined themselves as being racially similar to those at other levels.

The confusion over classification affected most Colombians because most of them did not define themselves as being white, black, or Indian, which are distinct and mutually exclusive groups, but as belonging to one of the mixed categories. Factors that helped Colombians order their perceptions of color were, in addition to the interplay of biological and social data, geographic residence and membership in a social class. Residence in a region often automatically categorized an individual. For example, blacks and mulattoes were so prevalent in Chocó that the word Chocoano (resident of Chocó) was virtually synonymous with the word black throughout much of Colombia. Whites and mestizos in Chocó were commonly migrants from neighboring Antioquia, so that any light-skinned person might be called an Antioqueño regardless of his or her origin.

Migration and rural or urban residence could also determine a person's status. A dark-skinned mulatto who because of wealth and prestige would be a member of the local elite in a rural area along the coast would not be so considered outside his or her region. Conversely, movement from a larger to a smaller town might enhance an individual's status. Usually the only Colombians whose status was invariable were the national elite, Indians, and blacks.

Perceptions of one's own color and that of others also varied with class membership. A lower-class person in either an urban or a rural area was likely to be more concerned with the daily struggle for survival than with skin color, especially if the person's peers were of a similar racial background. Members of the upper class were equally secure in their status as white Colombians, whether or not they appeared Caucasian to the casual observer, because their status automatically defined them as such. The racial segregation of the polar extremes of the class structure--with virtually no blacks or Indians in the elite and equally few whites in the lower class--reinforced cultural and class distinctions.

It was among the self-conscious, racially mixed members of the middle sectors that color and ethnic designations were critical and likely to contribute to status. All other factors being equal, light-skinned mestizos with straight hair found mobility easier than darker-skinned counterparts. A man, especially a black or mulatto, might improve his social position or that of his children by marrying a lighter-skinned or wealthier woman. Mestizos might place more emphasis on acquiring other accoutrements of whiteness, such as an education, a cultured life-style, or a genteel occupation.

Contemporary Trends

In the late 1980s, whites continued to occupy the highest positions in the government, economy, and society. Most of them resided in the large urban centers, and even those who did not considered themselves urban in orientation. Membership in the white group was usually concomitant with upper- or middle-class values and behavior patterns and adherence to Roman Catholicism and its teachings--in name if not in practice. Whites modeled their life-styles, family patterns, and human relations largely on European and North American norms and in turn dictated them to the rest of society.

The white group usually emphasized racial and cultural purity and wealth derived from property. This emphasis was particularly true in the capital and in the seats of colonial aristocracy, such as Popayán. The exception was in Antioquia Department, where a great deal of miscegenation took place and where social distinctions rested largely on economic achievement rather than ethnic considerations.

Non-Antioqueño whites continued to stress colonial notions of the superiority of mental over manual labor, encouraging genteel remunerative activities derived from owning land or a career in law, medicine, or architecture. Creative or journalistic writing, literary criticism, and university professorship were also considered appropriate careers or sidelines for whites who were financially secure. For those less well off, business, commerce, and industry provided more lucrative, if less traditional, positions.

Although North American cultural influence has grown substantially since the 1950s, whites remained culturally tied to Europe--particularly to France and Spain. Children continued to be sent to Europe and the United States for schooling, to learn languages, and to become cosmopolitan. Only in the twentieth century did white Colombians begin to seriously study nonwhite facets of their country's social system and incorporate them into their scholarly and creative works.

Insistence on racial purity within the white group varied among regions and sometimes was not as important as light skin and an old, respected Spanish surname. In fact, many people who came from families that had been considered white for generations were actually descendants of people of mixed ancestry who purchased certificates of white ancestry from the Spanish crown. Whites did not usually marry dark-skinned individuals, however, unless economic hardship necessitated bringing a wealthy mulatto or mestizo into the family.

From the earliest years of the colonial period, miscegenation among whites, Indians, and blacks occurred so much that people of mixed origin soon came to outnumber all other groups combined. In fact, racial mixing was so great that Colombians usually referred to themselves as a mestizo nation--in this case meaning simply "mixed"--despite the absence of a significant cultural synthesis.

In the mid-1980s, people of mixed origin were found throughout the society--in all classes, occupations, and geographic regions. The status of individuals of mixed blood varied, from those who bordered on being white to those who had recently moved out of marginal status as black or Indian. Probably the only factors that tied the mixed group together were a general recognition that status as a mestizo or mulatto was better than that as an Indian or a black and some feeling of belonging to the national society.

Colombians perceived considerable differences between mestizos and mulattoes. Mestizos found upward mobility easier than mulattoes in most areas, probably because mestizo physical characteristics were more like those of the idealized Colombian: light brown to white skin, straight or wavy hair, and caucasoid facial features. Moreover, once a person was considered mestizo, his cultural identity automatically became that of the dominant white group, whereas mulattos often exhibited black cultural and social traits that made upward social mobility more difficult.

Many blacks left slave status early in Colombian history, becoming part of the free population. Some were awarded freedom by their owners, and some purchased their liberty, but probably the greatest number achieved freedom by escape. There were numerous revolts, particularly in the Cauca Valley and along the Caribbean coast, that liberated many slaves. Those who achieved freedom sometimes moved into Indian communities, and their zambo offspring became part of the indigenous group. Others founded their own settlements. A number of towns, such as Palenque in northern Antioquia Department and Ure in southern Córdoba Department, kept the history of revolt alive in their oral traditions. In the Chocó area, along the Pacific, many of the black communities remained relatively unmixed, probably because there were few whites in the area and the Indians became increasingly resistant to assimilation. In other regions, such as the Magdalena Valley, black communities had considerable white and Indian admixtures.

The distribution of blacks in the 1980s continued to reflect that of the colonial period. The greatest number lived in the lowland areas on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts and along the Río Cauca and Río Magdalena. In the Chocó region, they had largely replaced the Indians and, along with mulattoes, constituted 80 percent of the population. On the Caribbean islands of San Andrés and Providencia, which Colombia acquired from Britain at the end of the colonial period, there were several thousand blacks. Despite the length of time during which Colombia had jurisdiction over them, most blacks on these islands retained their Protestant religion, continued to speak English, and regarded themselves as a group distinct from mainland residents.

Descendants of slaves preserved relatively little of their African heritage or identification. Some place-names were derived from African languages, and some traditional musical instruments brought into the country by slaves were used throughout the country. Religion in the black communities remained the most durable link with the African past.

In the 1980s, wholly black communities were disappearing, not only because their residents were moving to the cities but also because the surrounding mestizo and white populations had begun moving into black communities. Eventual absorption into the mixed milieu appeared inevitable in the 1980s. Moreover, as blacks moved into the mainstream of society from its peripheries, they perceived the advantages of better education and jobs. Rather than forming organizations to promote their advancement as a group, blacks concentrated on achieving mobility through individual merit and adaptation to the prevailing system.

When the Spanish arrived in 1499, they found a heterogeneous Indian population that numbered between 1.5 and 2 million, belonged to several hundred tribes, and spoke mutually unintelligible dialects. The complexity of their social organization and technology varied tremendously, from stratified agricultural chiefdoms to tropical farm villages and nomadic hunting and food- gathering groups. Throughout the colonial years, the indigenous population constituted an estimated 50 percent of the total population, but by 1988 it had dropped to roughly 1 percent. About sixty tribes were scattered throughout the departments and national territories.

In the agricultural chiefdoms of the highlands, the Spaniards successfully imposed institutions designed to ensure their control of the Indians and thereby the use of their labor. By the end of the sixteenth century, political and religious administration was organized, and efforts to convert the Indians were well under way. The most important institution that regulated the lives and welfare of the highland Indians was the resguardo (reservation) system of communal landholdings. Under this system, Indians were allowed to use the land but could not sell it.

Similar in some respects to the Indian reservation system of the United States, the resguardo system lasted with some changes into the late twentieth century and was an enduring link between the government and the remaining highland tribes. As land pressures increased, however, encroachment of white settlers onto resguardo lands accelerated, often without opposition from the government. The struggle of the Indians on these lands to protect their holdings from neighboring landlords continued into the late 1980s. Nevertheless, the Virgilio Barco Vargas administration (1986- ) created new resguardos, including one in Guainía Commissaryship, and reconstituted others.

The highland Indian communities have been the subject of most Indian legislation since the 1940s. The National Indian Institute was originally founded in 1943 as a private body. It was later attached to the National University of Colombia (Universidad Nacional de Colombia--UNC) and eventually became an advisory body to the Directorate of Indian Reservations within the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock. The institute was reorganized in 1958 to include representatives of several ministries concerned with Indians, as well as members of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology. Division of the resguardos was immediately suspended, as far as possible, and a new program of community development directed at the incorporation of the Indians into the national society was begun.

In 1960 the Directorate of Indian Reservations was reorganized and became the Division of Indian Affairs; together with the National Indian Institute it was transferred to the Ministry of Government. The Division of Indian Affairs carried out its programs and policies through eight regional commissions for Indian welfare and protection. The location of the commissions corresponded to the resguardo zones and in general to areas inhabited by Indians who were already somewhat integrated into the national system.

In contrast to the highlands, the lowlands were less densely populated at the time of the conquest, and the natives possessed a simpler culture than the highland tribes. The tropical forest areas were inhabited by farmers whose slash-and-burn agriculture limited the size of settlements to 100 or 200 persons. Most of these tribes lived along rivers and depended partially on fishing for subsistence. Indians of the eastern savannas and the Amazon Basin were nomadic, traveling in small hunting and gathering bands and frequently living along rivers. When the Spanish arrived, many lowland groups retreated to areas that were less accessible or attractive to the Spanish. These nomadic tribes and forest dwellers fared better than their highland counterparts in maintaining independence from the Spanish because of their simpler, more mobile, and more self-sufficient lifestyle. Their contacts with outsiders were generally limited to missionaries.

In the past, the government generally had not attempted to legislate in matters affecting the forest Indians. During the colonial period, Roman Catholic missions were granted jurisdiction over the lowland tribes. With the financial support of the government, a series of agreements with the Holy See from 1887 to 1953 entrusted the evangelization and education of these Indians to the missions. The missions were coordinated with the government's Division of Indian Affairs through a representative in the National Indian Institute. In 1960 the secretary of the institute became the chief of the Section of Indian Protection in the Ministry of Government and was responsible for the Indians of the nation's peripheral regions. Barco's resguardo initiative affected forest tribes as well as highland tribes.

Although all tribes in Colombia had had some contact with outsiders, the degree and effect varied considerably. Some tribes, such as the Maku, Chiricoa, Tunebo, and others from Amazonas Commissaryship, remained very primitive nomadic hunting and fishing groups. Others had begun to cultivate such crops as cacao, sugarcane, corn, and bananas. Some of the most successful tribes developed effective methods of raising cattle. Nonetheless, it was difficult for Indians to retain land that they traditionally held, especially in the highlands, where the competition for cultivable land was keenest.

In the 1980s, there was considerable disagreement in Colombia over the number of remaining Indians, their concentrations, and their relationship to the national society. Some Colombian scholars argued against integrating Indians, contending that the indigenous peoples had as much right as any other element of the society to survive intact under government protection. However, this protection was only partial. The government lacked a comprehensive policy, and what legislation did exist seemed oriented toward assimilating the Indians. Other factors pointing toward gradual absorption of the Indians were expansion of colonization into Indian territories, government plans for the development of natural resources in Indian areas, and the Indians' increased contact with and integration into the national system through economic inducement.


The structure of Colombian society in the 1980s--strongly influenced by traditions inherited from sixteenth-century Spain-- was highly stratified, having well-defined class membership, pronounced status differences, and limited vertical social mobility. The urban sector was characterized by a more flexible social system, a growing middle class, and greater participation of the population in national politics. Rural society in all but a few regions was organized in rigidly hierarchical structures in which change of status was very difficult. Only in the coffee-growing departments of Caldas and Antioquia were there sizable segments of the population exhibiting the traits of a rural middle class.

In the 1980s, social scientists continued to disagree about the definition of class in Colombia, the composition and relative importance of the middle class, the role of the upper class in the larger society, and the degree to which the society was evolving into a more open system. It was difficult to speak of social class per se because class implied feelings of cohesion and exclusiveness vis-à-vis other classes--characteristics that did not uniformly apply to status groups in Colombia. This class consciousness among persons with similar economic, occupational, and sociological interests was found only at the highest stratum of society in Colombia.

Four classes and their relative proportions could be distinguished in the mid-1980s: upper class, 5 percent; middle class, 20 percent; lower class, 50 percent; and the masses, 25 percent. There were also two important transitional subdivisions: the new rich, who constituted perhaps 3 percent of the total and were tenuously members of the upper class; and the upper lower class, organized blue-collar workers, and poorer white-collar workers, who made up about 15 percent of the total.

Classes were distinguished by occupation, life-style, income, family background, education, and power. Within each of the classes, there were numerous subtle gradations in status. Colombians tended to be extremely status-conscious, and class membership was an important aspect of social life because it regulated the interaction of groups and individuals. Social class boundaries were far more flexible in the city than in the countryside, but consciousness of status and class distinctions continued to permeate social life in both sectors.

<>Upper Class
<>Middle Class
<>The Lower Class and the Masses

Colombia - Upper Class

The upper class comprised two interrelated groups, the traditional landed elite and the new rich, who owed their status primarily to successful entrepreneurship. The former continued to base its elite status on distinguished lineage and a respected family name, together known as abolengo, and on the ownership of large tracts of land. It frequently provided personnel for the highest offices in the government, the church, and the military. Abolengo remained virtually the sole determinant of upper-class membership in rural communities and in some traditionally oriented cities, such as Popayán. In larger cities and in areas accessible to its influence, however, wealth was probably equally or more important in determining elite status. In urban areas, a person's family history was frequently not as significant as the financial ability to maintain the life-style that had come to be associated with the social elite.

The traditional elite continually lost individual members to the middle class, either through the gradual loss of inherited wealth or through the division of estates among many heirs. In the past, however, and even in the 1980s, displacement of families was kept to a minimum because of the custom of mutual aid among relatives. If one branch of an elite family suffered financial difficulties, friends and relatives rallied to its support, helping children to obtain the customary good education and enabling the family to maintain a facade of well-being.

In the modern urban industrial communities, however, the financial climate had become more demanding as ever-increasing emphasis was placed on wealth and its display as a criterion of high status. The decline in extended-family cohesion and the dispersal of relatives that accompanied urbanization made it even less likely that an elite family would feel obligated to sustain all of its members at the accustomed level. Thus, many of these persons were forced to accept middle-class employment and living standards and might even fall into the lower class.

The newer members of the upper class were generally thought to be in a transitional state from the middle to the upper class. They had acquired economic and social success through entrepreneurial skills in banking, commerce, and industry. Some of the representatives of this group were self-made men, often mestizos, who had worked their way up the social ladder from the middle class. Others were European immigrants or their descendants who had been successful in the business community.

Some observers believed that the new rich constituted a lower sector of the upper class because they lacked the lineage, cultivation, and landowning tradition of the old elite. Although the new rich often regarded themselves as equal to the elite, they were not so considered by the rest of society. The barriers between these two groups were dissolving, however, at least in the major urban centers, where changing social standards, intermarriage, and shared political interests tended to overrule tradition.

Further linkages between the traditional elite and the new rich were provided by the many persons who had roots in both groups. Although the entrepreneurial upper class was sometimes regarded as entirely of recent origin, many of its members had aristocratic forebears and had long been recognized as part of the traditional elite. Because of the declining productivity of traditional agriculture and the increased opportunity for investment in industry, business, and commercial farming, the sons of large landowners had been among the first to enter these new areas of economic endeavor during the 1920s.

Education was traditionally correlated with upper-class membership. Upper-class children received the best education in the most prestigious schools, beginning at one of the exclusive private schools and ending with a degree from one of the country's wellknown universities. Intellectual and professional careers, particularly in law, medicine, and journalism, were preferred by sons of the elite. It was not unusual for a member of this class to obtain an advanced degree and take a position as a university professor for several years before entering high government office or assuming a managerial position in a family enterprise.

The upper class was very successful in maintaining exclusiveness and controlling change through a system of informal decision-making groups called roscas--the name of a twisted pastry. These informal groups existed at different levels and across different spheres and were linked hierarchically by personal relationships. Their composition varied according to level-- municipal, departmental, or national--but each group tried to include at least one powerful person from every sphere. A rosca was a vitally important system in both the social and the political context because it was at this level of interaction that most political decisions were made and careers determined. Only when a man was a member of such a group could he consider himself a member of the upper-middle or upper class.

Roscas linked influential individuals and institutions in such a way that an important university, a commercial bank, an investment bank, an association of industries, and agricultural interests might all be coordinated and controlled by a few persons. Several competing groups in an area often bargained and traded favors among themselves. A casual observer might not recognize the linkages within such groups until he began to do business in the area or needed something done in an official capacity. Colombians moving up the social ladder became increasingly aware of the importance of such groups.

Colombia - Middle Class

The emergence in the twentieth century of a fairly large middle class paralleled the development of urban society and of the modern institutions of government, education, and social services. Although Colombia had always had a small element of self-employed shopkeepers, clerks, and overseers, they had been limited in number and had no sense of shared identity.

Most of the modern middle class had developed since the 1920s. As a class, the various middle groups distinguished themselves from other members of society by regular employment in occupations that generally did not qualify them for membership in the elite.

The nucleus of the middle class was in the most highly industrialized urbanized areas--the departments of Antioquia, Caldas, and Cundinamarca--where institutional changes had been most pronounced. These areas had the highest percentage of people employed in professions, government, business, and trade--all predominantly middle-class occupations.

The middle class owed its heterogeneity to its late development and continued expansion. It consisted of self-employed small businessmen, professionals, salaried employees (including office workers), other white-collar personnel, and some members of organized labor. The expansion of the government bureaucracy provided a number of positions for the middle class. Teachers were usually included in the middle class, as were most military officers, most of the clergy, and some intellectuals, artists, journalists, and musicians.

Owners of medium-sized farms, primarily in the agricultural departments of Caldas and Antioquia, made up most of the rural middle class. They derived the greatest benefits from governmental efforts at agricultural credit, technical training, community development, and expanded primary education. In addition, they possessed a relatively modern outlook in contrast to other farmers in more remote areas who had accumulated enough wealth to be placed at the top of the middle class but preferred a modified peasant existence and traditional outlook.

The diversity of the middle class, which placed some of its members scarcely above the lower class in life-style and income and others on the lower edge of the upper class, was striking. Infinite status gradations characterized the internal structure of this class. However, by linking several of the most important status or prestige factors, the middle sector can be divided into two main parts: an upper middle class and a lower segment in transition from the lower class. The sectors were differentiated primarily on the basis of the attitudes and values they held and on their origin in the social system.

The upper middle class gradually merged into the elite class and was composed primarily of professionals, medium-sized landowners, entrepreneurs, managerial personnel, and some government bureaucrats. Some of these were descendants of the traditional elite who had fallen on the social scale and clung to the illusion of their families' former status. They often did not consider themselves members of the middle group and continually attempted to regain a place in the upper class by modeling their manners, behavior, and attitudes on those of the elite.

The members of the upper middle class tended to share a concern for culture and outward appearance, exhibited by conspicuous consumption. Standards of social behavior were stringently observed, and active support was given, particularly by women, to the Roman Catholic Church and numerous religious associations. The completion of academic secondary school was considered essential for the child of upper-middle-class parents, and a university degree was becoming increasingly necessary. Whereas membership in the elite was still determined primarily by family background and values, upper-middle-class status was largely determined by a good secondary education.

The lower middle class, constituting the bulk of the middle class, came primarily from upwardly mobile members of the lower class. A large number were clerks or small shopkeepers. Many had only a precarious hold on middle-class status and tended to be less concerned with imitating upper-class culture and behavior than with making enough money to sustain a middle-class life-style. Families at this level tended to be just as concerned as those at higher social levels with giving their children an education. Many hoped to send at least one of their children through a university, regardless of the financial burden.

Colombia - The Lower Class and the Masses

The lower class and the masses together constituted the largest sector of rural and urban society--about 75 percent. The line between the lower class and the masses was fine; it was based more on an increased awareness of the social, economic, and political systems among members of the lower class than on any other criterion. Those at the upper levels of the lower class--organized labor, small farmers, merchants, and some white-collar workers-- were in a transitional stage and possessed some attributes of middle-class status.

The lower class was more politically aware than the masses, although the levels of participation were uniformly low. Feelings of common identity were generally lacking among groups in the lower class, although class consciousness existed within such groups as organized labor and landowning campesinos. Generally, members of the lower class were regularly employed with some degree of security, although they were frequently unskilled and unorganized. Included in this category were domestic servants, construction workers, taxi drivers, barbers, repairmen, and small shopkeepers. The rural lower class included small independent landholders, called minifundistas, and even some day workers, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers, who provided some security for their families.

In contrast, the masses were composed of the illiterate and the impoverished who lived on the margin of subsistence and possessed little or no security, skill, or stable employment. They included Indians and blacks as well as many other dark-skinned persons. They resided on the sociopolitical periphery of the society and maintained their traditional way of life; most of their energies were consumed in the struggle for survival. Although the masses possessed some political potential and some awareness of the political system, they lacked an effective, evaluative understanding of it as well as sufficient class cohesion to articulate their desires.

At the top of the lower-class hierarchy and merging into the middle class were the regularly employed industrial workers. Often distinguished from white-collar employees only by their blue-collar occupations, unionized factory workers received relatively high wages and were protected by labor legislation. They were better organized than other employed members of the lower class and were sometimes able to exert a degree of pressure on employers and political parties to obtain their demands. In general, they were conservative politically and opposed government initiatives to change the status quo. This conservatism existed because, despite their stability relative to other members of the lower class, their status in the society was fairly tenuous, resting solely on maintenance of their occupation. Loss of job would seriously impair a factory worker's ability to maintain his status.

Social life in the lower class was less structured and more informal than in the middle and upper classes. There was less restraint and concern with the rigid standards of behavior that regulated the social activities of those higher on the social scale. Participation in religious activities, particularly celebrations of saints' days and festivals, was an important part of social life, as were spontaneous neighborhood and family gatherings.

The rapid growth of the urban sector since the 1940s resulted primarily from the influx of migrants from the countryside. Agricultural workers continued to leave the rural areas and come to the towns and cities, hoping to improve their way of life. Most were uneducated--at best barely literate--and unskilled, two attributes that considerably limited their prospects for employment and their ability to adjust to urban life. Consequently, there was a high rate of unemployment and underemployment in this migrant population, particularly among the men. Women often found jobs as domestic servants or cooks, but the continued flood of unskilled labor into the cities made it increasingly difficult for men to find even the most menial jobs.

Movement to the city did little to change the relative social status or way of life of most migrants, who merely exchanged rural unemployment and poverty for the same conditions in an urban environment. Many became residents of the shantytowns that surrounded the larger cities. Housing in a lower-class barrio was frequently no more than a shack without running water and often without electricity, not too different from what the migrant had left behind.

Despite the apparent hopelessness of the migrant's condition, there was the expectation of some future improvement, if not in his own life at least in that of his children. One survey taken in a lower-class community in a larger city found that parents believed that the future would be better for their children. Usually this belief was tied to the greater availability of education and the other institutions of urban life. Migrants perceived themselves as closer to the mainstream of national life with a greater chance of becoming economically, socially, and politically a part of it than those who remained in the countryside.

In the mid-1980s, the rural lower class was outnumbered by the urban lower class. Migration had rapidly reversed the traditional balance; the proportion of the rural population continued to decline steadily as it had since the 1920s. In the past, the lower class was primarily an agricultural sector, its position in society dictated by dependence on the land. Whether minifundista, semipermanent squatter, sharecropper, tenant farmer, or day laborer, the campesino's small parcel of land or lack of land kept him at a near-subsistence level of existence for generations. There were slight distinctions among the various groups making up the rural lower class: generally, the living standard of the minifundista, squatter, and tenant farmer was somewhat higher than that of the sharecropper, who in turn lived a little better than the landless day laborer.

Colombia - FAMILY LIFE

In the 1980s, there were continued signs of change in the traditional norms and patterns of family life, resulting from the high rate of rural-to-urban migration, the growth of urban industrial centers, and accompanying socioeconomic developments. The decline of the patriarchal extended-family structure was apparent in urban society, as increased geographic and social mobility weakened kinship ties and extended greater independence to young people. Families at the bottom of the social ladder were adversely affected by geographic dislocation and were increasingly less cohesive. They continued to be characterized by a large number of consensual unions and mother-centered households.

Traditional elements of trust and mutual dependence among relatives, no matter how distant the relationship, were still strong. The already large circle of kin relationships was extended through the institution of compadrazgo, a complex form of ritual kinship. Ties with relatives and compadres (godparents) continued to be important in political and business activities and provided the low-status person with a wide circle of mutual assistance.

The nuclear family unit continued to be authoritarian, patriarchal, and patrilineal. Legal reforms had extended equal civil and property rights to women, but tradition dominated malefemale relations, and roles and responsibilities in marriage were still relatively clear-cut. In the lower class, in which the father was frequently not a permanent member of the household, the mother often assumed the role of chief authority and family head, but in all other cases the father unquestionably occupied this position. Within the household, the wife was considered the father's deputy and the chief administrator of domestic activities. Her first duty was to bear and raise children. She was also expected to keep the household running smoothly and efficiently. In her relations with her husband, she traditionally was supposed to be deferential, thinking of his wishes and needs before considering her own.

Men of the upper and middle class had always been paternal and protective toward their dependents and tried to shelter their wives and children from undesirable outside influences. The activities of women were severely circumscribed because of the male concern with protecting the honor and virtue of the wife and unmarried daughters. Women in the upper and middle classes traditionally were not permitted to do work outside the home except for volunteer work. The social life of women in the upper and middle classes, particularly of unmarried girls, was limited to the home, the school, the church, and well-chaperoned parties and dances.

The lower-class or lower-middle-class woman was under far fewer restrictions than her upper-class counterpart. Formal chaperonage had always been impossible to maintain because of family instability, economic need, and the frequent absence of the husband and father and because moral standards differed somewhat from those of the upper social levels. The lower-class woman usually had to be employed and contribute her salary to the family's subsistence or work in the fields beside her male relatives. Her economic contribution gave her a degree of equality and, combined with the matrilocality of lower-class life, i.e., the fact that a husband tended to live with his wife's family, limited the husband's and father's control over her.

There were increasing exceptions in urban society to the traditional concept of a woman's role. Many women in the upper social levels were well educated, and some pursued careers in such fields as the arts, social welfare, and education. Colombian women were also considered among the most politically active in Latin America. Many of them held high elective or appointive offices. At the same time, women who engaged in these activities were considered exceptional. Most upper-class and upper-middle-class women did not work after marriage but devoted themselves to their homes, families, and church groups.

The Roman Catholic Church was the single most important force affecting marriage and family life. Nearly all formal marriages took place within the church, and most other turning points in the life of the individual family member were marked by religious rites. The Concordat of 1887 with the Holy See was replaced in 1973 by a new agreement, which opened the way for increased acceptance of civil marriages. After decades of debate, a divorce law permitting the dissolution of civil marriages was passed in the mid-1970s. In the late 1980s, however, the debate over divorce for Catholic marriages continued unresolved.

Moreover, regardless of the increasing acceptability of civil weddings, most middle-class and upper-class families still tried to provide their children with the most elaborate church wedding they could afford. In the lower class, consensual union, in which both the religious and the civil marriage ceremonies are foregone, was common. In rural communities with traditional lower-class standards, formal marriage was regarded as neither important nor essential. Despite the efforts of the church to encourage legal marriage within the lower class, people in this group generally regarded Catholic marriage as a heavy social and economic burden. At the same time, however, Catholic marriage was recognized as the ideal and the preferred legal, social, and sexual basis of the family. Although other kinds of union were more prevalent within the lower class, Catholic marriage often connoted superior social status and prestige. In contemplating religious marriage, both men and women might consider carefully the heavy costs involved against the prestige that would be gained.

Some Colombians, especially those in the middle class, regarded marriage as one of the best means of facilitating upward social mobility. At the same time, however, members of the upper class were generally reluctant to marry persons of lower social position. With the increasing independence of young people and the declining authority of the family, marriages between relatives had become less common, but intermarriage between families of similar aristocratic background was a custom that few young people chose to disregard.


The question of who has benefited from economic growth has been the subject of considerable controversy in Colombia. In the opinion of some observers, growth during the 1970s worsened the skewed distribution of income. The World Bank, in contrast, has concluded that the real incomes of the poorest workers improved significantly during the 1970s.

Data from a variety of sources suggest that there was a redistribution of income toward the two extremes of the population during the 1970s. Income growth was faster for those groups at both the top and the bottom of the income distribution ladder. By contrast, all the evidence suggests that the middle class, which did well in the 1960s, lost ground in the 1970s. For the poor, increased employment of females and other secondary workers at higher wage rates explained most of the improvements; for the rich, the higher income of the head of the household accounted for the betterment.

Agricultural workers and small landholders made up the majority of the poor in Colombia in the late 1980s, although this proportion was decreasing. The urban poor consisted mainly of persons without primary education, who with their numerous children were grouped in large households where few of the members worked. The poorest households were often headed by a single parent--typically a woman. Those who worked were concentrated in domestic service, construction, manufacturing, and retail trade. The wages of the rural and urban poor stagnated until the mid-1970s, improved significantly in the latter half of the decade, but then deteriorated somewhat in the mid-1980s. Real earnings, however, improved more than the wage rates in view of greatly increased employment among household members, which was more significant in urban locations that had greater opportunities for female employment. The income per member of poor urban families also was likely to have benefited from the decline in fertility in urban areas.

Relative wages in low-paid occupations tended to converge over the 1970s. Those paid the least at the beginning of the decade gained, the better-paid semiskilled workers faced stagnant or falling wages, and higher-paid workers suffered substantial setbacks. Important factors contributing to the improvement in the lot of the poor included rapidly expanding educational opportunities since the early 1950s, reinforced by population, nutrition, and related social policies since the late 1960s. Strongly complementary was the employment boom of the 1970s that enabled increasing numbers of women and other "secondary" workers in the poorer households to find jobs, significantly increasing household incomes.

The economic positions of the higher-income group apparently also improved substantially during the 1970s. Rapid economic growth in this period provided ample opportunities for raising entrepreneurial profits, and substantial real interest rates were available to owners of capital. The decade also witnessed booming markets in coffee, emeralds, urban residential housing, and illegal trade.

By contrast, persons in the intermediate range of the income distribution fared poorly. This situation was caused in part by the surging supply of educated workers during the 1970s.

Colombia - Rural Wages

Agricultural wages remained stagnant in real terms during the 1935-64 period, and in 1964 they were only 90 percent of the wages of unskilled construction workers and about 33 percent of those of blue-collar industrial workers. Except for a small increase in the early 1960s, real wages in agriculture changed little until the mid-1970s, when they increased substantially until 1980.

In contrast to the dampening effect of a labor surplus in the 1960s, the employment boom of the 1970s began to raise agricultural wages. The introduction of the caturra variety of coffee during the 1970s led to large-scale replanting and land preparation for new plantations, which, combined with the boom in marijuana production and cocaine processing, greatly increased labor demand in rural areas. Rapidly growing urban employment in this period also pulled agricultural workers into the urban economy, thus creating increasing labor scarcity in rural areas. Agricultural labor productivity over the 1974-79 period was estimated to have grown at roughly 3.7 percent per year, providing much of the basis for rising real wages. The booming terms of trade for coffee producers were also captured to some extent by workers in agriculture. In addition, the rise in the real minimum wage beginning in 1973 may also have been a contributing factor. The stagnation in the agricultural real wage after 1978 reflected the substantially slower growth in the sector and the economy during this period.

Colombia - Urban Wages

In spite of some modest and erratic improvements in the mid1960s , and again during the early 1970s, real wages for unskilled construction workers in Bogotá increased by less than 10 percent during the 1960-77 period as a whole. From 1977 to 1979, however, they increased appreciably, although other data suggest that these gains may have been lost between 1978 and 1981.

The wages of blue-collar workers in manufacturing jumped abruptly between 1960 and 1963, accompanied by a smaller increase for white-collar workers. During the remainder of the 1960s, wages for both types of workers showed modest gains, followed by a loss of these gains during the 1970-76 period and then an upturn until the end of the decade. Relative to their real wages at the beginning of the 1970s, both blue- and white-collar workers were earning at a lower rate in 1981. If fringe benefits are taken into account, their situation appears to have improved during 1964-70 more than at other times and deteriorated less during 1970-76. Over the long term, the pattern showed cyclical fluctuations around a flat trend.

Data confirm the sluggish growth of wages and total earnings of manufacturing workers since the late 1970s. The resulting view that the working class suffered, however, fails to distinguish among groups within the working class. Even in manufacturing, the poorer, unskilled worker did better than white-collar or skilled workers. Moreover, wages and total earnings increased faster in smaller enterprises. Despite the rapid per capita income growth during the 1970s, the income of persons with jobs did not increase much, and those who were better off at the beginning of the decade fared even worse; conversely, those who had minimal remuneration at the beginning of the decade significantly improved their situation.

In summary, according to the evidence from occupational data, during the 1970s poor agricultural workers and small farmers increased their shares of national income. Among urban workers, the poor and the unskilled did better than those employed in skilled or formal-sector occupations. Consumption of luxuries indicated substantial improvements in the position of the rich relative to the middle class. But the share of income going to the middle class fell.


In 1988 most Colombians enjoyed significantly better health care and nutrition than previous generations. The country had risen from the ranks of the poorest nations in Latin America during the 1950s and 1960s to an intermediate status in the 1980s, according to health indicators. These improvements were the result of rapid socioeconomic modernization, which was accompanied by improvements in education and working conditions; greater access to urban health care facilities, running water, and sewerage systems; and more modern attitudes toward sexuality, medicine, disease prevention, nutrition, and exercise. There were also explicit state policies designed to improve access to and availability of health care and medical services. In the 1970s and 1980s, Colombia developed a public and private infrastructure of hospitals and other health care facilities, a widespread network of medical schools, and a specialized set of institutions responsible for formulating and handling public policy in the health sector.

Despite general improvement, the benefits of better health care in 1988 were not evenly distributed among the different strata and regions of Colombian society. Urban areas, the upper and middle classes, blue-collar workers, and the central Andean region enjoyed above-average health conditions. In contrast, the rural and urban poor suffered from higher mortality and morbidity rates because of inadequate or inaccessible medical services, housing, and food. In the late 1980s, Colombian health policy makers were faced with the task of improving services to the least-favored segments of society, while improving the quality and overall performance of the national health care system.

Colombia - General Indicators of Health

Colombia's leading health indicators indicated consistent improvement over the long term. During the 1950s, life expectancy at birth was under fifty years for the average citizen. In 1988 this indicator had reached approximately sixty-eight years for females and sixty-four years for males. The estimated life expectancy range for the rural population was 10 percent to 30 percent below the national average, varying regionally. In the eastern plains, the Amazon Basin, the southern rural Caribbean coastal region, and especially in the southern and northern Pacific coast, the rate of improvement in life expectancy was substantially lower than the national average; in some of the poorest areas, no perceptible change had occurred between the 1950s and the 1980s.

Higher life expectancies were closely correlated with the "spatial" distribution of the population. The higher the level of urbanization, the greater the average life expectancy. The five major cities--with nearly 30 percent of the population--in the early 1980s reported average life expectancies nearly 10 percent above the national average. Analysts anticipated that projected increases in urbanization in the 1990s would have a positive impact on the life expectancy of the nation as a whole.

In 1984 analysts estimated Colombia's infant mortality rate at 52 per 1,000 live births. The annual rate of decrease fluctuated between 2.4 percent and 2.9 percent during the 1950-84 period, peaking during the second half of the 1970s. Some observers suggested that this pattern was closely associated with greater public expenditures for nutrition and basic care for pregnant women and newborns in rural areas.

Despite these improvements, Colombia's infant mortality indicators were among the poorest of the major Latin American countries. Colombia's figure stood substantially above these countries' norm of 42.8 per 1,000 live births and was more than 200 percent greater than the lowest level recorded for national infant mortality in the region (19.5 per 1,000 live births) during the first half of the 1980s.

Moreover, complementary data suggested that infants and children were the least protected segment of the population. Although Colombia's death rate declined 51 percent from 1970 to 1985, infant mortality diminished only 19.8 percent over the same period. Indeed, despite the gradual improvement of infant health indicators, the benefits of better medical care and living conditions were strongly concentrated in the upper levels of the age pyramid. Infant death rates also were higher in rural areas. Moreover, maternal mortality was high by Latin American standards. Between 20 and 30 percent of maternal deaths were related to complications arising from induced abortion, the vast majority of them performed outside the formal medical system because of legal, cultural, and religious sanctions.

Nutrition in Colombian society improved significantly after the 1950s. The average nutrient and caloric intake improved in quality and quantity, as did the performance of the main indicators of nutritional status, such as height, weight, and malnutritionrelated mortality and morbidity. The improvements resulted from increased agricultural productivity in the early 1970s, modernization of eating habits, higher levels of nutritional awareness, and explicit public policies supporting nutritional programs aimed at the poorest segments of society.

In the 1980s, the health and hazard causes for death were, to a significant degree, considered preventable, treatable, or curable. Most infant and child deaths were linked to diarrheal diseases, digestive tract infections, nutritional disorders, and complications related to immunizable viruses. Many adult deaths resulted from "social pathologies," including homicide and accidents. In addition, as their society aged, Colombians were exhibiting a surge in diseases common to the industrialized world, such as coronary and heart disorders, hypertension-related illnesses, and cancer.

One-fifth of all infant and child deaths (zero to four years of age) resulted from diarrheal and infectious digestive disorders accompanied by the inevitable dehydration complications. These diseases were associated with poor sanitation and living conditions, malnutrition, and lack of parental nutritional awareness. Another fifth of infant mortality originated in complications associated with delivery and birth. This mortality reflected the low level of basic health care for rural pregnant women, which was also associated with high levels of maternal mortality. Respiratory diseases caused another fifth of the deaths in children under four.

Violent criminal attacks and homicide--referred to in Colombia as "blood deaths"--accounted for 45 percent of deaths in persons between fifteen and forty-four years of age. The high rate of homicide and violent deaths was associated with the structural problems of poor law enforcement, high levels of social and political violence, and criminal activities related to narcotics production and distribution. The impact of violence was exacerbated by a health care system that was designed to handle "normal" or "formal" health disorders and not well suited for emergency medical care. Colombians considered the poor quality of emergency treatment as one of the major flaws of their nation's health care system.

The major causes of death for those over forty-four years of age were coronary and heart degenerative disorders, cancer, and cerebrovascular diseases. Diet--composed of sugars, starches, salted food, and fats high in cholesterol--along with the prevalence of smoking and alcohol consumption contributed to the unusually high incidence of these maladies.

In the early 1980s, the most prevalent illnesses striking Colombians were respiratory infections, ophthalmological and vision problems, digestive tract parasitic diseases, acute upper respiratory tract infections, peripheral vascular problems such as varicose veins, and malnutrition disorders. Over 14.2 million cases of individual illness were attributed to these diseases.

In the 1980s, the duality of the Colombian health profile was also present in the social and regional distribution of morbidity. The poorest segments and regions suffered the most from preventable and curable causes, such as gastrointestinal disorders and certain types of respiratory ailments, whereas the incidence of the degenerative and chronic diseases--typical of urban dwellers and higher-income earners--was relatively low in comparison. Tropical diseases continued to be endemic to certain areas of the country. Because of the acceleration of migratory flows to the unexplored tropical hinterland, diseases such as malaria, dengue, and yellow fever were increasing. Malaria affected approximately 15 percent of the population--equivalent to roughly one-half of all rural inhabitants.

In the late 1980s, geriatric issues increasingly challenged the country's health care system. The combination of increasing life expectancy, reduction of fertility rates, and diminishing mortality rates produced an older society. Those persons over forty-five increased from 13.5 percent of the population in the mid-1960s to 17 percent in the late 1980s. In absolute terms, this trend meant that more than 4.6 million people in 1990 would enter a period of life characterized by major health concerns related to chronic, catastrophic, and degenerative diseases. The proportional increase in these types of ailments demanded a specific framework for health care, medical technology, and professional specialization that was not widely available in the public health system.

Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) was another major health challenge in the late 1980s. Like many other less-developed countries, Colombia was sluggish in tackling the issue of AIDS within its borders and recognizing it as a potentially disastrous health threat. The cultural environment--strongly influenced by traditional values toward sexuality, virility, and homosexuality-- slowed public debate, distorted factual information about the incidence and spread of the virus, and inhibited the formulation of policy and preventive guidelines. In the first quarter of 1988, the official number of confirmed cases of AIDS was fifty-nine. By April that figure had to be revised upward to 153 confirmed cases.

Some sources contended, however, that this dramatic increase showed only a fraction of the total cases. New projections in 1988 suggested that there were 7,650 AIDS carriers. Of that total, 2 percent suffered the terminal stages of the disease, 25 percent were experiencing related opportunistic illnesses, and the remaining 73 percent were in the asymptomatic stage. A doubling of the total number of positive carriers was expected to occur within six months to one year because of the high levels of underreporting, the weakness of preventive measures, and the high incidence of carriers among female prostitutes.

The high cost of health care for AIDS victims would seriously strain the already scarce resources available to treat other diseases. Analysts believed that major funding and resources would not be channeled into the fight against AIDS. As of 1988, the Colombian government had taken few steps beyond attempting to protect the national blood supply.

Colombia - The Politics of Health: Priorities, Institutions, and Public Policy

During colonial times and the first century following independence, health care in Colombia consisted of services provided by traditional healers and private physicians trained first in Europe and later in national medical schools. The physicians served the elite and practiced curative medicine exclusively. Health care of the indigent, orphans, and the mentally ill was at first the domain of charity institutions, largely run by the Roman Catholic Church. As the population increased, orphanages, shelters, and municipal and community hospitals, usually staffed by religious orders, emerged throughout the country. Political pressures and local initiative, rather than assessment of regional needs, determined the size and kind of health facilities built and operated. Therefore, the distribution of hospital beds and services in the country was haphazard. With the advent of modern high-cost technology, this approach led to wasteful duplication of services and a major escalation in investment and operating costs.

The government initiated official action in the health field in 1913. The Ministry of Public Health, largely as it exists today, was established in 1953. Government programs were initially small, geared exclusively to the control of communicable diseases by reducing environmental hazards, providing water and sewerage facilities, and controlling garbage disposal. Vaccination campaigns were attempted, as was the isolation of patients with contagious diseases. At first, there was no relationship between these government activities and hospital care. Rural health care was virtually nonexistent, and reliance on traditional practitioners was almost universal until the 1950s.

In 1945 the National Provident Fund (Caja Nacional de Provisión--Cajanal) was created to provide prepaid health services and other benefits to government employees. In 1946 the Institute for Social Insurance (Instituto para Seguros Sociales--ISS) was organized under the Ministry of Labor to provide life and disability insurance, a pension plan, and a health program for employees in the modern private subsector. The ISS health system grew rapidly and independently of both municipal hospitals and the Ministry of Public Health. Subsequently, many smaller prepaid health programs were organized for railroad and telecommunications workers, the police, the armed forces, and other employees either not protected by the ISS or Cajanal or dissatisfied with the services. In the late 1980s, about 200 of these social security and family welfare funds existed.

The health sector was divided into three main subsectors: the government--consisting of the Ministry of Public Health, its five autonomous specialized agencies, and the Department of Health Services (Servicio Seccional de Salud--SSS); the social security subsector--comprising the ISS for private employees, Cajanal for public employees, and the smaller funds for specific population groups; and the private sector. Lacking coordination, these subsectors evolved along divergent paths.

Beginning in the late 1960s, the ministry's programs focused on extending coverage to persons not protected by organized health services. Priority was given to rural areas, poor marginal urban populations, and maternal and child health care. Primary health care, largely provided by paramedical personnel, was the principal instrument for achieving this objective.

A major review of the health sector by the government in 1974 led to the development of the National Health System, designed to provide adequate health care to all Colombians. Health was also viewed as a major component in integrated development efforts in the 1970s and early 1980s. These efforts, which received substantial support from the World Bank and other international agencies operating in Colombia, attempted to enhance productivity, income, and living standards of "viable" and "stable" peasant communities with small- and medium-sized farms. Good results and continued multilateral financing guaranteed its survival for more than a decade.

The 1979-82 National Integration Plan (Plan de Integración Nacional--PIN), as the national government's development plan was called, continued to emphasize expanding health coverage to the most vulnerable groups (mothers and children under five) and areas (rural and urban squatter settlements), recognizing the disparities in health status among regions and population subgroups. The National Health System was viewed as the major instrument to achieve the goal, and increased coordination among the Ministry of Public Health, the ISS, the social security funds, and family welfare funds was emphasized. Specific coverage targets were identified, including immunization of 80 percent of infants and 100 percent of children under five years; piped water and sewerage to 78 percent of the urban population and 79 percent of the nondispersed rural population; and a 15 percent increase in prenatal care. The ultimate goals were to reduce infant mortality by 15 percent, child mortality by 25 percent, and various kinds of morbidity by given percentages.

In 1981 the government established the Plan to Accelerate Health Development, based on grouping the SSS into six nuclei led by the six most developed departments. These departments would help their less-well-favored neighboring departments and national territories with technical assistance, coordination, data processing and monitoring services, supervision, and evaluation of programs. The central nucleus in Bogotá was to oversee and to develop the norms of the system.

In the late 1980s, the Barco administration implemented two other major social programs with both a direct and an indirect impact on health care for the poorest groups in society. The programs were the National Rehabilitation Plan, actually initiated by the Belisario Betancur Cuartas administration (1982-86) to shift public expenditures to the most remote and least-developed rural zones of the country, where guerrilla groups maintained strongholds, and the National Plan for the Eradication of Extreme Poverty, which focused on reducing urban poverty by 80 percent among those persons below the level of extreme poverty. Like the programs of the 1970s and early 1980s, these two new programs consisted of food subsidies, primary health care, communal education, locally constructed small public works projects for transportation, schools, and health care centers. In contrast with the earlier effort, however, Barco hoped for improved delivery of services through better coordination of different government agencies.

The private sector also acquired some paragovernmental functions in relation to health care. The Family Compensation Funds, or Cajas, were governmentally mandated, private sector institutions that held a percentage of the total salary paid by a firm to its workers and used it to provide cash subsidies and different types of services to affiliated workers. Some of the largest Cajas developed hospitals, pharmacies, dental units, general medical consultation services, and outpatient health care centers for children and nonworking spouses. Cajas were legally barred from duplicating the work of other governmental institutions, such as the ISS. This unorthodox model could be considered a private component of the urban social security system, managed jointly by unions or workers, firm owners, and the government.

Another key paragovernmental private health care provider was the National Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers (Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia--Fedecafe). Fedecafe collected and managed the taxes originating from coffee exports, using the money both to stabilize and protect the coffee industry and to improve living conditions in the coffee regions of the country. In the central Andean region--the core of the coffee economy--Fedecafe was a major provider of basic health care, sanitation, access to clean water, nutritional education, immunization, and dental services.

Except for extensive support by the international system, the provision of health care was a relatively low priority for the Colombian political establishment in the 1970s and 1980s. In political electoral terms, there was no clear constituency for national health care. Those sectors lacking health care and risk protection were usually the poorest groups in society, the least organized, and the weakest in political influence. In addition, other groups, including public employees, transportation workers, oil workers, private employees, and middle-class professionals, struggled independently and autonomously to develop some form of health care and risk protection.

The health sector was perceived implicitly by politicians as a legitimate part of the "spoils" of office (botín burocrático) because of its relatively high employment capacity for political appointees. Traditionally, with some significant exceptions, the Ministry of Public Health and its regional division were "assigned" to politicians; that is, they were effectively outside the control of national planning officials and programs. Indeed, the financial sources that supported departmental health services--the lottery and state taxes on alcoholic beverages--were periodically shaken by revelations of political corruption and reckless management.

Compared with other ministries and given the magnitude of its task, the Ministry of Public Health was woefully underfunded. The ministry's expenditures as a share of the national product had decreased since the late 1960s, and by the mid-1980s they were at approximately 0.6 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). Since the late 1960s, with the exception of the period of the Alfonso López Michelsen administration (1974-78), the share of the health sector in total central government expenditures had declined. In fact, the fiscal adjustments in late 1984 and 1985-- necessitated by the global recession and Colombia's ensuing trade and national account deficits--cut heavily into social expenditures, especially health and education. Between 10 percent and 20 percent of public health care beds were not operating in 1985 because of inadequate funding. Another symptom of the low priority given to health care services was its relative share of foreign earnings. Total foreign currency commitments for the health sector in Colombia in the 1973- 82 period amounted only to US$402 million.

Considerable institutional overlap and bureaucratic inefficiency and uncertainty characterized the ministry's specialized institutions. Both the National Institute of Health and the National Institute of Municipal Development supported local investments in water and sewerage systems in small- and medium- sized towns. In 1988 the latter institute was being dismantled and its functions transferred to the Central Mortgage Bank, the Malaria Eradication Service, and the Cancer Institute. In addition, ministry units were autonomous. Although some coordination at the operational level occurred, each institution generally developed its own policies and programs.

Colombia - National Health Care System

In the late 1980s, the national public health care infrastructure was built around a network of approximately 640 hospitals classified as local (73 percent), regional (17 percent), specialized (8 percent), and university (2 percent) hospitals. There were 35,000 beds in the public sector of the system, excluding those available at health care centers and basic care units.

The other three major components of the health care infrastructure were the ISS, the paragovernmental social security institutions, and the private sector. The ISS and related organizations managed approximately 6,500 beds (13 percent); paragovernmental social security institutions handled around 2,300 (4 percent); and the private sector--one of the most dynamic components of the system--had reached 8,000 beds (15 percent). The total availability of hospital beds amounted to only approximately 51,800--a figure that was equivalent to a ratio of 1.9 beds per 1,000 citizens. This ratio was less than half of the capacity for the health sectors of Costa Rica, Chile, Argentina, or even Brazil and not far from the performance of the most underdeveloped countries in the region.

Nevertheless, approximately 80 percent of the population had access to some form of medical and health care services. The national public health system offered coverage to 46 percent of the population, the private sector to 16 percent, the ISS system to 12 percent, and other social security organizations to 6 percent. The remaining 20 percent lacked formal health care coverage and had access only sporadically to professional medical consultation. Furthermore, a considerable proportion of the 12.7 million people served by the national public health system did not have real access to modern forms of diagnosis and treatment.

Urban and rural residents experienced significant differences in access to health care. The coverage in the three largest cities- -Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali--was almost 95 percent. At the rural level, the best services were delivered by the departments in the coffee-growing areas. At the bottom of the scale--in terms of quality and coverage--were the rural areas in the non-Andean regions as well as the marginal neighborhoods in medium-sized and small cities.

In 1985 the country had an estimated 20,500 physicians. Thus, Colombia had almost one physician for every 1,300 inhabitants, a good ratio by international standards. The data were misleading, however, in terms of the real availability of medical care for the population. Almost 70 percent of physicians were located in the twenty-five major cities, which together contained only 45 percent of the population. The problem with professional nursing care was even worse. There was an even greater urban concentration of nurse professionals than of physicians.

The medical doctor was a very important social actor in Colombian history. The doctor's status in the community usually gave him or her responsibilities that went far beyond health and healing, such as acting as mediator of disputes and electoral power broker. The social reputation and political power of physicians normally was accompanied by above-average economic rewards, thus creating a very attractive professional path for social mobility. Socially, the title of "doctor" was highly desirable and was a goal for the youth of middle-class families that could afford the high cost of this type of education.

Despite a doubling in the number of medical schools between the early 1970s and the late 1980s, university facilities were not able to cope with the huge demand for medical education. In addition, although many medical graduates had not been absorbed by the health system, they were generally not willing to move into the nonurban areas where they were most desperately needed. The high cost of medical education--considered as an investment with unusually high expectations for return--discouraged physicians from considering voluntary moves to areas in need that offered considerably less profitability.

Colombia - Social Security

Social security in Colombia, as in most of Latin America, developed in response to various pressure groups. Like most economic benefits in Colombia, social security came first to those groups that had political and economic strength. The military formed the first health security program in 1843, followed by other privileged public sector employee groups, notably members of Congress and the judiciary. Industrial laborers and other private sector workers attained basic coverage in 1946, but many others were still without any type of health or income security benefit in the late 1980s.

The social security system in the late 1980s was divided into three types of programs. The private sector, including both bluecollar workers and management, was covered in part by the ISS, which included 70 percent of insured workers. The public sector program covered 7 percent of insured employees nationwide and was administered by Cajanal. The remaining 23 percent of covered private workers belonged to one of 300 small insurance funds operating at the national, departmental, or municipal levels.

The social security program comprised three types of coverage: health insurance provided for medical and hospital coverage; the pension system made disability, old age, and death payments; and the family allowance program granted income maintenance for families earning substandard salaries. The family allowance program was the only standardized insurance scheme in the social security system. Health coverage and pensions, by contrast, varied significantly among public sector employees, workers covered by the ISS, and employees belonging to smaller funds.

Public employee benefits far exceeded those of private sector workers. Government workers could retire ten years earlier than private workers, and their pensions averaged 66 percent higher than those paid to members of the ISS. The military was an extreme example of this inequity; their pensions surpassed private worker retirement annuities by 150 percent. Government workers also enjoyed superior health facilities and benefits, as compared with workers in the private sector.

Insurance premium payments, although similar in form among the various providers, were as inequitable as the benefits received. In all cases, social security was financed by employee and employer contributions, as well as state subsidies. Private coverage through the ISS required a joint contribution by employee and employer of between 15 and 20 percent of the premium, and an additional 4 percent contribution was made by the employer for the family allowances fund. The lowest premiums paid, by contrast, were those of the public sector Cajanal program, in which workers contributed between 4 and 12 percent of the premiums and health and pension funds were fully subsidized by the state.

In addition to the fragmented, inequitable payment and benefits programs, the social security system's greatest failing was its low coverage of the population. Colombia ranked thirteenth among nineteen Latin American countries in social security coverage of the population; only 16 percent of the population was covered by a social insurance fund in 1985. Moreover, the programs failed to cover the neediest members of society, including women, children, and low-income male workers.

The social security system was also one of the most expensive in Latin America. In 1984 approximately 2.6 percent of GDP went to health care and pension programs. The World Bank estimated that extension of coverage at that level to the entire population would require the equivalent of 23 percent of GDP. Furthermore, state subsidization of public programs, particularly Cajanal, was excessive and varied from 60 percent to nearly 90 percent of the costs. According to experts, Cajanal operated an intolerably large deficit in the mid-1980s. The lack of a coordinated, consistent management and administrative system was largely responsible for many of these cost overruns, as well as the high level of premiums paid by the state.

Colombia - RELIGION

In the late 1980s, Colombia remained an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country. More than 95 percent of the population had been baptized in the Catholic Church, and the Colombian variant was widely renowned as one of the most conservative and traditional in Latin America. Colombians were among the most devout of Latin American Catholics. The church as an institution was authoritarian and paternalistic and had traditionally been associated with elite structures in the society.

The Concordat of 1973 defined relations between the Colombian government and the Vatican. The concordat replaced the clause in the Constitution of 1886 that had established the Catholic Church as the official religion with one stating that "Roman Catholicism is the religion of the great majority of Colombians." The concordat also altered the church's position on three major issues: the mission territories, education, and marriage. First, the mission territories--lands with Indian populations--ceased to be enclaves where Catholic missionaries had greater jurisdiction than the government over schools, health, and other services; by agreement the vast network of schools and social services was eventually to be transferred to the government. Second, the church surrendered its right to censor public university texts and enforce the use of the Catholic catechism in public schools. Under the new concordat, the church retained the right to run only its own schools and universities, and even these had to follow government guidelines. Finally, Colombians were allowed to contract civil marriages without abjuring the Catholic faith. The civil validity of church weddings was also recognized, although all marriages were also to be recorded on the civil registry. Catholic marriages, however, could only be dissolved through arbitration in a church court.

Despite these changes, the tenacity of custom and the church's traditional position as a moral and social arbiter ensured its continued strong presence in national life. The parish church still was recognized as the center of nearly every community, and the local priest was often the major figure of authority and leadership. Moreover, most priests were native Colombians, in sharp contrast to the dependence on foreign clergy generally prevalent in Latin America. Approximately 95 percent of diocesan priests and 65 percent of priests belonging to religious orders were Colombians. Since independence, all but four bishops have been Colombian.

In comparison with Catholicism, other religions continued to play a small role in the 1980s. The Protestant population numbered roughly 200,000; Jews were far less numerous, having only a few small congregations in larger cities. In the past, restrictive immigration policy kept most non-Catholics from entering the country. Although Protestant missionaries had been officially allowed to proselytize since the 1930s, they often met with opposition from members of the Catholic clergy and laity. NonCatholics are guaranteed freedom of worship under the Constitution, however.

Few of the indigenous religions encountered by the Spaniards survived. In the 1980s, the Indians of the highlands were at least nominally Catholic, and only a few tribes in the most isolated regions continued in their traditional beliefs. The nation's black population also was nominally Catholic, although vestiges of African religion and beliefs survived in some communities. The black population on Isla de San Andrés and Isla de Providencia was Protestant, however, having originally been colonized by Britain.

<>The Church in Society
<>Trends Within the Church since the 1940s

Colombia - The Church in Society

The influence of the church varied in different regions of the country and among different social groups, but it was felt everywhere and was rarely questioned. The population in general continued to attach great importance to observance of the formal acts of Catholicism. The rate of attendance at mass was high, particularly among women, who generally took the practice of religion more seriously than men. Church attendance also served traditionally to attest to a woman's general virtue. In some urban parishes, more than 85 percent of the Catholics attended mass. Some cities or regions were noted throughout the country for their religious observance. The people of Antioquia Department, for example, were reputed to be particularly devout Catholics, and the Indians of the southern highlands and residents of Popayán were recognized for their regular attendance at mass and traditional observance of holy days, especially during Holy Week.

To the average Colombian, such primary rites of the church as baptism, first communion, marriage, and extreme unction marked the main turning points in the life cycle and identified him or her as a social being. The Catholic faith was felt to be a part of a person's cultural heritage passed on like language and became an integral part of a person's being.

Members of the upper class and the upper middle class frequently had close personal relations with members of the religious hierarchy. Most of the clergy and nearly all prelates were of upper-class or middle-class origin and therefore shared the interests and attitudes of these groups and felt the closest affinity with them. The upper social levels supported Catholic charities with time and money and provided most of the membership of lay religious associations.

Religious beliefs and practices in the rural peasant communities reflected centuries of geographic isolation and a lack of formal religious training. People in these areas were said to be more devout than those in the cities, but their Catholicism was often very different from that of the urban upper and middle classes. Fusion of Catholic practices and beliefs with indigenous, African, and sixteenth-century Spanish ones was widespread in the countryside. Traces of the rural folk religions also were found in urban lower-class communities, particularly those with many rural migrants.

Most people in rural villages were careful to fulfill what they considered to be their religious obligations to protect themselves from supernatural punishment or to secure blessings from one of the saints. The Virgin Mary and the saints were deeply revered by most people. The saints, especially one's patron saint, were considered to be more accessible than God and sometimes willing to intervene in the individual's temporal affairs.

The mass, the sacraments, religious processions, and objects of religious veneration were shared by nearly all Colombians. Holy day celebrations, particularly the fiestas honoring a community's patron saint, were events of great significance, not only in the religious life of the people but also as elements of social cohesion that united members of the community in a common bond.

Critics within the church contended, however, that this emphasis on the ritual aspects of the faith masked serious deficiencies in the exercise of that faith. In their view, Catholicism had a limited impact on the personal lives of the laity. Many couples had chosen alternatives to a Catholic wedding, such as consensual union or a civil ceremony. In addition, many Catholics lacked even an elementary grounding in church doctrine. Critics also argued that Colombia's ratio of priests to inhabitants--one to 4,000, one of the best in Latin America--was highly misleading. Like most elites, clerics gravitated toward urban areas. In contrast, many rural churches lacked priests for extended periods of time.

Despite these deficiencies, the church continued to exercise considerable influence in a number of areas, including education, social welfare, and union organization. Catholic control over education in Colombia was the strongest in Latin America and even greater than its official powers suggested. The church had its own Secretariat of Education, which maintained two research organizations, a literacy program reaching thousands of rural Colombians, and more than 3,500 schools and universities. With a total enrollment of nearly 300,000 students in the 1970s, the church system was estimated to include over 85 percent of the students in preschool, 20 percent of those in the primary grades, more than 50 percent of those in secondary school, and almost 40 percent of those in universities. Church institutions of higher education were among the most highly respected in the nation, and religious courses played an important part in a student's curriculum.

In 1944 the Episcopal Conference established Catholic Social Action, or simply Catholic Action, a loose collection of programs for social and educational development. Some of the programs for Catholic Action were begun by the hierarchy, whereas others, such as Popular Cultural Action (Acción Cultural Popular--Acpo), a program involving specialized education programs for peasants, were initiated by individual priests and later adopted by the hierarchy. Acpo was best known for its literacy programs, which were conducted through Radio Sutatenza. Most of Acpo's budget was financed by the church, but some assistance was received from the government and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In 1988 the government negotiated a buy-out of Radio Sutatenza, which became part of the state education system.

The church-operated research institutes were founded in the 1960s to conduct socioeconomic studies and act as advisers to the hierarchy. The Center for Research and Social Action (Centro de Investigación y Acción Social--CIAS), subsequently renamed the Center for Research and Popular Education (Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular--Cinep), was run by Jesuits, and the Colombian Institute of Social Development (Instituto Colombiano de Desarrollo Social--Icodes) was staffed by diocesan priests. Both had done studies on housing and population problems, church-sponsored development programs, and land reform, and both were well respected for the quality and reliability of their studies.

Although education was still the most important area of church activity in the mid-1980s, mission activity and social welfare were also major efforts. In the early 1980s, about 1,100 charitable institutions were run by the church, including orphanages, hospitals, and leprosariums. Other welfare institutions were staffed by nuns whose orders were reimbursed by the government. Because of its involvement with the mission territories, the church was also represented in the National Indian Institute. Although the government was slowly taking over the functions of the church in the Indian territories, the church continued to play an important role there.

Two important social welfare programs were Colombian Charity (Caritas Colombiana) and Communal Action (Acción Comunal). Colombiana Charity was set up to coordinate the welfare work of various Catholic institutions. To most Colombians, it was identified with the distribution of agricultural surpluses, shoes, and clothing to the poor. Communal Action, a community development program established by the government in 1958, had significant input from the church at the local level. Priests served as key organizers in Communal Action groups, trying to educate rural Colombians in self-help methods.

The church had been involved with labor organizations since the middle of the nineteenth century, when it was instrumental in the formation of various economic and political pressure groups and later of craft unions. As Liberal-backed unions and communism began to be more influential within the working class during the 1940s, the church moved to increase its own influence. Moving to counteract the Liberal and leftist-oriented Confederation of Colombian Workers (Confederación de Trabajadores Colombianos--CTC), several Jesuits helped to form a labor union inspired by Catholic social doctrine, the Union of Colombian Workers (Unión de Trabajadores Colombianos--UTC).

Responding to the need to organize and maintain the loyalty of the campesinos as well as to supply the UTC with badly needed leverage in its battle with the CTC, the church organized the National Agrarian Federation (Federación Agraria Nacional--Fanal) in 1946. Although not as successful as other rural organizations, Fanal was fairly important in rural land invasions in the 1960s, and it was not unusual to find invasions led by priests.

Colombia - Trends Within the Church since the 1940s

The church's involvement in such activities as social welfare and union organization flowed in part from changes in Colombian society beginning in the 1940s. Of equal importance was the process of renewal that characterized the worldwide Roman Catholic Church in the early 1960s. Both Pope John XXIII (1958-63) and Pope Paul VI (1963-78) issued a series of encyclicals that were unequaled in their efforts to modernize the church as an institution and modify its role in society. These encyclicals stressed the government's obligation to reduce socioeconomic inequalities and the church's obligation to take a leading role in reform.

Although the papal encyclicals pointed the Colombian episcopate in the direction of change, it was not until the 1968 Latin American Bishops Conference (Conferencia Episcopal Latinoamericana- -Celam) in Medellín that these proposed reforms were brought home in the form of a declaration specifically involving Latin America. The core concepts developed during the Medellín conference were the conflict between the "haves" and "have-nots," the need for fundamental institutional reforms, and social action as the key means of Christian influence in the world. The conclusions of the Medellín conference gave the Latin American church the necessary mandate to implement social justice and church reform.

In accordance with the thrust of the Medellín conference, the Colombian bishops endorsed the call for social action. Unlike other Latin American colleagues, however, the Colombian bishops shied away from some of the more dramatic aspects of Medellín. They did not, for example, accept Medellín's view that institutionalized violence characterized Latin American societies. Unable to change the shape of the Medellín documents, the Colombians published a dissenting treatise in the secular press.

The bishops' inability to agree on an approach to social reform and to implement it through strong and effective leadership increased the fragmentation within the church in Colombia and the controversy surrounding the latter's role. Some of the problems developed over organizational rather than ideological disagreements between groups fighting for the same resources or powerful positions. The insufficient economic base and the lack of qualified personnel further limited developmental efforts. Consequently, only development programs operating in strongly Catholic areas had substantial success. Competition among upwardly mobile priests for the attention of the local bishop also detracted from reform and tended to promote those priests eager to conform to the status quo.

Frustration over the lack of dynamic leadership caused some priests to strike out on their own. The first to do so was Camilo Torres, an upper-class Colombian who left the priesthood to become a guerrilla. Torres was killed in 1966, less than six months after he joined the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional--ELN), thus becoming the first so-called martyr of the Catholic left in Latin America. He became a symbol for many leftists with his commitment to radical change through violence.

In the late 1960s, many Colombian clergymen, encouraged by Torres's example, were determined to work for social change. Except for Gerardo Valencia Cano, bishop of Buenaventura, none of the episcopate supported their work. Spurned by the hierarchy, the group attempted to develop a power base strong enough to break the religious and secular hold of the elite. Basing their platforms on Marxist concepts, they began to hold protest demonstrations to rally support against the hierarchy and to promote programs of radical social change.

In spite of the rejection of the Medellín conclusions by the majority of Colombian bishops, the activists led by Bishop Valencia became the first group in Latin America to issue a manifesto and a platform for social reform based on the resolutions of the Medellín conference. Meeting in 1968 and taking the name Golconda Group-- "Golconda" after the farmhouse where they first met--the group led the revolutionary wing of the Colombian church until early 1970. The Golconda Group elaborated an anticapitalist, anti-imperialist stance and a platform that included recourse to violence under certain conditions. By advocating violence, however, the group touched a sensitive nerve among Colombians and undercut potential support from many progressive Catholics who were ready to promote change.

The Golconda Group became involved in political as well as social issues and encouraged the Colombian people to boycott the elections of 1970 and thereby refuse to give a democratic stamp to either of the official parties. This antagonistic attitude toward the government led to charges of communist sympathies and to the eventual repression and imprisonment of members of the movement. Because the group was small and radical and because government and ecclesiastical opposition was effectively organized against it, it was short lived. After several members were imprisoned on the eve of its third annual meeting in early 1970, the Golconda Group ceased to exist as a single organization, although individuals continued to use its name. Despite the fact that their efforts to effect sweeping social changes were not successful, members of the Golconda Group came to be considered forerunners of the controversial liberation theology movement among the Catholic clergy elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere.

After the demise of the Golconda Group, radical activity remained largely diffuse and ineffective, appearing to have subsided. Bishop Valencia was killed in an airplane crash in February 1972, and with his death the radical clerics lost their only supporter among the hierarchy. Other groups were formed, and support grew for the radical wing of the church, but no group was as dynamic or controversial as the Golconda Group had been.

The lack of active commitment on the part of the bishops had several effects. On the one hand, the weakness of the hierarchy's approval and/or disapproval of radical clergy led to confusion in the public interpretation of Catholic social ideology among Colombians. On the other hand, the lack of protection against government repression convinced many that the official church was not genuinely interested in change. Finally, the national effort at socioeconomic development was hampered because, without consensus, the impact of the church on reform remained piecemeal.

The explanation for the Colombian church's relatively undynamic nature rested primarily with the distinctive political context within which the church operated. The church had become most prominent in those countries of Latin America where a repressive political context simplified options and displaced ordinary social pressures and where the episcopal leadership--more often than not impelled by lower-level activism within the church--was willing to commit the institution to an active role in public conflict. Neither of these conditions existed in Colombia after the Medellín conference.

The Colombian church functioned within a relatively open, competitive political system. Despite continuing high levels of violence, Colombia's political context allowed some play of social and political forces, keeping open channels that when closed in other societies displaced pressures onto the church. The political system showed at least some responsiveness to changing demands and was accompanied by considerable economic success. The nation's imperfect, oligarchical democracy, muddling as usual through a series of crises, did not offer a target to justify violent corrective action. No convincing case had been made by anyone-- whether militants in the church or the secular left more generally- -that gathered significant popular support behind armed overthrow of the regime.

The absence of a repressive political context limited the political role of the Colombian church. Indeed, after the 1960s the church's ability to shape the outcome of political issues declined substantially. Nor did the church use its teaching authority compellingly enough to affect clearly the broader agenda of social choices. Its negative pleas--for example, against birth control and political violence--were notably ineffective.

The one way in which the church may have been important politically was in upholding the legitimacy of Colombia's oligarchical democracy. It came to this position in the mid-1950s, after having been long divided over identification with the Conservative Party. The horrifying spectacle of la violencia (1948-66) and the affronts of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla led the church hierarchy to endorse his overthrow and the subsequent regime of the National Front. It consistently defended the National Front regime and its less formally consociational successor against critics in the church itself and in society in general.

Has this church legitimation of the existing political system made a difference? Colombia's oligarchical democracy survived, against many predictions and in contrast to the civilian politics of many other countries. The continuing support of the institutional church was one potential explanation. A long line of "rebel priests" and nuns, beginning with Torres in the mid-1960s, believed that the church's legitimation of established politics was both morally wrong and politically important. They frequently suggested that the church's support was crucial to the status quo.

The recent past, however, did not bear out this assertion in any clear way. The church had demonstrated a potential negative power to topple a regime (for example, in helping bring down Rojas Pinilla in 1957). From that, however, the weight of its positive support, as distinguished from its neutrality, could only be indirectly inferred. If progressive activists had been able to move the institutional church into a militant, liberationist position against the regime, they would undoubtedly have threatened the regime's foundations. In addition, if they had even won enough support for the church to have publicly divided internally over the legitimacy of the regime, they would have deeply shaken the regime's stability. However, neither development occurred.

Colombia - EDUCATION

The education sector has grown explosively at all levels since the early 1960s. By 1987 primary-school enrollment had more than doubled, secondary-school enrollment had grown sixfold, and university enrollments had increased fifteen times. The literacy rate was approximately 88 percent in 1987. Private schools accounted for 15 percent of the enrollments at the primary level, 40 percent at the secondary-school level, and 60 percent at the university level. But the principal reason for the rapid expansion of the education system was the massive increase in public outlays for education.

Government funding for education increased fivefold in real terms between 1966 and 1986. In 1987 federal education expenditures represented between a quarter and a third of the national budget. The country's rapid urbanization fostered the overall expansion of education from the 1960s through the late 1980s. Various modifications in national legislation regulating education increased national government responsibility in education financing. Among the key modifications were the nationalization laws that in 1960 transferred financial responsibility for primary education to the national government and in 1975 did the same for secondary education. In addition, mechanisms for revenue-sharing between the regions and the national government were developed. Despite considerable progress, however, major disparities in education quality persisted among social classes and regions, as well as between the public and private sectors and between rural and urban areas.

<>Historical Background
<>Administration and Finance
<>Primary Education
<>Secondary and University Education

Colombia - EDUCATION - Historical Background

Until well after the achievement of independence early in the nineteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church remained the principal authority in the sphere of education. The first schools were established by the church during the sixteenth century, and in the seventeenth century the sons of Spanish settlers received schooling in the first seminaries. Two universities were founded by the church before 1700, and, although the eighteenth century saw the emergence of some secular influence in education, an effort to found a public university was abandoned because of clerical opposition.

After the achievement of independence, the government's control over the school system increased progressively, and ever-larger numbers of students attended public schools. Nevertheless, the traditionally dominant role played by the church in education profoundly influenced the role played by education in society and probably contributed to a reluctance to change educational institutions. Observers of Colombian education repeatedly pointed out that far from furthering social mobility, the system reinforced social stratification.

Primary education served as an instrument of mobility to some extent because it raised the level of literacy and thus enabled many people to enter the mainstream of national life. In urban localities, it also enabled workers to find better-paying jobs and thus to raise their standard of living, if not their social status. In the countryside, however, schooling was of little value. In general, a vicious circle existed in which a low technological level in agriculture and a low educational level mutually reinforced each other.

In the past, education above the primary level perpetuated the class system because of the near absence of schools of any kind in rural localities, the unavailability of enough secondary schools to accommodate many of the qualified applicants, and the disproportionate acceptance of students from the more prosperous upper-class families. In addition, above the primary level, tuition was charged in public as well as in private schools. This cost, plus the cost of books, supplies, and school uniforms, placed secondary schooling beyond the means of most working-class families. Rural and small-city parents also had to bear the frequently prohibitive costs of transportation and room and board. Private secondary education prospered through its ability to cater to the needs of the elite. The Ministry of Education in a 1966 report criticized the secondary schools for accentuating social differences rather than encouraging vertical social mobility. The children of the poor were unable to enter the best schools offering an academic education, and the few secondary agricultural and other vocational schools available to them tended to discourage upward mobility. The ministry's report added that for most students the principal reason for completing secondary or higher studies was the social status conferred.

In Colombia, as in most other Latin American countries, a distinction was drawn between the academic and the vocational secondary school, and working-class as well as elite families much preferred the former. The distinction was so sharp that, although it was possible in some instances for vocational graduates to go on to universities, the term secondary was customarily applied only to the academic schools. The faster growth of the already much larger academic school enrollment during the 1960s and 1970s reflected a continued disregard for manual labor and a continued tendency to attach little social value even to the highest of manual skills. The largest vocational enrollments were in the commercial institutions teaching white-collar skills.

Until after World War II, a university education was the exclusive province of the country's elite. But after many new universities were established and their enrollment growth exceeded that at other levels of education, the universities lost something of their exclusive character.

Colombia - EDUCATION - Administration and Finance

In the 1980s, the national government continued to bear the primary responsibility for public and private education. The authority was extended downward from the president to the minister of education and by delegation to the secretaries of education in the departments, the national territories, and the large municipalities that maintained their own school systems. It extended also to several decentralized institutions concerned with education matters.

There were various kinds of schools. At all levels of schooling, the central government operated a small system of national schools ranging from preschool units in major urban centers to the massive UNC in Bogotá. Only in Caquetá Department, however, were national schools in a majority. Most of the schools were maintained by the departments and the national territories, and many were maintained by municipalities with populations of more than 100,000. Because schools in the national system were large and well known and their teaching staffs were in a favored position, analysts often overemphasized their numerical importance.

The private sector of education was made up of schools operated by the Roman Catholic Church, schools operated by other religious denominations, private schools, and cooperative schools operated by communities. Catholic schools predominated.

The Constitution guarantees freedom for private ownership and operation of schools in the private sector. However, they had to be licensed, meet public-school standards, and generally use the public curriculum, and they were subject to supervision by the public inspection system. Private institutions administered by foreign organizations could use the language of the home country for instruction, but they had to employ Colombian teachers to conduct classes in the Spanish language on the country's history and geography. Catholic schools used texts prepared by Catholic publishers adapted under government order to conform to the prescribed official program of study. The Colombian government relied heavily on the private school system, and it financially supported institutions that provided scholarships to children from poorer families.

In the 1980s, the administration of the education system involved an interplay between forces of central control and forces of regional decentralization in which political considerations had an important part. This interplay had existed for many years, and the complexity of the issues involved was perhaps best exemplified by the issuance in 1968 of a decree establishing the system of Regional Educational Funds (Fondos Educativos Regionales--FER) as a many-faceted attack on the country's educational problems. Theoretically, the public education system had been a unit in which the Ministry of Education set down patterns and rules and coordinated and supervised the day-to-day administration provided at the regional levels. In practice, a kind of anarchy had developed, in which the departmental and municipal systems had operated with a degree of de facto autonomy that prevented the central authority from effectively using the material and human resources theoretically at its command.

The FER program sought to remedy this situation by establishing a relationship between the Ministry of Education and the regional school systems in which the amount of money assigned to each regional system and the manner in which it was to be spent were determined by contract. To administer the FER program and to provide a direct line of communication between the national and departmental levels, delegates were named by the minister of education to oversee the FER programs and to cooperate with the regional secretaries of education in administering the local education systems. Because the delegates were to reside in the departmental capitals and devote their attention exclusively to the departmental and municipal school systems in a particular area, the Ministry of Education maintained that the change was one of decentralization. In fact, it was the exact opposite.

Before the end of 1969, contracts had been signed by each of the departmental governors. The most significant portion of each contract was a section requiring that the department establish a special bank account to receive the monthly national contributions. If the terms of the contract were violated or if during any month the corresponding regional contributions to the education fund were not deposited, the contract would be suspended, and any unexpended funds would be returnable to the national government. Although this was the only sanction set forth in the contract, it was a highly potent one.

The FER system achieved mixed results. The varying degrees of noncompliance resulted from and illustrated the problems that had plagued the country's education system in the past and continued to disturb it into the 1980s. The root causes were intense regionalism and the politicization of the local systems.

The presence of the delegate as the representative of the control authority was frequently resented. What the central authority wanted did not always meet regional needs. The regional delegate could work only through the regional secretary of education, who was not an educator and who was not concerned primarily with education. In addition, the regional delegate was responsible not to the minister of education but to the governor of the department, who was in turn responsible to one of the two major political parties.

Although the education sector grew continually after the 1930s, the most rapid changes occurred after the 1960s. Colombia began to move toward a long-standing educational goal, equal access to primary education for all sectors of society. In 1987 about 90 percent of the children between seven (the age established for obligatory primary school attendance) and eleven years of age attended primary school in urban areas. In many rural areas, however, the number was often below 70 percent, and in some areas it even dipped below 50 percent in 1988.

The educational levels of the population improved in tandem with the country's economic growth. Around 30 percent of the twelve-year-old population went to secondary school in 1985, in contrast to only roughly 8 percent in 1951. Nevertheless, percentages were much lower in the rural areas because there were few secondary schools. Moreover, 80 percent of all university students attended classes in just five cities.

In quantitative terms, the performance of Colombia's education sector has been impressive. Although increases in the number of young people entering the school system have remained constant-- roughly 3 percent annually throughout the 1970s and 1980s--the system not only has kept pace with population growth but also has increased its rate of absorption of students. In absolute figures, one of the most difficult tasks for the public primary schools was the absorption of 2 million new students in less than twenty years. This growth was particularly remarkable, given that the system had less than 1.5 million students in 1960. But this accelerated growth was achieved at the cost of a decline in the quality of public education because it focused largely on the increased availability of classrooms and teachers without taking into account the need for supplying other critical resources.

Colombia - Primary Education

The constant efforts to improve the coverage provided by public primary schools produced remarkable results. The fact that 90 percent of the children in the appropriate age-groups in urban areas and nearly 70 percent of children in rural areas attended primary school indicated that further expansion would require carefully developed regional strategies rather than a broadbrush approach.

This requirement was especially true of the ten-year old-age- group, which had not increased in the 1980s and was projected to grow by a mere 1 percent during the 1990s. Because many urban areas had achieved very high coverage levels, further expansion of the primary system was not needed. Substantial differences in enrollment rates among departments were directly correlated with levels of urbanization, although there were also other intervening variables: size of age-groups, population growth rates, and migratory patterns.

Although quality education was a difficult and subjective concept, many indicators suggested that there was substantial room for improvement. Rates of attrition had decreased, and rates of graduation had improved since the 1960s. The repetition rate had also gone down slightly. Nevertheless, only 62 percent of those students who entered primary schools in urban areas finished sixth grade, and in rural areas the rate was just 18 percent. In the departments, the variations were quite large, ranging from 34 percent to 81 percent in urban areas and from 9 percent to 41 percent in rural areas. The grade repetition rates were uniform by region but still quite high, ranging from 20 percent in the first grade to 7 percent in the fifth. Students in urban areas completed an average of 3.7 primary-school grades, whereas those in rural zones completed an average of only 1.7 grades.

The low quality of education was one of the reasons for the high rates of student attrition and the major reason for the high rate of grade repetition. To improve the quality of education, in 1985 the Plan of Curriculum Revision was approved after years of testing. But up until 1988, it had been implemented only partially because of administrative and financial problems.

Levels of teacher preparation have improved gradually since the 1960s. In the 1960s, 11 percent of primary teachers had only primary-school education or less; in the 1980s, only 1 percent fell into this category. In 1960 only 2 percent of primary teachers had any postsecondary education. In the 1980s, the corresponding figure was 13 percent.

A 1983 law stipulated that 1 percent of the education budget be targeted for the purchase of textbooks, but the law was not applied. In practice, the availability of materials was a function of the goodwill and financial situation of the individual teacher and the community in which he or she worked.

Thus, despite relatively better-qualified teachers and more classrooms, other ingredients essential for high-quality teaching were unavailable. Teacher orientation, teacher assistance, and administration of the system had degenerated dramatically, leaving many schoolteachers frustrated and demoralized.

Colombia - Secondary and University Education

Secondary education, concentrated in the principal urban areas, evolved much as had primary education in urban areas but remained virtually nonexistent in the countryside. Increases in coverage at the secondary level occurred in response to increased demand, but 40 percent of all secondary enrollment and 60 percent of higher education still were absorbed by the private sector.

Inefficiency and low quality were also major problems in Colombia's secondary schools, although to a lesser degree than at the primary level. At the secondary-school level, 55 percent of all teachers had completed university studies, students used modern learning aids in class, and teaching materials of high quality were generally available.

The technical education sector, except for the so-called commercial branch, was relatively small and expensive in Colombia. Seventy-six percent of students were enrolled in regular academic schools. Another 12 percent were enrolled in commercial schools. Since 1970 the National Institutes of Diversified Intermediate Education (Institutos Nacionales de Educación Media Diversificada-- INEM) have taken on increasing importance, as has the National Apprenticeship Service (Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje--Sena), which was charged with financial responsibility for the formal technical schools, has received significant backing from both the public and private sectors, and has proved quite successful. In 1987 some 15 percent of the urban work force was estimated to have attended Sena counseling. The technical education sector also included normal schools, which were charged with preparing primaryschool teachers, but these schools were heavily criticized for inflexible, irrelevant curriculum and poor quality.

Higher education had expanded more than the other two levels of the system. This expansion was especially true in private institutions. There were few reliable data on the quality of higher education except in those universities that maintained high entrance requirements. Most of these were concentrated in Bogotá and a few other principal cities. Nonetheless, observers agreed that the rapid expansion of higher education had in general occurred at the expense of quality. It was common to find professors working part time in several institutions and students attending only night courses. In most universities, there was a notable imbalance between the development needs of the country and the areas of specialization offered and a virtual absence of scientific and technological research. The frequent suspension of classes as a result of student strikes was a constant problem until early in the 1980s, when strike activity dropped substantially in most universities. In the 1970s, however, the best public universities were closed at least half the time because of student strikes.

Various studies of the education system in Colombia have demonstrated its highly stratified character. A disproportionate number of secondary-school students came from the upper-income brackets, and higher education further amplified this socioeconomic bias, even though all public universities and many private ones had adopted admission requirements based solely on academic performance. The bias in favor of higher-income students was slightly higher in private than in public institutions.


In the 1980s, Colombia achieved international notoriety as a major narcotics trafficking center. Nonetheless, the country's involvement with drugs was rooted farther back in history. As in Bolivia and Peru, although on a smaller scale, Colombia's indigenous populations had grown and chewed coca for thousands of years. Marijuana cultivation, in contrast, was a much more recent phenomenon. It arrived in Colombia along the Caribbean coast via Panama during the first decade of the twentieth century. By the 1930s, limited cultivation had begun among the Costeño black population centered on Barranquilla; urban criminals there routinely smoked marijuana. During World War II, experiments with hemp cultivation designed to increase fiber production for the war effort substantially expanded its cultivation.

The real takeoff of Colombian marijuana production began in the mid- and late 1960s as a result of the growing demand generated by the United States market. By the early 1970s, Colombia had emerged as a major United States supplier, although most of the market remained in the hands of Mexican traffickers. When in the early 1970s the United States tightened up drug enforcement along the United States-Mexican border and the Mexican state launched a major drive against its domestic producers, the epicenter of marijuana production in the hemisphere rapidly shifted to Colombia, especially to the Guajira Peninsula and the slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. By the end of the decade, Colombia accounted for about 70 percent of the marijuana reaching the United States from abroad. Between 30,000 and 50,000 small farmers along Colombia's Caribbean coast came to depend directly on marijuana cultivation for their livelihood, while at least another 50,000 Colombians--including seasonal pickers, transporters, guards, and bankers--made a living from it.

The trade proved to be an important source of new wealth for the Caribbean coast, providing the population with income, comforts, and a degree of economic stability that they had never before enjoyed. The Caribbean port cities of Barranquilla, Santa Marta, and Riohacha, in particular, experienced unprecedented prosperity. At the same time, however, the Guajira Peninsula experienced a dramatic upsurge in drug-related violence and a concomitant disintegration of local police and judicial institutions as the result of corruption and bribery. Local food production declined as tens of thousands of hectares were converted to marijuana cultivation. Farmers engaged in growing traditional crops such as bananas found labor more expensive and in short supply. Inflation was stimulated, especially in land markets, as drug barons bid up prices. Many legitimate businesses, including banks, hotels, airlines, restaurants, and casinos, were bought up by the mafiosos and used for laundering illicit profits.

The Colombian cocaine trade followed in the footsteps of the marijuana traffickers. In the late 1960s, a relatively small cocaine smuggling network, largely under the control of exile Cuban criminal organizations based in Miami, sprang up. Coca was cultivated in small plots by Paez Indians in the San Jorge Valley in the department of Cauca in southwestern Colombia and in the Cordillera Occidental. Smuggling was carried out largely by individual carriers, or "mules," who transported a few kilograms at a time using commercial airlines.

In the early 1970s, as demand for cocaine expanded rapidly in the United States, the limited raw coca supplies produced in Colombia were augmented with coca paste imported from Bolivia and Peru, refined in "kitchen laboratories" in Colombia, and smuggled into the United States. The 1973 Chilean military coup that deposed President Salvador Allende Gossens also proved to be a severe blow to the Chilean criminal gangs involved in the cocaine trade in that country. When the military government of General Agusto Pinochet Ugarte clamped down, many Chilean "chemists" fled Chile and ended up swelling the ranks of the nascent smuggling and refining networks in Colombia and Miami. In addition, two Colombians--Carlos Lehder Rivas and Jorge Luis Ochoa Vásquez--worked with the Medellín criminal networks in the mid-1970s to transform the cocaine transportation system from small-time mule activities into huge airlift operations.

By late 1977, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had opened a file under the name "Medellín Trafficking Syndicate." Violence was an integral part of the operations of the Medellín syndicate from the start. As the organization grew in size, power, and wealth, it also grew in ruthlessness and violence. After first establishing their dominance on the South American side of the market, in 1978 and 1979 the Medellín drug bosses turned their attention to control of wholesale distribution in the United States. Thus began a period of violence in South Florida known as "the Cocaine Wars." It peaked in 1981 with a reported 101 drug- related murders in that year.

As the violence subsided in late 1981 and afterward, what emerged was a loosely organized criminal organization known as the Medellín Cartel. In effect, by installing their own middlemen in Miami, the Colombians "forward integrated" their operations and thus were able to capture additional profits. By reinvesting their profits in the business, they were able to expand and streamline production in Colombia and farther south in the Andes. They also purchased bigger and better airplanes and boats for transporting drugs, purchased more sophisticated electronic communications devices and radar to escape detection, and paid huge sums in bribes for protection to law enforcement officials in Colombia, the United States, and elsewhere.

By the early 1980s, the marijuana traffic was already being eclipsed by the cocaine trade in terms of the wealth and power associated with it. Cocaine also generated criminal organizations that were more profitable, more vertically integrated, more hierarchical in structure, and more ruthless in their systematic use of bribery, intimidation, and assassination than the marijuana traffickers. Although Colombia had long been accustomed to extraordinarily high levels of violence, the rise of the drug mafia provoked a qualitative change. Relying on paid assassins, locally known as sicarios, Colombia's drug lords not only fought among themselves but also launched a systematic campaign of murder and intimidation against Colombia's government authorities intent upon extraditing them to the United States. In the process, they effectively paralyzed the country's system of justice and drove scores of prominent Colombians from all walks of life out of the country and into self-imposed exile. They also contributed significantly to the "devaluation" of life throughout Colombia and converted murder and brutality into a regular source of income for some sectors of society.

Unlike marijuana money, which was concentrated along the Caribbean coast, cocaine money made its way into the major metropolitan areas, especially Barranquilla, Medellín, Cali, and, to a lesser extent, Bogotá. Along with their enormous economic power, the drug lords reached out for a larger quota of political power. Several, like Lehder, bought interests in local radio stations and newspapers. Others, like Pablo Escobar Gavíria, sought to create patron-client followings in the cities by handing out cash to the poor, building low-income housing in the slums, or purchasing sports teams and constructing sports stadiums. A number contributed to political campaigns. Lehder went so far as to create his own Latino Nationalist Party and to publicize his hybrid political ideology (a combination of Colombian and Latin American nationalism, leavened with elements of fascism) through his newspaper, Quindio Libre. In 1982 Escobar was actually elected as an alternate congressman on a Liberal Party slate in his home department of Antioquia.

In addition to corrupting the political and economic systems, narcotics trafficking generated a growing domestic drug problem. In the early 1980s, there developed among Colombian youths a widespread addiction to basuco. A highly contaminated, addictive, and damaging form of cocaine normally smoked with marijuana or tobacco, basuco was dumped by the cocaine smugglers on the Colombian market because it was not of "export" quality. Sold cheap, it soon became more popular in many cities than marijuana, leaving hundreds of thousands of addicts in its wake, many suffering from permanent nervous disorders.

CITATION: Federal Research Division of the
Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

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