A Origins of the Colombian State
Knowing the history of the country of Colombia can provide considerable insight into the political battles that take place all throughout One Hundred Years of Solitude. The original inhabitants of present-day Colombia were conquered by the Spanish in the 1530s and incorporated into the colony of New Granada, which also encompassed the territories of modern-day Panama, Ecuador, and Venezuela. The area lay under Spanish rule for almost 300 years, developing a culture and population that blended Spanish, Indian, and African influences. In 1810 Simon Bolivar led the Mestizo (mixed-race) population in a struggle for independence from Spain. It was achieved with his victory at Boyaca, Colombia, in 1819. The new republic of Gran Colombia fell apart, however, when Ecuador and Venezuela formed separate nations in 1830. The remaining territory assumed the name the Republic of Colombia in 1886. In 1903 the area that is now Panama seceded, helped by the United States, who wanted control of a canal along the isthmus between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Political strife was rampant in 19th-century Colombia and parties formed under Liberal and Conservative banners. These parties corresponded to the followers of President Bolivar and his vice-president and later rival, Francisco Santender, respectively. Their essential conflict was over the amount of power the central government should have (Conservatives advocated more, Liberals less). The two parties waged a number of wars, but the civil war from 1899 to 1902 was incredibly violent, leaving 100,000 people dead. In the novel this history of constant political struggle is reflected in the career of Colonel Aureliano Buendia.
B The United Fruit Company
The United States influenced Colombian history at the beginning of the 20th century with their assistance in Panama’s secession, and American interests continued their influence for many years thereafter. While petroleum, minerals, coffee, and cocoa are now considered Colombia’s main exports, at the start of the 20th century bananas were the country’s chief export. The United Fruit Company (UFC) was the most notorious company invested in this trade. Based in the United States, the UFC gradually assumed control of the Banana Zone-the area of banana plantations in Colombia. The UFC would enter an area, build a company town, attract workers, and pay them in scrip redeemable only in company stores. UFC would then leave as soon as the workers unionized or the harvest began to show fatigue from over-cultivation.
The culminating event of this industry occurred in October 1928, when 32,000 workers went on strike, demanding things like proper sanitary facilities and cash salaries. One night, a huge crowd gathered in the central plaza of Cienaga to hold a demonstration. Troops, who were being paid by UFC in cigarettes and beer, opened fire on the crowd. Gernal Cortes Vargas, in charge of the troops that night, estimated 40 dead. Another observer, however, estimated 400 lying dead in the square and totaled 1,500 dead of wounds incurred there. He also noted an additional 3,000 people with non-fatal injuries. Whichever the real numbers, the incident was officially denied by the government and was not included in the history textbooks. This denial is reflected in the novel when Jose Arcadio Segundo cannot convince anyone that the massacre of strikers he witnessed actually occurred.
C Twentieth-Century Political Conflicts
Social and political division in Colombia intensified throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The next period of Colombian history, “the Violence,” began after the Liberal mayor of Bogota, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, was assassinated. The Liberal government was overthrown, and General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla took control of the government. Both parties sent their paramilitary forces sweeping through the various sectors under their control. Many people were displaced during the fighting. Rojas began a period of absolute military rule, and Congress was subsequently dissolved. It was during Rojas’s rule that Garcia Marquez was forced to leave the country because of an article he had written.
When Rojas fell to a military junta in 1957, the Liberal and Conservative parties agreed on a compromise government, the National Front. This arrangement granted the two parties equal representation within the cabinet and legislature, as well as alternating occupation of the Presidency. While this arrangement lessened the direct political rivalry between the two parties, there came a rise in guerilla insurgencies. This was the atmosphere of Garcia Marquez’s home country during the time he was writing One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Guerilla factions of the 1970s gave way in the 1980s and 1990s to a coordinated network of drug cartels, struggling farmers, and indigenous tribes. Violence often marked the political process, as guerillas and drug lords attempted to influence elections and trials with violent threats. In 1990, after three other candidates were assassinated, Cesar Gaviria Trujillo was elected president. During his administration the people of Colombia approved a new constitution, aimed at further democratizing the political system. The drug trade continued to pose problems for the government, however. When the Medellin drug cartel was broken up in 1993, the Cali cartel grew to fill the vacuum. The government of Liberal Ernesto Samper Pizano, elected in 1994, attempted to combat drug traffickers and thus improve relations with the United States. Popular support for these efforts was not always forthcoming, particularly by small farmers who were economically dependent on the drug trade.