Thousand Day War
War of a Thousand Days (1899-1902)

Colombia was wracked by civil wars between partisans of the Liberal and Conservative parties in the 19th century, generally without participation by its small professional army. Deep political divisions existed between the liberal and conservative elements of society. The "Liberals" favored greater sovereignty for the states, land reform, and support for the peasantry. The "Conservatives" were generally the landed aristocracy who favored a strong central government. This deep political division, characterized by distinction between the classes, would manifest itself throughout Colombia's history and is at the root of many of Colombia's problems today.

The revolution of 1895 started in the interior of Colombia, did not even spread to Panama, and had nothing to do with the independence of that Department. It lasted ninety days. The rebellion in 1895 was promptly suppressed. In October 1899 the Liberals organized another revolutionary outbreak for the purpose of trying to wrest the power from Conservatives, but this attempt had no better success than the movements of 1885 and 1895. The insurrectionary elements were suppressed before they had gathered headway. A year later there was a more formidable outbreak, with severe fighting at Panama.

A series of revolutionary movements began which continued until 1903. This movement was fathered by the Liberal party, which was desirous of wresting the power from the conservatives, who had been in control more or less constantly since 1867. The insurrection was due in great measure to a general feeling of discontent aroused by the corrupt conduct of the Conservative Party, which was then in power.

In 1899, the country descended into civil war between the Liberals and Conservatives. The Liberal Party represented coffee plantation owners and workers who had been largely excluded from the government after the Conservatives' ascension to power in the 1880's. The revolution was begun on October 17, 1899, almost the precise date of the outbreak of the Boer war. The government placed 75,000 men under arms, and the revolutionists were believed to have mustered 35,000. Some 400 combats of greater or less importance had been reported up to February 1902; the number of men killed on both sides, up to that time, was estimated at 50,000. In January 1900 Vice-President Jose Marroquin seized upon the government, imprisoned President San Clemente (who died in prison in March 1902), and another period of disturbance began. The rebels were defeated in May 1900 in a desperate battle at Cartagena, and continuous fighting went on about Panama, where British marines had to be landed to protect foreign interests. As the year 1900 advanced, the conflict went on with varying success, but the government troops were generally victorious. In August, 1900, the Vice-President, Marroquin, made himself master of the Government, and carried on an energetic campaign against the Liberals. Vice-President Marroquin was recognized as the acting head of the executive, with a cabinet under General Calderon. His administration was seriously handicapped by the lack of concord among the Conservative leaders. The main Liberal forces were defeated within seven months. However, disorganized guerrilla warfare continued for the next two and a half years in the rural areas, resulting in significant destruction of property and loss of life. The Conservative government was unable topacify the countryside through military means, imprisonment, or expropriation of property. To re-establish order in the nation, the Conservative government negotiated a peace with the Liberals promising amnesty to the rebels, free elections, and political reform.

In 1901 the rebellion continued, and severe fighting took place about Colon. Fighting went on with great fierceness, the government troops generally winning the battles. On several occasions foreign troops had to be landed to protect foreign interests, as was the case at Colon and Panama, to protect the operations of the Panama Railroad. On the final overthrow of the revolutionists, the country was in a deplorable condition. Tens of thousands of lives had been destroyed, as well as property and trade. In many towns and villages practically the entire male population was wiped out. This revolution had a particular bearing upon the United States, because it was during its progress that the United States was negotiating with Colombia for the Panama Canal Zone.

During 1901 it was supposed, with good reason, that the rebels were receiving aid from Venezuela and Ecuador, where the Liberal elements were in power, and were aiming at the overthrow of the Conservative Party and the ultimate restoration of the old Republic of Colombia, embracing the present commonwealths of Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. Severe fighting occurred around Panama in 1901 and 1902.

The poorest people, who earn their living by the sweat of their brows, were those who suffered the most. The government found that the issue of paper money would not supply its necessities. Foreign exchange must be bought with which to get war materials, and as it required some fifty pesos to buy each dollar, this fell with crippling force on the treasury. Although the government yielded to the temptation to issue larger and larger sums of paper money, and had seen its pernicious effects on the morals of the people and on the integrity of the government itself, there was no remedy except to continue or to confiscate the property of the people for public uses. The Colombian peso has declined in value, since the outbreak of the war, from 25 cents in gold to about two cents. There were about 200,000;000 pesos of inconvertible paper currency in circulation, which is legal tender for all debts and obligations.

The result was a compromise in which the evil effects of both measures are clearly felt. Confiscation of property, forced loans, and contributions of war have been required of the people, and especially from those who are known to sympathize with the revolutionary party. Industry of every kind was almost completely paralyzed, agriculture destroyed, many of the farmhouses burned, and villages abandoned ; and with the forced loans and contributions of war, the banks and commercial houses in all the business centers of the republic were on the verge of ruin.

The Conservative party suppressed 'parliamentary government,' and established in its place a 'presidential government.' The real meaning of this expression is that the development of the Colombian Government is exactly the contrary of that of the English Government. In Colombia the real power is lodged in the president, while in England it is in reality in the House of Commons. The president cannot be called to account for his actions, and he possesses extraordinary power to issue legislative decrees and to execute the laws by what is known as 'the administrative process.' He appoints his cabinet, the governors of the states, and all executive officers, either directly or through those whom he has already appointed and can remove at will. These officers become his personal agents. To change this plan of government is one of the objects of the revolutionary leaders, and they believe that only an armed insurrection can change it.

All members of the Liberal party have been excluded, not by law, but by the practice of the 'powers that be,' from all civil and military offices ever since the Conservatives came into power. This is in general true, and the excuse made by the government party was that the opposition has made known its intention to overthrow the government at the first opportunity. The Liberals said that no remedy can be found in the government itself, for the powers of Congress are exceedingly limited, and that no legislation could even be proposed without the consent of the 'Council of State' (composed of men entirely under the control of the presidential party). In addition, the election laws, and the practices under them, were such that the government party can prevent the return of any candidate that it may wish to exclude, as was constantly done since 1886. This fact, admitted in its general terms by all parties in Colombia, is used to justify the plea that the institutions ought to be reformed, and cannot be reformed except at the point of the bayonet.

A Church question was involved in the strife, so that the clerical party was entirely on the Conservative side. The Liberal party affirmed that the favors shown to the Roman Catholic clergy, orders, etc., in exemptions of trials before the common courts and from the payment of taxes, import duties, etc., were unjust to the rest of the population, and should be abolished. Strong objections were made to the laws that placed the entire control of education at public expense in the hands of the clergy, and to those that placed the administration of the public cemeteries in their hands, because they were abused for party and Church interests. Equally strong objections were made to the marriage laws, as these laws were administered and offenses against them were judged by the clergy. Violent objections were also made to the payment to the Church officers of an annual tax of considerable proportions, on account of some claims that the Church had made against the government of Colombia for property taken years ago. The Conservatives, on the other hand, charge the Liberals with opposition to the Roman Catholic Church, not so much on account of disliking the exemptions granted and the privileges given, as on account of opposition to all religion, and because they desire to live irreligious and immoral lives.

The insurrection which began in October 1899, was ended on November 22, 1902, the fleet and war stores of the insurgents being restored to the Government. On the one occasion in which the military took sides, the reaction almost led to its disappearance. Not until after the War of the Thousand Days (1899-1902) and the long peace that followed was a professional force firmly established. By the time the conflict, known as the "War of a Thousand Days," ended in 1902, up to 130,000 lives had been lost. Following the war, the national government was too weak to suppress a revolt in Panama. Subsequently, with the aid of the United States, Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903.

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