Numerous countries, unions, and sovereign states have risen and fallen over the many years of our history. One of these collapsed states is known by the name of Gran Colombia, or, “Greater Colombia”, and lasted from 1819 to only 1831. Gran Colombia, which was at that time known simply as Colombia, was made up of today’s Republic of Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela, in addition to also including bits of both Peru and Brazil.
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When the state existed, it was widely respected and viewed as one of, if not the, most important and esteemed nations in the Spanish Americas. The U.S. Secretary of State at the time of Gran Colombia’s birth, which was then John Quincy Adams, even considered the state to be one of the most powerful countries across the globe. This episode is brought to you by CuriosityStream, a subscription streaming service that offers thousands of documentaries and nonfiction titles from some of the world’s best filmmakers, including exclusive originals.
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For one, there was disagreement between the leadership in Gran Colombia and some European states as to how much territory the former technically had authority over. Specifically, France, Russia, and Austria were unwilling to acknowledge the new nation’s independent existence unless it, along with any other country hoping for the same recognition in the Americas, was willing to accept a monarch from a European dynasty. Nonetheless, Gran Colombia was formally proclaimed with the Fundamental Law of the Republic of Colombia which came from the Congress of Angostura in 1819.
In 1821, the Congress of Cúcuta promulgated the Constitution of Cúcuta and officially established the new sovereign state. Problems, unfortunately, arose fairly quickly within Gran Colombia though, as the nation was split between those who favored a strong centralized government, meanwhile the rest preferred the idea of a decentralized federal government, similar to what can be seen in the United States. Furthermore, some of the population that was against a centralized, powerful presidency, went so far as to pushing for the brand-new state to split up into multiple smaller republics,
putting themselves into direct opposition to those who wanted to strengthen the presidency even more, as well as another faction which was the only one of the three to support the current Constitution of Cúcuta. Contemporarily, the government of Gran Colombia was governed by the very constitution that some of its citizens opposed and Simón Bolívar (See-Mon) had been named President with Francisco de Paula Santander as his Vice-President. The president was essentially the head of the central and local executive branches and the vice president existed in case the president was to be absent, impeached, fall ill, or die.
Within the local branches of government, the country was divided into 12 departments who were each headed by an intendant, and those departments were divided further into 36 provinces which were subsequently overseen by a governor whose power overlapped with the relevant intendant. Each intendant and governor were handpicked by the central government, which itself consisted of the president, V.P., a bicameral congress, and a high court. The election of President and V.P. was done through indirect elections as well. Though the government was fairly stable, putting aside the political division,
of course, one major mistake that Gran Colombia may have made was its decisions to become quickly involved in the fight for freedom from the Spanish of the surrounding provinces. Venezuela, Panama, Pasto, Quito, and other Spanish American states were all assisted by Gran Colombia, and most ended up joining the federation between 1821-1822, and Peru became the next neighbor to gain independence from Spain in 1824 thanks to aid from Gran Colombia.
As the political unrest within the new state had been put aside, and Bolívar and Santander had proved themselves to be “heroes” for Spanish America, the duo was re-elected in 1826. Regardless of the temporary unity against the Spanish, the federalist and regionalist factions within Gran Colombia were nowhere near non-existent. As the war against Spain ended, the political discord was reinvigorated. Furthermore, economic and commercial disagreements began to develop from the pre-existing tensions.
The region of modern-day’s Ecuador in particular had significant economic concerns that had been prevalent since the 18th century when their textile industry had been negatively impacted by competing, cheaper textile imports. While Gran Colombia had decided to adopt a low-tariff approach to help regions such as today’s Venezuela with the agricultural industry, President Bolívar was too preoccupied with defeating the royalists in Peru than helping the struggling Ecuador region.
Ecuador also had political grievances, being vastly unrepresented by the government which, at a local level, was generally made up of Venezuelans and New Granadans. Thankfully for Bolívar, despite these problems never being fixed, Ecuador was never really a culprit for the anti-central government movements. Instead, and somewhat surprisingly, Venezuela was one of the main instigators of this sentiment and José Antonio Páez, who had previously fought against the Spanish monarchy for President Bolívar, was now the Commandant General of the Department of Venezuela and served as a leader in the movement against the central government.
By 1826, the Congress grew weary of Páez’s new stance and began the process of impeaching him. In a clear statement of defiance, he first stepped down from his position, but only two days later he decided to reassume the role with the support of the local people who also opposed the central government. To make matters worse for the president and his administration, a junta pledged their support for Páez and his movement. President Bolívar attempted to counteract this push against him and his government by promoting a new constitution that he’d written for Bolivia,
but for the most part, his tactic backfired, and he either faced indifference or aggressive opposition from many groups and most remarkably, from his own Vice President Santander. The situation escalated and two assemblies ended up meeting in Venezuela to consider the possibility of independence or other alternatives they may have for their future. In terms of independence from Gran Colombia, no decision was yet made, but the thought was not forgotten. Armed conflict even broke out at one point in different regions of Venezuela as the supporters of the president clashed with Páez’s followers.
The discord continued until President Bolívar offered amnesty and a promise that a new constituent assembly would be convened to discuss the concerns of his Venezuelan adversaries. Páez agreed to the deal and finally recognized the authority of the president. Reforms were made, but not to the satisfaction of his supporters, which would significantly harm the unity of Gran Colombia in the long run. In fact, this was around the time that the federation truly began to crumble. Doomed from the start by political disunity and a poor governmental structure in the eyes of many, Gran Colombia started its dissent into abolition around 1828. This year,
a new constituent assembly, known as the Convention of Ocaña began to discuss the union’s future. President Bolívar tried to push his Bolivian constitution yet again, hoping to base a new Gran Colombian constitution on his work, but still, he did not find many who were in agreement with this idea. A new federalist constitution was instead proposed, but those in favor of the president were in such disagreement that they not only refused to sign this constitution,
but they even went as far as flatly walking out of the deliberations. This essentially ended the convention and put President Bolívar in a precarious position, in desperate need to restabilize his nation. In a disastrous blunder on his part, Bolívar tried to prevent the union from falling apart, which he felt Vice-President: Francisco de Paula Santander, José María Obando, and José Antonio Páez were going to bring about, by centralizing his own constitutional powers even further. He failed, in every way possible, and the nation was on an undeniable path toward dissolution. In 1830, Bolívar resigned in shame, knowing that there was nothing more he could do.
The political conflict only worsened after his exit, and finally, in 1831, the federation of Gran Colombia was completely abolished. In its place, the republics of Venezuela, Ecuador, and New Granada were birthed, although the Republic of New Granada would later become the Granadine Confederation in 1858, and later the United States of Colombia in 1863. Finally, in 1886, the modern-day name, the Republic of Colombia, was adopted.
Panama then remained a department of the Republic of Colombia, after choosing to join Gran Colombia back in its prime, until 1903 when it gained independence, in large part due to pressure from the U.S. This, essentially, was the final end of all that remained from the federation. Gran Colombia was set up for failure from the moment it came into existence. The political discord was strong from the start and not enough was ever done in an attempt to quell the growing disdain for the opposing sides.
Additionally, the young nation’s president and vice president being at odds only exacerbated the problems and gave more credibility to both stances, as well as never being able to resolve the disunity themselves. While John Quincy Adams saw Gran Colombia as a powerful and respectable nation, in reality, it was merely a temporary federation that spent most of its existence barely holding itself together.
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