Gran Colombia (Spanish pronunciation: [ˈɡɾaŋ koˈlombja] (listen), "Greater Colombia") is the name historians use to refer to the state that encompassed much of northern South America and part of southern Central America from 1819 to 1831. The state included the territories of present-day Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela, and parts of northern Peru, western Guyana and northwestern Brazil. The term Gran Colombia is used historiographically to distinguish it from the current Republic of Colombia, which is also the official name of the former state.
At the time of its creation, Gran Colombia was the most prestigious country in Spanish America. John Quincy Adams, then Secretary of State and future president of the United States, claimed it to be one of the most powerful nations on the planet. This prestige, added to the figure of Simón Bolívar, attracted to the nation unionist ideas of independence movements in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, which sought to form an associated state with the republic.
But international recognition of the legitimacy of the Gran Colombian state ran afoul of European opposition to the independence of states in the Americas. Austria, France, and Russia only recognized independence in the Americas if the new states accepted monarchs from European dynasties. In addition, Colombia and the international powers disagreed over the extension of the Colombian territory and its boundaries.
Gran Colombia was proclaimed through the Fundamental Law of the Republic of Colombia, issued during the Congress of Angostura (1819), but did not come into being until the Congress of Cúcuta (1821) promulgated the Constitution of Cúcuta.
Gran Colombia was constituted as a unitary centralist state. Its existence was marked by a struggle between those who supported a centralized government with a strong presidency and those who supported a decentralized, federal form of government. At the same time, another political division emerged between those who supported the Constitution of Cúcuta and two groups who sought to do away with the Constitution, either in favor of breaking up the country into smaller republics or maintaining the union but creating an even stronger presidency. The faction that favored constitutional rule coalesced around Vice-President Francisco de Paula Santander, while those who supported the creation of a stronger presidency were led by President Simón Bolívar. The two of them had been allies in the war against Spanish rule, but by 1825, their differences had become public and were an important part of the political instability from that year onward.
Gran Colombia was dissolved in 1831 due to the political differences that existed between supporters of federalism and centralism, as well as regional tensions among the peoples that made up the republic. It broke into the successor states of Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela; Panama was separated from Colombia in 1903. Since Gran Colombia's territory corresponded more or less to the original jurisdiction of the former Viceroyalty of New Granada, it also claimed the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, the Mosquito Coast.
The official name of the country at the time was the Republic of Colombia. Historians have adopted the term "Gran Colombia" to distinguish this republic from the present-day Republic of Colombia, which began using the name in 1863, although many use Colombia where confusion would not arise.
The name "Colombia" comes from the Spanish version of the eighteenth-century New Latin word "Columbia", itself based on the name of Christopher Columbus. It was the term preferred by the Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda as a reference to the New World, especially to all American territories and colonies under Spanish rule. He used an improvised, quasi-Greek adjectival version of the name, "Colombeia", to mean papers and things "relating to Colombia", as the title of his archive of his revolutionary activities.
Simon Bolívar and other Spanish American revolutionaries also used the word "Colombia" in the continental sense. The establishment in 1819 of a country with the name "Colombia" by the Congress of Angostura gave the term a specific geographic and political reference.
The Republic of Colombia comprised more or less the former territories of the Viceroyalty of New Granada (1739-1777), which it claimed under the legal principle of uti possidetis. It united the territories of the former Third Republic of Venezuela, the United Provinces of New Granada, the former Royal Audiencia of Panama and the Presidency of Quito (which was still under Spanish rule in 1821).
Before a new constitution could be written by the Congress of Cúcuta, the Congress of Angostura appointed Bolívar and Santander president and vice president, respectively. Under the Constitution of Cúcuta, the country was divided into twelve departments each governed by an intendant. Departments were further divided into thirty-six provinces, each headed by a governor, who had overlapping powers with the intendant. Military affairs at the department level were overseen by a commandant general, who could also be the intendant. All three offices were appointed by the central government. The central government, which temporarily was to reside in Bogotá, consisted of a presidency, a bicameral congress and a high court (the Alta Corte).
The president was the head of the executive branch of both the central and local governments. The president could be granted extraordinary powers in military fronts, such as the area that became Ecuador. The vice-president assumed the presidency in case of the absence, death, demotion, or illness of the president. Since President Bolívar was absent from Gran Colombia for the early years of its existence, executive power was wielded by the vice president, Santander. The vote was given to persons who owned 100 pesos in landed property or had an equivalent income from a profession. Elections were indirect.
Since the new country was quickly proclaimed after Bolívar's unexpected victory in New Granada, its government was temporarily set up as a federal republic, made up of three departments headed by a vice-president and with capitals in the cities of Bogotá (Cundinamarca Department), Caracas (Venezuela Department), and Quito (Quito Department). In that year, none of the provinces of Quito, nor many in Venezuela and New Granada, were free yet.
The Constitution of Cúcuta was drafted in 1821 at the Congress of Cúcuta, establishing the republic's capital in Bogotá. Bolívar and Santander were elected as the country's president and vice-president. A great degree of centralization was established by the assembly at Cúcuta, since several New Granadan and Venezuelan deputies of the Congress who formerly had been ardent federalists now came to believe that centralism was necessary in order to successfully manage the war against the royalists. To break up regionalist tendencies and to set up efficient central control of local administration, a new territorial division was implemented in 1824. The departments of Venezuela, Cundinamarca and Quito were split into smaller departments, each governed by an intendant appointed by the central government, with the same powers that Bourbon intendants had. Realizing that not all of the provinces were represented at Cúcuta because many areas of the country remained in royalist hands, the congress called for a new constitutional convention to meet in ten years.
In its first years, Gran Colombia helped other provinces still at war with Spain to become independent: all of Venezuela except Puerto Cabello was liberated at the Battle of Carabobo, Panama joined the federation in November 1821, and the provinces of Pasto, Guayaquil and Quito in 1822. That year Colombia became the first Spanish American republic recognized by the United States, due to the efforts of diplomat Manuel Torres. The Gran Colombian army later consolidated the independence of Peru in 1824.
Bolívar and Santander were re-elected in 1826.
As the war against Spain came to an end in the mid-1820s, federalist and regionalist sentiments that had been suppressed for the sake of the war arose once again. There were calls for a modification of the political division, and related economic and commercial disputes between regions reappeared. Ecuador had important economic and political grievances. Since the end of the eighteenth century, its textile industry had suffered because cheaper textiles were being imported. After independence, Gran Colombia adopted a low-tariff policy, which benefited agricultural regions such as Venezuela. Moreover, from 1820 to 1825, the area was ruled directly by Bolívar because of the extraordinary powers granted to him. His top priority was the war in Peru against the royalists, not solving Ecuador's economic problems.
Having been incorporated later into Gran Colombia, Ecuador was also underrepresented in all branches of the central government, and Ecuadorians had little opportunity to rise to command positions in the Gran Colombian army. Even local political offices were often staffed by Venezuelans and New Granadans. No outright separatist movement emerged in Ecuador, but these problems were never resolved in the ten-year existence of the country. The strongest calls for a federal arrangement instead came from Venezuela, where there was strong federalist sentiment among the region's liberals, many of whom had not fought in the war of independence but had supported Spanish liberalism in the previous decade and who now allied themselves with the conservative Commandant General of the Department of Venezuela, José Antonio Páez, against the central government.
In 1826, Venezuela came close to seceding from Gran Colombia. That year, Congress began impeachment proceedings against Páez, who resigned his post on April 28 but reassumed it two days later in defiance of the central government. Support for Páez and his revolt—which came to be known as the Cosiata (a Venezuelan colloquialism of the time meaning "the insignificant thing") in Venezuelan history—spread throughout Venezuela, aided by the fact that it did not explicitly stand for anything, except defiance to the central government. Nevertheless, the support Páez received from across the Venezuelan political spectrum posed a serious threat to the unity of the country. In July and August, the municipal government of Guayaquil and a junta in Quito issued declarations of support for Páez's actions. Bolívar, for his part, used the developments to promote the conservative constitution he had just written for Bolivia, which found support among conservative Ecuadorians and the Venezuelan military officialdom, but was generally met with indifference or outright hostility among other sectors of society and, most importantly for future political developments, by Vice-President Santander himself.
In November two assemblies met in Venezuela to discuss the future of the region, but no formal independence was declared at either. That same month, skirmishes broke out between the supporters of Páez and Bolívar in the east and south of Venezuela. By the end of the year, Bolívar was in Maracaibo preparing to march into Venezuela with an army, if necessary. Ultimately, political compromises prevented this. In January, Bolívar offered the rebellious Venezuelans a general amnesty and the promise to convene a new constituent assembly before the ten-year period established by the Constitution of Cúcuta, and Páez backed down and recognized Bolívar's authority. The reforms, however, never fully satisfied the different political factions in Gran Colombia, and no permanent consolidation was achieved. The instability of the state's structure was now apparent to all.
In 1828, the new constituent assembly, the Convention of Ocaña, began its sessions. At its opening, Bolívar again proposed a new constitution based on the Bolivian one, but this suggestion continued to be unpopular. The convention fell apart when pro-Bolívar delegates walked out rather than sign a federalist constitution. After this failure, Bolívar believed that by centralizing his constitutional powers he could prevent the separatists (the New Granadians represented mainly by Francisco de Paula Santander and José María Obando, and the Venezuelans by José Antonio Páez) from bringing down the union. He ultimately failed to do so. As the collapse of the country became evident in 1830, Bolívar resigned from the presidency. Internal political strife between the different regions intensified even as General Rafael Urdaneta temporarily took power in Bogotá, attempting to use his authority to ostensibly restore order, but actually hoping to convince Bolívar to return to the presidency and the country to accept him. The federation finally dissolved in the closing months of 1830 and was formally abolished in 1831. Venezuela, Ecuador and New Granada came to exist as independent states.
The dissolution of Gran Colombia represented the failure of Bolívar's vision. The former republic was replaced by the republics of Venezuela, Ecuador, and New Granada. The former Department of Cundinamarca (as established in 1819 at Angostura) became a new country, the Republic of New Granada. In 1858, New Granada was replaced by the Granadine Confederation. Later in 1863, the Granadine Confederation changed its name officially to the United States of Colombia, and in 1886, adopted its present-day name: the Republic of Colombia. Panama, which voluntarily became part of Gran Colombia in 1821, remained a department of the Republic of Colombia until 1903, when in great part as a consequence of the Thousand Days War of 1899–1902, it became independent under intense American pressure. The United States wanted territorial rights in the future Panama Canal Zone, which Colombia had refused.
With the exception of Panama (which, as mentioned, achieved independence seven decades later), the countries that were created have similar flags, reminiscent of the flag of Gran Colombia:
(See United Provinces of Central America, Nordic countries, Pan-African colours and Arab nationalism for more examples of regions whose nations possess similar flags because of historical connections.)
The term Gran Colombia is used today to refer to the federation that was formed between the Republics of Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama before 1830. However, Gran Colombia is in a sense an artificial term, as the country was always referred to simply as Colombia. This is clear to anyone who examines the many treaties signed between Colombia and Peru before 1830.
In Peru, however, the dissolution of Gran Colombia is seen as a country ceasing to exist, giving way to the formation of new nation-states. The significance of this view is that the treaties Peru had signed with Gran Colombia became void when the countersignatory ceased to exist. The three new states, the Republic of New Granada (which later changed its name to Republic of Colombia), the Republic of Venezuela, and the Republic of Ecuador, in the Peruvian view, started with a clean diplomatic slate.
An alternative view is that Ecuador and Venezuela separated from the Gran Colombian Federation and inherited all of the treaty obligations that Gran Colombia had assumed, at least to the extent that they apply to their respective territories. There are indications that Colombia itself maintained this position, because clearly, Gran Colombia and its successor state, the Republic of Colombia, shared a capital city, a subset of the same territory, and much the same citizenry. It would be unnatural to disavow their common histories.
The question of the status of treaties and accords dating to the revolutionary period (1809–1819) and Gran Colombia period (1819–1830) has a profound effect on international relations to the present day.
There have been attempts at the reunification of Gran Colombia since 1903, when Panama separated from Colombia. People in favor of reunification are called "unionistas" or unionists. In 2008, The Bolivarian News Agency reported that the then president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, announced the proposal of a political restoration of Gran Colombia, under the Bolivarian Revolution.