Gran Colombia rose like a flame in southern Central America and northern South America—burning bright and fast. For twelve years, it represented a unified nation established to proclaim independence against European rule.
Following Simón Bolívar’s triumph during the Colombian and Venezuelan wars of independence, the victors quickly worked to establish a government. But there was disagreement on multiple fronts – Bolívar’s group favored one unified Gran Colombia ruled under a central government, while others sought independence for Venezuela and Ecuador. Bolívar also favored a strong authoritarian government, with a hereditary Senate, whereas others (Bolívar’s general Santander, especially) sought the rule of law over personality instead. Gran Colombia, at least at the start, followed Bolívar’s vision, and the new country had a centralized government with distinct judicial, legislative, and executive branches.
On December 17, 1819, the Republic of Colombia was established (“Gran Colombia” is the name used by modern historians to avoid confusion with the present-day nation of Colombia). But Spanish troops were still present, and it took Bolívar until 1822 to finally declare an end to the war.
But the Republic did not rest easy. In addition to the ideological differences between Bolívar and Santander – reflecting the larger tensions between rule focused on the personal charisma of the Liberator versus a rule by the Constitution, there were regional divisions. In 1826, José Antonio Páez, the famed cavalry leader, led a rebellion against Bolívar, demanding a free Venezuela. Bolívar’s attempts to mollify Páez further irritated Santander, and deepened the new country’s fault lines.
Further unrest led to Bolívar proposing a presidency for life in 1828, a move that led Santander to adopt a radically federalist Constitution in opposition. It was also a move that led to an assassination attempt upon Bolívar later that year.
Unable to hold itself together politically or regionally, Gran Colombia began to decline. By 1830, Bolívar was forced to resign due to increasing unpopularity and his worsening health, despite attempts by General Rafael Urdaneta and other pro- Bolívar elements to try and convince Bolívar to return. Gran Colombia collapsed in 1831, ultimately dissolving into independent states. Between 1830 and 1831, three separate presidents tried to save Gran Colombia from disestablishment.
But Spain never did come back. After Gran Colombia, the states that formed are largely those that remain today: Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Ecuador, and Guyana.