During World War II, Colombia cooperated closely with the United States in hemispheric defense operations, especially in the Panama Canal area. It was the first South American nation to break diplomatic relations with Japan, Germany, and Italy. When the war ended, Colombia strengthened its ties to the United States, both militarily and economically.
Colombia was the only Latin American country to send troops to the Korean War as part of the United Nations Command. Under the Mutual Security Act of 1951, the country became one of the main recipients of U.S. military assistance. The Panama Canal was of vital strategic value for the United States, and given Colombia's geographic proximity to the canal, strengthening Colombia's military capabilities was a U.S. priority.
In 1950, Colombia's economy depended primarily on coffee exports, with the United States as its primary market. Other exports such as bananas, gold, and platinum were also exported to the United States in fairly sizable quantities.
In 1948, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a reformist and candidate of the Colombian Liberal Party for the presidency, was assassinated in Bogotá. A wave of violence swept the country, putting it on the brink of civil war. That episode also influenced relations between the United States and Colombia, as leaders in both countries feared that communists had participated in the destabilization effort. Colombia severed diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and worked with the United States to contain the threat of communism in South America. Because the Colombian Communist Party was not very powerful in the early 1950s, these efforts were concentrated on Colombian labor movements in which both communists and socialists were active. While violence continued for some years, in 1958 conservatives and liberals came together to create the National Front, a power-sharing arrangement that lasted until 1974 and brought some political stability to Colombia.
In the 1960s, the Cuban revolution served as the ideological underpinning of several guerrilla movements. The National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) emerged as the main guerrilla groups in the country in 1964. Both groups remained active thereafter, with the FARC being the more numerous.
Although President Alberto Lleras Camargo (1958–1962) was a critic of the Cuban revolution and ordered the severing of relations with Cuba, he maintained that it was the Organization of American States (OAS) and not the United States that should take action against the Fidel Castro regime. In 1961, Colombia and Peru called for an OAS meeting to analyze possible sanctions against Cuba. This conference, which took place in Punta del Este in January 1962, resulted in the suspension of Cuba from both the OAS and the Inter-American System. Notwithstanding Colombia's preference for a multilateral approach in hemispheric issues, its relations with the United States remained cordial; in fact, under the Alliance for Progress, Colombia received almost $900 million in economic aid, loans, and private investments from the United States.
During the 1970s, Colombia's policy toward communist regimes softened. It reestablished diplomatic relations with both the Soviet Union and Cuba and recognized the new Angolan government (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) and the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The administrations of Alfonso López Michelsen (1974–1978) and Julio Turbay Ayala (1978–1982) sought an independent foreign policy and supported the Non-Aligned Movement, although Colombia did not formally join the latter until 1983.
Turbay shifted his foreign policy in 1981 when he decided to break diplomatic relations with Cuba and aligned his policy with that of the Ronald Reagan administration. This shift occurred chiefly because of alleged Cuban and Nicaraguan support for the April 19 Movement, an urban group that emerged in 1970 and became the second most important guerrilla movement after the FARC. During the Falklands (Malvinas) War (1982), Colombia refused to support the Argentine position in the OAS and abstained on the vote to invoke the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, the only Latin American state to do so.
Although during the election campaign the new President Belisario Betancur (1982–1986) had not given any indication of wishing to change Colombia's foreign relations, in his inaugural speech he declared that Colombia would join the Non-Aligned Movement. In sharp contrast to his predecessor, he called for Latin American solidarity and reaffirmed Argentina's sovereignty rights over the Malvinas. Betancur also became one of the chief opponents of Reagan's Central America policy. Escalation of the conflict there led Reagan to encourage a peaceful settlement for the embattled region. Together with Mexico, Panama, and Venezuela, Colombia created the Contadora Group in 1983.
Betancur's active diplomacy in Central America was, however, challenged by domestic realities, particularly drug trafficking and the intensification of guerrilla violence. The connection between the FARC and the drug cartels opened the door for improved U.S.-Colombian relations. In the mid-1980s, drug trafficking replaced other issues in the bilateral agenda. With the end of the Cold War, Colombia's foreign policy turned its focus toward strengthening its fight against drugs.
Parkinson, F. Latin America, the Cold War & the World Powers, 1945–1973: A Study in Diplomatic History. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1974.; Randall, Stephen. Colombia and the United States: Hegemony and Interdependence. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.; Rochlin, James. Vanguard Revolutionaries in Latin America. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2003.