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South America, Colombia

Colombia, republic in South America, situated in the northwestern part of the continent, and bounded on the north by Panama and the Caribbean Sea, on the east by Venezuela and Brazil, on the south by Peru and Ecuador, and on the west by the Pacific Ocean. Colombia is the only country of South America with coasts on both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The total land area of the country is 1,141,748 sq km (440,831 sq mi). The capital and largest city is Bogota.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, a number of indigenous groups, including the Chibcha, occupied the land that is present-day Colombia. From the 16th century through the early 1800s, Colombia was a colony of Spain. It achieved independence in 1819. Following independence, Colombia became a republic with an elected government, although it went through periods of civil unrest and dictatorship.

Colombian society is divided between the upper and lower classes, with a large and growing gap between them. A middle class developed during the 20th century, but it is still quite small. Many of the attitudes that led to Colombia's sharp class divisions originated in 16th-century Spain and became ingrained in Colombian society during the colonial period. Family lineage, inherited wealth, and racial background continue to be powerful determinants of status. Economic progress during the 20th century has only slightly reduced the concentration of political, social, and economic power in the hands of the small upper class.

As a result of these social divisions, Colombia has experienced a period of ongoing political violence since the 1950s. By the late 1990s, leftist rebels committed to change in the economic and social system controlled much of the southeastern countryside. At the same time, right-wing paramilitary groups supporting the traditional power structure became active in the northwestern regions. Many thousands of Colombians died or were displaced from their homes as a result of the conflict.

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