Friday, April 09, 2004

Jorge Eliécer Gaitán:

At about this time on this day in 1948, the Colombian Chancellor Laureano Gómez was reconvening the Ninth Panamerican Conference in Bogotá, Colombia. There were some interesting characters in Bogotá, including George Marshall and Fidel Castro. Marshall had given the opening speech on March 30th, and Castro was attending a student-organized shadow conference.

As might be imagined, most of the Colombian political elite of the time was attending the conference. A notable exception who had been excluded from the invitees was Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a rising star who was causing a stir with his populist speeches and legal defenses of "the downtrodden." Gaitán was widely seen as the presumptive heir of the Liberal party's mantle, despite some considerable opposition not only from the Conservative party, but also from his own party's elite. There was a palpable feeling that in the upcoming elections, the Liberals under Gaitán would finally be able to wrest power from the Conservative's stranglehold.

As Bob Dix put it in his 1987 book The Politics of Colombia: "Colombia's two major parties, the Liberal and the Conservative, are among the oldest in the world. Many of the other Latin American countries divided politically along similar lines during the 19th century, but in most cases only vestiges at best remain of that original partisan configuration. In Colombia much of political life since about 1848, whether electoral or violent, has been conducted in the name of the country's two 'historic collectivities.' Despite persistent factionalism, periodic 'union' governments, the occasional appearance of third parties, and long periods of one-party hegemony, the two parties have survived and put down exceedingly deep roots. And, in contrast with the great majority of Latin American countries, elections, while not always strictly competitive, have played a meaningful role throughout most of the history of the republic. Although strongly elitist in the manner of their operation, Colombia's traditional parties have historically evoked the profound psychic attachment of most Colombians--even those who have known and cared little about doctrines and programs. By the same token, parties formed in opposition to the country's elitist democracy--and particularly those that have sought to restructure the electorate along class lines--have fared very poorly. Thus Colombia is exceptional among the major countries of Latin America in not having even one signifcant party of a democratic socialist, Marxist, Christian Democratic, or, more vaguely, 'populist' stripe."

Gaitán was at the forefront of a Liberal splinter movement that was close to populist as Colombian politics would get.

As Gaitán stepped out of his office building onto one of the busiest streets in the city, he was shot several times in the head by a lone gunman. Word of the assassination spread like wildfire, unleashing the pent-up feelings of the citizens in an absolute orgy of looting, destruction and wanton violence that the country had never seen before. The center of Bogotá burned for three days in what is now known as the Bogotazo. A long period of turmoil followed, called La Violencia, until in 1957 the parties agreed to a shared government, with the Presidency alternating and higher political posts balanced between them for four successive four-year cycles. Although this did temporarily settle the political landscape, the Colombian psyche has never recovered.

Inter-party violence during La Violencia led to a great number of displaced persons - Liberals ousted from majority-Conservative towns, and vice-versa. Much of the violence afflicting the country today, even the roots of the current guerilla movements and the drug trade, can be partially attributed to the roaming banditry that resulted from these displacements.

Despite these disruptions, the conference did succeed in producing one fundamental result: the Organization of American States, or OAS.

The disturbances also fundamentally altered the lives of many of Bogotá's citizens, including one certain Gabriel García Márquez, who was nearby and was able to witness the scene within minutes of the shooting.

More on Gaitán, García Márquez, the United Fruit Company, and whether history is really fiction in another post.

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