by Dr Victor Figueroa Clark
(This article, or a translated version of it was published in Kathemerini on March 18th 2012)
Jorge Eliecer Gaitan was without doubt Colombia’s most important political figure of the 20th century. Gaitan combined a comprehensive political programme adjusted to Colombia’s political reality, with an unparalleled charisma which would have eventually taken him to the Presidency of Colombia if his life had not been cut short. His killing changed the course of Colombian history, sparking massive violence and enabling elites to avoid having to make broad-based concessions.
A lawyer and intellectual of modest origins, Gaitan was a proponent of structural reforms and a fierce defender of the powerless. He graduated from the National University with a thesis called “Socialist Ideas in Colombia”, demonstrating an early interest in left-wing political thought. He then studied in Italy, an experience which led to his rejection of fascism as the method by which capitalism “defends the enjoyment of individualist abuses by means of collective organisation”. By the early 1930s Gaitan was already a well known leader thanks to his ardent denunciation of the ‘massacre of the banana-plantations’ in late 1928, where Colombian troops massacred thousands of workers demonstrating for better working conditions as later described by Garcia Marquez in ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’. Gaitan then became Mayor of Bogota in 1936, and was appointed Minister of Education in 1940. In both these posts he established social programmes and public works which further enhanced his reputation as a defender of the poor.
By the late 1940s Gaitan had become the unrivalled leader of the Liberal Party, transforming it from an elite-led party to one that began to channel popular desires for change and which had majorities in both Congress and Senate. His platform was one that demanded ‘respect for the common man’, that sought to build an economy ‘at the service of people’ and to establish forms of participatory democracy as a way of ending what he called the ‘oligarchic regime.’
Although portrayed as a populist leader, Gaitan had clearly thought out both his aims and his methods. His conception of the state was as ‘the synthesis of democracy”, and he proposed the formation of a coalition that could agree on specific issues to advance the programme of reforms. This alliance would have the dual benefits of avoiding ‘caciques’ [chiefs] and violence. Gaitan did not believe in ‘catastrophic battles’. He thought that Colombia, with its backward economic structures and its ignorant population needed generations to achieve profound changes. His economic thought was similarly developed - the economy was to achieve a balance of production and consumerism, with a progressive abolition of exploitation and a state role in planning the economy and in redistributing wealth. “We are not enemies of wealth, but of poverty,” he said, and he argued that in Colombia wealth could not be spread without a radical land reform programme. He also proposed environmental legislation, labour laws - all within a transformative, revolutionary framework. Despite his populist theatrics, this was not the programme of a demagogue or dictator, but that of a democratic revolutionary, and is in many respects, similar to that of Salvador Allende in Chile.
This programme and his vast popular support made Gaitan powerful enemies. Within Colombia the landowning elites dreaded a potential land reform. Political elites also rejected his ideas on democracy and his anti-imperialist nationalism. Furthermore, Gaitan rose to prominence at a time when the United States was encouraging the closing down of democratic spaces across Latin America. After all the 9th Pan-American Conference held in Bogota at the time of Gaitan’s assassination had as its main aim the creation of a hemispheric bloc that rejected communism and which began the process of framing social conflict across the region in the parameters of the European Cold War.
On April 9th 1948, Gaitan was gunned down as he left his office for lunch. While it is still unknown who was behind the killing, the results are clear for all to see. Since his murder Colombia has had an exclusionary political system challenged by strong guerrilla movements. This has severely distorted Colombia’s development, and has meant that Colombia, unlike the rest of the continent, has been unable to resolve its social conflict peaceably.
Following his killing, Colombia succumbed to a ten-year (1948-1958) period of violence, until Liberal and Conservative elites agreed to share power, and an alternating presidency and shared parliament were set up. Other political forces were excluded. The violence also led to the creation of self-defence organisations by Liberal and Communist peasants. Many guerrillas who disarmed under a government amnesty in 1958 were killed, and therefore some chose to continue fighting. Then the 1959 Cuban revolution had the effect of spreading the conviction that they could, and should, overthrow the old system and the peasant groups became guerrilla armies. At the same time, in order to ‘avoid another Cuba’, the US began to train Latin American militaries in the notorious National Security Doctrine, preaching the existence of an ‘internal enemy’, and funding the first military operation against Colombian peasant guerrillas in Plan Laso.
While successive governments paid lip service to the need to resolve inequality, and the importance of land reform, the absence of real democracy and the entrenched powers of landowners meant that change was largely superficial. Together, inequality, state negligence, and the lack of real political freedom sustained the guerrillas. The 1979 Sandinista revolution, and the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala were reminders to the Colombian elite that something needed to be done to resolve the conflict, and during the mid-1980s a peace process began, under which the guerrillas, left-wing parties, trade unions and others helped create a left-wing political coalition called the Patriotic Union.
During the same period, to counter the growing guerrilla presence, and guerrilla taxes and extortion, landowners, drug traffickers and the military began to establish paramilitary armies. Equating the Patriotic Union with the guerrillas, and operating alongside the military, these death squads killed between 3,000 and 5,000 of its members. Since then nearly 3,000 trade unionists have also been killed by paramilitaries. Many thousands of human rights defenders, political activists and social organisers of all kinds have also been killed or disappeared. And the war continues causing immense suffering. Over 6,000 Colombian troops have become casualties in the last 3 years, 5 million Colombians are internally displaced, thousands have been disappeared, or killed as ‘collateral damage’ in the war.
As in the 1940s land and inequality continue to be major problems. According to a recent UN report on 189 countries, Colombia is the third most unequal after Haiti and Angola. Labour rights are virtually inexistent and human rights abuses abound. The political system is still highly exclusionary, and voter abstention is routinely around 60% in the cities (and higher in rural areas). Paramilitarism and the drugs trade have penetrated the state so far that the last president, Alvaro Uribe, is fighting claims that he was himself a paramilitary. This is far from Gaitan’s political and economic vision.
In short, the tragic legacy of the assassination of Gaitan has been a society whose development has been severely distorted by extreme violence and political exclusion. Gaitan’s vision appears distant, and yet the resolution of Colombia’s conflict lies within it, within a more equal, truly democratic republic where the integrity of the ‘common man’ is respected.