Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was a Colombian political leader. He was born in Bogotá a son of a bookseller father and a schoolteacher mother. He studied law in Bogota and was awarded to study in Rome. During his stay in Rome he was impressed by Mussolini's oratorical skills which he imitated once he joined politics back in Colombia. He made himself popular in Bogota for his shrewdness and wisedom defending people in court and for his populist discourse. He joined the Liberal Party which was, in those years, in the opposition against the Conservative government.
Gaitán's popularity increased dramatically during the strike of the banana workers of United Fruit in the region of Magdalena, in 1928. This was the largest strike the country had ever witnessed and the workers counted on the support of Socialist and Anarchist organizers. The Conservative government of President Miguel Abadia Mendez sent the Army, led by General Carlos Cortés Vargas claiming a "Soviet" infiltration in the strike. The Army eventually opened fire against peaceful demonstrators who gathered in the main plaza of the city of Ciénaga in support to the strikers in December 1928. Gaitán used this event, known as "La masacre de las bananeras" to increase the opposition to the Conservative government. He toured the country, emphasizing in the Magdalena banana zone, giving dramatic speeches in which he made people know about the killing of these workers. Gaitán showed the Conservative government as a "puppet" of American capitalism, willing to kill its own people to please foreign investors. He also made strong use of the radio and made a famous intervention in Congress in which he held in his hand a skull of a child killed by the Army in the Banana Zone.
After the "masacre de las bananeras" Gaitán became into one of the most popular politicians in the Liberal Party. Gaitán's Liberal Party won the presidential elections in 1930, right after the Cienaga massacre, after 30 years of uninterrupted Conservative rule, with Enrique Olaya as candidate. The Liberals won again in 1934 with Alfonso López, in 1938 with Eduardo Santos, and in 1942 with López again. During these Liberal administrations Gaitán was a member of the Liberal Party Directorate, senator, representative, and elected leader of the short-lived Unión Nacional Izquierdista Revolucionaria (1934-1935). During the governments of Alfonso López and Eduardo Santos, Gaitán was briefly mayor of Bogotá, Minister of Education, and Minister of Labor. His popularity rose while occupying these posts.
Given his popularity among lower and working classes, Gaitán decided to run for the presidential elections of 1946. The Liberal establishment did not want him as their official candidate because of his radicalism and his close relationship with the Socialists and Communists and nominated "moderate" Liberal Gabriel Turbay. With the Liberal Party divided the Conservative candidate, Mariano Ospina Pérez, won easily. This was a period of inflation, growing unemployment, and growing class resentment that Gaitán used to oppose the government. His rhetorical talent and charisma led him to become the self-proclaimed leader of the "popular" elements of liberalism against the "oligarchy" (that belonged to both the Liberal and Conservative elite). In 1947 he was recognized as undisputed party chief.
While the Ninth International Conference of American States was meeting in Bogotá, Gaitán was assassinated (April 9, 1948). His death led to a popular revolt in the streets of Bogotá known as "el bogotazo." This event marks the "official" start of the period known as "La Violencia": an era characterized for the violent conflict between Liberals and Conservatives in the countryside. This violence led to mass migrations to the main Colombian cities and facilitated the rise of the nowadays existing Communist guerrillas. Gaitán has filled the role of a Liberal martyr since then, and his writings and speeches of the banana workers' strike against United Fruit are still quoted in all the historical studies of this company in Colombia.
Bibliography: ABEL, C.G., "Jorge Eliécer Gaitán", in Helen DELPAR, Encyclopedia of Latin America (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974); BRAUN, Herbert, Mataron a Gaitán (Bogotá: Universidad Nacional, 1987).
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