Gaitán, Jorge Eliécer (1898–1948)

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Gaitán, Jorge Eliécer (1898–1948)

Jorge Eliécer Gaitán (b. 23 January 1898; d. 9 April 1948), Colombian political leader. The man who was widely expected to accede to the presidency of Colombia in 1950 was walking out of his law office in downtown Bogotá with a group of friends at 1:05 p.m. on Friday, 9 April 1948, when he was fatally wounded by a lonely drifter. In life Jorge Eliécer Gaitán commanded the attention of his compatriots through fear-inspiring oratory and masterful political performances. In death he incited uprisings in Bogotá and other cities by passionate followers desperate to bring about quick political change.

In part because he died before rising formally to power, Gaitán's legacy is uncertain. Some are convinced that he was a careful man with a profound sense of equanimity who would have brought peace to Colombia. Others describe him as an inveterate rabble-rouser who would have turned La Violencia bloodier still had he lived. The scholar Richard Sharpless sees him as a left-leaning socialist, while others describe him as a rather conservative man of lower-middle-class values.

Gaitán was born in Bogotá to parents who struggled to keep a hold on the middle class. His father sold books and his mother was a well-known schoolteacher. Both were rank-and-file members of the Liberal Party, and Jorge Eliécer grew up hearing about the heroic exploits of "progressive" Liberals against the "reactionaries" of the Conservative Party. Although Gaitán would antagonize the leaders of his party throughout his life, confounding them and others at every turn, he would never seriously depart from the ideals of the Liberal Party. At the time of his death, many leaders of the party, and many Conservatives as well, felt a sense of relief, for they could never quite be certain of his allegiance, or how they might manage to control him and his many followers, whom he had formed into disciplined urban crowds that seemingly did only his bidding.

Although his parents were always seeking to ease his way by drawing on their meager political connections, Gaitán strove mightily to rise in society through his own merits. In 1924 he obtained his law degree from the Universidad Nacional with an unorthodox thesis titled Las ideas socialistas en Colombia. He then went to Italy to study with Enrico Ferri, and while there he became drawn to the closely knit crowds created by the fascists.

On his return to Colombia in 1928 Gaitán toured the nation, making inflammatory speeches with his trademark guttural voice on the massacre of the United Fruit Company banana workers. This massacre was the same one Gabriel García Márquez wrote about in the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Regardless of what his ideology may have been, Gaitán was in a sense Colombia's first modern politician. Upon election to the House of Representatives, he worked assiduously to reach the masses and elicit their support. He developed basic programs and ideas that he believed even his most uneducated followers could and should understand. Beyond the lofty and abstract rhetoric of Colombia's traditional politicians, Gaitán referred incessantly to detailed aspects of the daily, personal lives of his followers. He traveled extensively throughout the country, moving electoral politics outside the narrow confines of the two traditional parties. He produced his own newspaper, and was the first to use the radio to reach his followers. When he appeared to be stymied by the Liberals in the 1930s, he briefly formed the Unión Nacional Izquierdista Revolucionaria (UNIR). When troubles continued to appear on the horizon, he could always fall back on his own Gaitanista movement. He went in and out of public office, serving briefly first as mayor of Bogotá in 1936 and 1937, then as minister of education and of labor in 1940 and 1943, until he ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 1945 and 1946 as a Liberal against the official Liberal candidate. Upon his death he was poised to take over the Liberal Party and win the presidential election of 1950.

The huge riot following his death, in which Gaitán's followers destroyed much of downtown Bogotá and caused disturbances in many other cities as well, is known in Colombia as el nueve de abril (the ninth of April), and elsewhere as the Bogotazo. At the time, the eyes of the world were on Bogotá, for the Ninth Pan-American Conference was being held in the city. U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall was there, and so too was Fidel Castro, who had met with Gaitán days earlier and had another meeting scheduled with him for that very afternoon. For a few brief moments Gaitán became well known to the outside world. And during at least the next three decades in Colombia, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán remained a central and enigmatic force in politics, the source of countless passions, untold conversations, and sundry questions about whether his unfulfilled policies would have succeeded, the answers to which few Colombians have found satisfactory.

See alsoBogotazo; Colombia, Political Parties: Liberal Party; United Fruit Company.


Richard Sharpless, Gaitán of Colombia: A Political Biography (1978).

Herbert Braun, The Assassination of Gaitán: Public Life and Urban Violence in Colombia (1985).

Additional Bibliography

Green, W. John. Gaitanismo, Left Liberalism, and Popular Mobilization in Colombia. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003.

Zalamea, Alberto. Gaitán: Autobiografía de un pueblo. Bogotá: Zalamea Fajardo Editores, 1999.

                                      Herbert Braun

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Gaitán, Jorge Eliécer (1898–1948)

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