Gaviria Trujillo, César Augusto (1947–)

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Gaviria Trujillo, César Augusto (1947–)

Born in Pereira, Colombia, on 31 March 1947, César Gaviria studied economics at the Universidad de los Andes, Bogota. At the age of twenty-three, he began his political career by winning election to the Pereira municipal council in 1970. He was appointed mayor of Pereira in 1974 and later served a term as vice-minister of development in the administration of President Julio César Turbay Ayala beginning in 1978. Gaviria combined political activities with the practice of journalism, first with the newspaper La Tarde in Pereira, of which he became editor in 1982, and then as political and economic correspondent for El Tiempo of Bogotá, from 1983 to 1986. He was appointed deputy director of the Liberal Party in 1986 and then served first as minister of the treasury and subsequently as minister of the interior in the administration of President Virgilio Barco. In 1989 he became the campaign director of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán Sarmiento. After Galán's assassination in August of that year, however, Gaviria was selected to be the presidential candidate of the Liberal Party. He was elected president of Colombia in 1990, with 47 percent of the vote.

Gaviria's election marked a generational and, to a lesser extent, ideological shift in Colombian politics. He was first of the post-Violencia generation to become president, elected with the support of a coalition of traditional Liberal Party bosses and the followers of the reform-minded Galán. Gaviria confronted the problems of narcotics-linked terrorism and a general lack of confidence in the political system with youthful energy and a neoliberal vision. He was the youngest elected president of Colombia in the twentieth century, and many of those who were appointed to serve in his government were younger than he. Continuing the process of reintegration of guerrilla groups into the political life of the country, which Gaviria had directed as a member of the Barco administration, he appointed M-19 leader Antonio Navarro Wolf, who had received 13 percent of the 1990 presidential vote, to his cabinet.

Perhaps the crowning achievement of the Gaviria presidency was adoption of a new constitution, the first since 1886, which modernized the state structure and the judicial system. The Constitution of 1991 sought to open the political system to more than the two traditional parties and to extend democratic participation. The Gaviria administration also promoted a more open economy, with an emphasis on privatization and deregulation. Trade barriers were lowered, regional economic integration (particularly with Venezuela) was supported, foreign investment was encouraged, labor legislation was modernized, and the role of private enterprise was emphasized. For these reasons and for Gaviria's general cooperation (despite some embarrassing lapses) in the effort to suppress the drug traffic, his administration was lauded by the U.S. government. By the end of his term, Gaviria was seen as an "efficiency-seeking technocrat" who had effectively initiated political and economic reforms that enabled Colombia to break out of the cycle of political and drug-related violence, slow economic growth, and political dissatisfaction that had characterized it in the 1980s.

In March 1994 Gaviria was elected to a five-year term as secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS), and after completion of his presidential term later in the year, he assumed that position. He was the second Colombian (after the first OAS head, Alberto Lleras Camargo) to hold the position, and his thirty-four to twenty victory over Costa Rican foreign minister Bernd Niehaus caused some resentment among the smaller Central American and Caribbean OAS members, which felt slighted by the larger states. But in 1999 he won a second term, aided by intense lobbying of the Colombian foreign ministry and once again with strong U.S. support. As head of the hemispheric organization, Gaviria sought to modernize the cumbersome OAS bureaucracy while strongly supporting efforts at trade liberalization, including the U.S. proposal for a free trade pact among the American nations. Under his leadership the OAS took an active role in support of political democracy in the hemisphere, monitoring elections and offering its good offices to help defuse conflicts, such as that between Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and his opponents in late 2002 and early 2003.

After his tenure as head of the OAS, Gaviria worked for a time in New York, organizing a consultancy for firms doing business in Latin America. Before long he returned to Colombia, where he accepted sole leadership of the Liberal Party in opposition to the administration of Álvaro Uribe Vélez, even though the party had drifted away from the neoliberal economic policies that he himself had espoused as president. Despite Gaviria's best efforts, the party's candidate made an embarrassing third-place finish in opposition to Uribe's reelection in 2006, but under Gaviria's guidance, the Liberals did become a more cohesive force than it had recently been.

See alsoChávez, Hugo; Colombia, Constitutions: Overview; Colombia, Political Parties: Liberal Party; Lleras Camargo, Alberto; Navarro Wolff, Antonio; Organization of American States (OAS).


Gaviria, César. Una década de transformaciones: Del fin de la guerra fría a la globalización de la OEA. Bogotá: Planeta, 2004.

Palacios, Marco. Between Legitimacy and Violence: A History of Colombia, 1875–2002. Translated by Richard Stoller. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.

Vargas, Mauricio. Memorias secretas del revolcón, la historia íntima del polémico gobierno de César Gaviria revelada por uno de sus protagonistas. Bogotá: T-M Editores, 1993.

                                    James Patrick Kieman