The "Violencia" in Colombia 1948-1958

(Colombian Revolt)

[ 1948 - 1958 ]

Colombia, plagued by social and economic problems, was also embroiled in a political feud between the country's two traditional parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, when Jorge Eliecer Gaitan (1902-48), popular left-wing Liberal leader, was assassinated on April 9, 1948, while a Pan-American conference was being held in Bogota, the Colombian capital. Immediately, riots and vandalism occurred throughout the country (this sudden outbreak of violence seems to have been the result of longtime pent-up frustration by the public over numerous local and national issues). Columbia was thrown into a constant state of insurrection and criminality from 1948 to 1958 (called "La Violencia"), a period during which more than 200,000 persons lost their lives and more than a billion dollars of perperty damage was done. Laureano Eleuterio Gomez (1889-1965), an archconservative, served as Columbia's president from 1950 until his ouster in 1953 in a coup led by Army Chief of Staff General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (1900-75), who ruled as a dictatorial president until his corrupt, brutal regime was deposted (1957) by a military junta supported by both Liberals and Conservatives. In 1958, democracy returned to Columbia upon the formation of a Liberal-Conservative coalition government (the National Front) under newly elected president Alberto Lleras Camargo (1906-90), who slowly stabilized the country's faltering economy and instituted agrarian reform.

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Although order was restored in Bogotá and Ospina remained in control, the tempo of rural violence quickened to a state of undeclared civil war known as la violencia. La violencia claimed over 200,000 lives during the next eighteen years, with the bloodiest period occurring between 1948 and 1958. La violencia spread throughout the country, especially in the Andes and the llanos (plains), sparing only the southernmost portion of Nariño and parts of the Caribbean coastal area. An extremely complex phenomenon, la violencia was characterized by both partisan political rivalry and sheer rural banditry. The basic cause of this protracted period of internal disorder, however, was the refusal of successive governments to accede to the people's demands for socioeconomic change.

After the Bogotazo, the Ospina government became more repressive. Ospina banned public meetings in March 1949 and fired all Liberal governors in May. In November of that year, Ospina ordered the army to forcibly close Congress. Rural police forces heightened the effort against belligerents and Liberals, and eventually all Liberals, from the ministerial to the local level, resigned their posts in protest.

In the 1949 presidential election, the Liberals refused to present a candidate; as a result, Gómez, the only Conservative candidate, took office in 1950. Gómez, who had opposed the Ospina administration for its initial complicity with the Liberals, was firmly in control of the party. As leader of the reactionary faction, he preferred authority, hierarchy, and order and was contemptuous of universal suffrage and majority rule. Gómez offered a program that combined traditional Conservative republicanism with the European corporatism of the time. A neofascist constitution drafted under his guidance in 1953 would have enhanced the autonomy of the presidency, expanded the powers of departmental governors, and strengthened the official role of the church in the political system.

Gómez acquired broad powers and curtailed civil liberties in an attempt to confront the mounting violence and the possibility that the Liberals might regain power. Pro-labor laws passed in the 1930s were canceled by executive decree, independent labor unions were struck down, congressional elections were held without opposition, the press was censored, courts were controlled by the executive, and freedom of worship was challenged as mobs attacked Protestant chapels. Gómez directed his repression in particular against the Liberal opposition, which he branded as communist. At the height of the violence, the number of deaths reportedly reached 1,000 per month.

Despite the relative prosperity of the economy--owing largely to expansion of the country's export markets and increased levels of foreign investment--Gómez lost support because of protracted violence and his attacks on moderate Conservatives and on the military establishment. Because of illness, in November 1951 Gómez allowed his first presidential designate, Roberto Urdaneta Arbeláez, to become acting president until Gómez could reassume the presidency. Although Urdaneta followed Gómez's policies, he refused to dismiss General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, whom Gómez suspected of conspiring against the government. When Gómez tried to return to office in June 1953, a coalition consisting of moderate Conservatives who supported Ospina, the PL, and the armed forces deposed him and installed a military government. They viewed such action as the only way to end the violence. Rojas Pinilla, who had led the coup d'état, assumed the presidency.

Initial response to the coup was enthusiastic and widespread; only the elements at the two extremes of the political spectrum protested the action. Rojas Pinilla's first goal was to end the violence, and to that end he offered amnesty and government aid to those belligerents who would lay down their arms. Thousands complied with the offer, and there was relative calm for several months after the coup. Other immediate steps taken by Rojas Pinilla included the transfer of the National Police to the armed forces in an effort to depoliticize the police, relaxation of press censorship, and release of political prisoners.

The government also started an extensive series of public works projects to construct transportation networks and hospitals and improved the system of credit for small farmers. Rojas Pinilla attempted to respond to demands for social reform through populist measures patterned after the policies of General Juan Domingo Perón (1946-55) in Argentina. The National Social Welfare Service, under the direction of his daughter María Eugenia Rojas de Moreno Díaz, was created to meet the most pressing needs of the poor, and the public works projects began to provide jobs for the masses of urban unemployed. The tax system was restructured to place more of the burden on the elite. Poorly administered, however, these reform programs met with little success. Rojas Pinilla was unable to restructure Colombian society.

Rojas Pinilla attempted to recruit political support from nontraditional sources. He courted the military by raising salaries and constructing lavish officers' clubs, and he counted the church by espousing a "Christian" doctrine as the foundation of his government. Through the creation of a "third force," Rojas Pinilla attempted to fuse the masses of peasants and urban workers into a movement that would counter the elite's traditional domination of the country's politics; however, this served more to anger the elite than to create a populist political base.

Support for the Rojas Pinilla regime faded within the first year. Toward the end of 1953, rural violence was renewed, and Rojas Pinilla undertook strict measures to counter it. Following a substantial increase in police and military budgets, the government assumed a dictatorial and demagogic character. The government reversed its initial social reform measures and relied instead on repression. It tightened press censorship and closed a number of the country's leading newspapers, both Liberal and Conservative. Under a new law, anyone who spoke disrespectfully of the president could be jailed or fined. Many were killed or wounded at the socalled Bull Ring Massacre in February 1956 for failing to cheer Rojas Pinilla sufficiently. The administration became increasingly corrupt, and graft in government circles was rampant. In addition, economic deterioration, triggered by a drop in coffee prices and exacerbated by inflationary government policies, seriously threatened the gains made since World War II. Efforts of government troops to suppress the widespread violence degenerated into an enforcement of the president's tenuous hold on power, and their methods became more brutal. Scorched-earth policies were introduced to confront the 20,000 belligerents estimated to be active in rural areas.

Rojas Pinilla tried to provide a legal facade for his dictatorship. A new constitution (the Constitution of 1886 was abolished in 1954) created a Legislative Assembly composed of fifty-nine Conservatives and thirty-three Liberals, twenty of whom were nominated by the president. The assembly elected Rojas Pinilla to the presidency in 1954 for four years; in 1957 it confirmed him as president until 1962, an action that consolidated mounting opposition to Rojas Pinilla and precipitated his subsequent fall from power.

By early 1957, most organized groups opposed Rojas Pinilla. Liberal and Conservative elites, to whom the populist and demagogic Rojas Pinilla had become a greater threat than their traditional party adversaries, decided to stop feuding and to join forces against the president under the banner of the National Front. Conservative and Liberal leaders had been negotiating an alliance since early 1956. In July 1956, Gómez--in exile in Spain--and Lleras Camargo signed the Declaration of Benidorm, a document that laid the foundation for the future institutionalization of a coalition government. The moderate Conservatives, supporting Rojas Pinilla until 1957, did not join in negotiations with the Liberals until that time.

Although factionalism between moderates and reactionaries slowed the process, all concerned parties signed a final agreement in San Carlos in 1957. Based on the Sitges Agreement signed between the reactionaries and the Liberals in Sitges, Spain, in 1957, the San Carlos Agreement stipulated that a Conservative, either moderate or reactionary, would be the first president under a National Front and that he would be elected by a National Congress previously elected by popular vote. The Sitges and San Carlos agreements, which sought to reduce interparty tensions and provide a basis for power-sharing between the parties, also called for the following: restoration of the Constitution of 1886, which had been abolished by Rojas Pinilla; the alternation of the presidency between the two parties every four years; parity between parties in all legislative bodies; a required two-thirds majority vote for the passage of legislation; the establishment of an administrative career service of neutral parties not subject to partisan appointment; women's suffrage and equal political rights for women; and the devotion of at least 10 percent of the national budget to education.

As the party leaders laid the basis for a coalition government, the tides of discontent turned against Rojas Pinilla. When Rojas Pinilla ordered the arrest of Guillermo León Valencia, a Conservative leader involved in the formation of the National Front, Rojas Pinilla was confronted with student demonstrations, massive strikes, riots, and finally the declared opposition of the church and the defection of top-ranking military officers. In May 1957, faced with a multitude of protesters and top military leaders requesting his resignation, Rojas Pinilla resigned and went into temporary exile in Spain. Power reverted to a five-man junta led by General Gabriel París, who promised the free election of a civilian president in August 1958.

In December 1957, Colombians voted overwhelmingly in a national plebiscite to approve the Sitges and San Carlos agreements as amendments to the Constitution of 1886. Congressional elections were held soon thereafter, with the result that the reactionary Conservatives emerged as the largest faction of the Conservative half of Congress. Gómez vetoed the proposed presidential candidacy of Valencia, who until then had been the strongest Conservative candidate. As a result of this division within the PC, faction leaders agreed to allow a Liberal to be the first president under the National Front and to extend the provision of the coalition government from twelve to sixteen years. These agreements were ratified by Congress as constitutional amendments in 1958. In August of that year, Lleras Camargo, a Liberal, was elected as the first president under the National Front.

Related Conflicts

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