La Violencia

La Violencia

The following month, the inevitable explosion occurred in the form of the most violent and destructive riot in the country's long history of conflict. On April 9, Gaitán was assassinated at midday in the heart of Bogotá. An angry mob immediately seized and killed the assassin. In the ensuing riot, some 2,000 people were killed, and a large portion of downtown Bogotá was destroyed. The Bogotazo, as the episode came to be called, was an expression of mass social frustration and grief by a people who had lost the man who represented their only potential link to the decision-making process.

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.

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