The Reformist Period, 1930-45

The Reformist Period, 1930-45

The economic modernization of the early 1900s unleashed social forces that resulted in the emergence of new urban classes. As the traditional elites failed to address the demands made by the new groups, tension was generated. The growing urban electorate tended to favor those politicians who advocated social reforms. The Liberals were better able than the Conservatives to benefit from this development, especially during the first administration of Alfonso López Pumarejo (1934-38). The populist movement of the 1940s, represented by the progressive faction of the PL, attracted the most support, however, and represented a threat to the more conservative traditional elites. For the first time, nonelites had a voice with which to express their interests.

Although a split in the PC over candidates for the 1930 presidential election aided in the ascension of the PL to power, both parties were divided into factions. The PC consisted of moderates (led by Mariano Ospina Pérez and known as ospinistas) who wanted to maintain the status quo and reactionary conservatives (led by Laureano Gómez Castro and known as laureanistas) who favored a restructuring of the state along corporatist lines. The PL also had its moderates who supported the status quo. The second faction of the PL consisted of reformists, who favored controlled social change. These factions represented different socioeconomic groups. In general, reformists included the new financial and capitalist groups. Reactionaries primarily were traditional latifundistas (owners of latifundios). Moderates of both parties tended to have interests that incorporated several economic activities and included groups such as export-oriented latifundistas.

As a result of the Liberal victory, many of the privileges that had been afforded to Conservatives through patronage politics were now denied. Because the president appointed the governors, who in turn appointed the municipal mayors, the transfer of power from the PC to the PL at the presidential level was felt at the municipal level. Because of the change in the political affiliation of the police force, the stricter application of the law was transferred to members of the opposition party. Clashes resulted between partisan groups among the lower classes, who sought either to gain or to maintain their privileges. One such clash involved the peasants, who, amidst the confusion, tried to attain greater control over small plots of land at the expense of members of the opposing party.

The first Liberal president of the twentieth century, Enrique Olaya Herrera (1930-34), was elected at a time when the price of coffee had dropped to about one-third of the 1928 price, loans from United States banks had stopped, and the country was gripped by an economic depression. Olaya endeavored to hold together the moderate Liberals and the moderate Conservatives, some of whom had worked for his election. Although Conservative control of the legislature and concern over the economy constrained Olaya's ability to enact a comprehensive Liberal agenda, he succeeded in carrying out some reforms, notably in education. Nonetheless, some Liberals, disappointed by their party's failure to carry out a "revolution," in 1932 organized a movement called the Revolutionary Leftist National Union (Unión Nacional Izquierdista Revolucionaria--UNIR). The movement came to an end after Gaitán, its leader, returned to the PL in 1935 when the party adopted many of his proposed reforms and offered him a congressional seat.

International disputes also confronted the Olaya administration, one of the most prominent being a boundary conflict with Peru. In 1932 Peruvians occupied Leticia, a Colombian outpost on the Amazon, and hand-to-hand combat ensued between small Colombian and Peruvian forces. The dispute was settled by direct negotiation in 1934, when Peru recognized Colombian sovereignty over the port.

The most important president in the reformist period was Olaya's successor, López Pumarejo. Believing that the reformist faction of the PL had become strong enough to carry out its program, the López Pumarejo administration implemented extensive reforms, principally in agriculture, education, and the tax system. Known as the "Revolution on the March," these reforms included constitutional amendments that guaranteed the state's role in developing the economy of the country and diversifying its exports, authorized the national government to expropriate property for the common good, provided special state protection for labor and the right for labor unions to strike, and stipulated that public assistance was a function of the state. Additional reforms included the strict enforcement of progressive income and inheritance taxes, the guarantee of rights granted to squatters on public and private lands, the reinforcement of credit institutions, and the renewed separation of church and state.

The reforms put in place by the López Pumarejo administration, combined with import substitution policies, helped to accelerate the capitalist development of Colombia. During the López Pumarejo administration, coffee prices and the volume of exports increased. Protectionist measures helped to increase domestic production and enlarge the domestic market. A surge in industrialization began in the 1930s, aided by various external and internal factors. The key external factor was the world economic crisis of the 1930s, which limited the availability of goods to be imported and limited markets for exports. Internal factors included domestic capital accumulation via the tobacco, gold, and coffee trade; the increased buying power of large groups, especially coffee growers; the construction of transportation and communication facilities that unified the internal market; and a continuation of protectionist policies begun by President Reyes in 1904. The increasing emphasis on growing and exporting coffee fostered industrial development and allowed a more equitable distribution of income because more skilled laborers were employed and received higher wages. As a result, the demand for domestically produced consumer goods increased further.

Reforms instituted under López Pumarejo reflected a variety of influences: the Mexican Constitution of 1917, which had set forth provisions relating to social welfare, labor, and government responsibility in education and economics; ideas of change favored by the Peruvian apristas--members of the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana-- APRA); and the New Deal policies of United States president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45). Some Colombian intellectuals had become interested in socialist thought, and the establishment of a liberal republic in Spain during the early 1930s inspired Colombian Liberals.

The Liberals, recognizing the social changes that were under way, identified themselves with the growing demands of the masses. In contrast, the Conservatives favored a minimum of concessions, the greatest possible influence of the church, and continued control of the country by a small upper class; they saw López Pumarejo's policies as communistic. Meanwhile, disagreement over the extent to which Liberal ideology should be applied led to a split between the pro-reform supporters of López Pumarejo and the pro-status quo followers of fellow Liberal Eduardo Santos, owner of the national daily El Tiempo.

In 1938 Santos became president with the support of moderate Liberals and of Conservatives opposed to López Pumarejo's Revolution on the March. Santos retained some of his predecessor's policies, such as protectionism, and oriented his policies toward capitalist industrial and agricultural development. The Santos administration improved the economic capabilities of the country to invest in industry. It also stimulated capital-intensive agriculture to convert traditional latifundios, which relied on cheap labor, into capitalist haciendas, which used advanced technology. The reduced demand for manual labor in the countryside caused many campesinos to migrate to the cities. This urban growth increased both the supply of labor and the demand for consumer goods, further contributing to industrial expansion. Santos also reduced taxes on machinery imports that were needed for industry.

In the later years of his administration, Santos turned his attention to relations with the church and the United States. In 1942 Santos reformed education by removing it from the control of the church. In the same year, he concluded a new agreement with the Vatican, requiring that bishops be Colombian citizens. During World War II, he cooperated with the United States in the defense of the Panama Canal, ousted German nationals from control of Colombia's national airline, and broke diplomatic relations with the Axis governments. His administration also strengthened economic, commercial, and cultural relations with the United States.

Despite opposition from Conservatives, moderate Liberals, and a more progressive Liberal group led by Gaitán, López Pumarejo was elected president for a second term in 1942. He was not as successful in the second term in implementing reform, however, because of strong Conservative opposition and a split in the Liberal organization in Congress. Laureano Gómez exploited the Liberal division by attacking López Pumarejo's foreign policy, including the declaration of war on the Axis Powers in 1943. Other effects of World War II were being felt at this time, including an unbalanced budget, unstable foreign trade, a decline in coffee prices, and an increase in import prices.

Discontent with López Pumarejo increased. Gómez made personal attacks on López Pumarejo and his family that were so inflammatory that Gómez was imprisoned in 1944. This triggered demonstrations and street fighting in Bogotá. In July 1944, during army maneuvers, López Pumarejo and some of his cabinet members were held prisoner for a few days by officers staging an abortive military coup in Pasto. Although most of the military supported the constitutional order, López Pumarejo lost prestige and power. In July 1945, he resigned in favor of his first presidential designate, Alberto Lleras Camargo, a Liberal who had distinguished himself as a writer and government official.

López Pumarejo's resignation resulted in part from pressure by the political and economic forces that he had helped to strengthen through the reforms of his first term. By 1942 a new group of industrialists wished to perpetuate their gains and believed that reform should cease. During López Pumarejo's first term, the interests of industrialists and those of other urban elements frequently coincided--for example, in reducing the power of the church and large landowners and in stimulating economic growth. In his second term, however, critics contended that the social reforms and development policies of the first term no longer were appropriate. Thus, the industrialists, looking for favorable tax policies and protection against the demands of labor, joined with the landowners in resisting reforms. Both groups helped block important portions of López Pumarejo's legislative program, and the reformist trend of the PL was negated by more moderate elements within the party.

Lleras Camargo, who served as provisional president until August 1946, appointed representatives of all parties to his cabinet in an effort to establish a "national union." Nonetheless, his coalition policy was attacked by Gaitán, who had gained considerable support among the masses and among some intellectuals and industrialists. When Gabriel Turbay, a moderate Liberal, won the party's nomination for the 1946 presidential election, Gaitán decided to run independently, and his forces shifted to a more militant stance. This serious split among Liberals resulted in the election of the Conservative candidate, Mariano Ospina Pérez, by a plurality of 42 percent of the electorate.

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