Cesar Augusto Gaviria Trujillo (born 1947) entered politics at age 23, serving as a Liberal party representative and in various cabinet positions before being elected president of Colombia from 1990-1994. In 1994 he was elected secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS).
Cesar Augusto Gaviria Trujillo was born in Pereira (which in 1966 became the capital city of the newly created Department of Risaralda, Colombia) on March 31, 1947. His father was a middle-class coffee grower, sometime journalist, and avowed free-thinker affiliated with the Liberal party. His mother, in contrast, came from a family closely identified with the Conservative party. Gaviria married Ana Milena Munoz, also a native of Pereira from a wealthy family. They had two children: Maria Paz and Simon.
An excellent student, Gaviria attended the prestigious, private University of Los Andes in Bogota where he majored in economics. After graduating first in his class in 1970 at age 23, he launched his political career by winning a city council seat (1970-1974) in his hometown of Pereira as a candidate from the Liberal party. In 1971, during the administration of Conservative President Misael Pastrana Borrero (1970-1974), he was appointed assistant director of the National Planning Department. In 1972 and 1973 he served as general manager of a private-sector company, Transformadores T.P.L., S.A., based in the Department of Risaralda.
In 1974 he was elected to the House of Representatives from Risaralda. Less than a year later, during the presidency of Liberal Alfonso Lopez Michelsen (1974-1978), he was appointed mayor of his native city. He served as mayor for one year (1975-1976). He then reassumed his position in the House, becoming an active member of that chamber's Economic Affairs Committee (Tercera Comision).
In August 1978, following the inauguration of Liberal Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala to the presidency (1978-1982), he was named vice-minister of economic development, a post which he occupied for almost two years. Upon his return to Congress in 1980 he resumed his participation in the House Economic Affairs Committee, over which he presided as chairman in 1981-1982. In 1983, during Conservative President Belasario Betancourt's term in office (1982-1986) he was elected by a bipartisan majority of his colleagues to a one-year term as president of the House of Representatives.
During the early-and mid-1980s Representative Gaviria combined his successful parliamentary career with forays into the field of journalism. In 1982 he served as director of the newspaper Diario de la Tarde, a regional daily published in Pereira. Between 1983 and 1986 he frequently wrote economic and political commentaries for the national daily, El Tiempo, published in Bogota.
During 1985-1986 he acted as campaign director for the successful Liberal party presidential candidate, Virgilio Barco Vargas (1986-1990). In 1986 he was named adjunct director of the Liberal party.
Upon Barco's assumption of the presidency on August 7, 1986, Gaviria was appointed as the new government's finance minister (Hacienda y Credito Publico). During his tenure in this key cabinet post, he was responsible for drawing up major legislative initiatives on agrarian reform and tax reform, both of which were subsequently enacted by Congress. His tax reform bill was particularly noteworthy because for the first time in Colombia's modern history it exempted low-income citizens from the obligation of filing income tax reports, thereby reducing the administrative load on the nation's overburdened tax authorities, while it simultaneously modernized the tax collection system and increased overall tax revenues collected by the national government. During his term as finance minister he also served on two occasions as acting minister of justice.
Having discharged the duties of finance minister for just under 10 months, in May 1987 he was named minister of government by President Barco. In this ministry he was responsible for guiding the administration's peace initiative that brought the M-19 guerrillas to the negotiating table in 1988 and ultimately led to their historic demobilization in 1989. As minister of government he also served as acting president of the republic on nine separate occasions while President Barco was absent from the country on state visits.
In February 1989, although widely recognized as one of the Barco administration's most effective and respected cabinet officers, he resigned from the government ministry to accept the position of campaign director for Liberal Senator Luis Carlos Galan, the front-running candidate for the presidency in the 1990 elections. Galan was brutally assassinated on August 18, 1989, by hitmen (known as Sicarios) from the notorious Medellin Cartel, one of several powerful drug trafficking organizations operating in Colombia. Gaviria then acceded to the requests from Galan's family and his former supporters within the Liberal party to run for the party's presidential nomination.
After his sweeping victory in the Liberal party's nominating convention in March 1990, Gaviria won the presidency in May 1990, garnering 47 percent of the popular vote (versus 23 percent for the Conservative candidate, Alvaro Gomez Hurtado, his closest rival). The electoral race was marked by extensive terrorism and violence sponsored primarily by the Medellin drug traffickers. In all, three presidential candidates were assassinated during Colombia's traumatic 1989-1990 electoral campaign. In addition to Senator Galan, the left-wing Patriotic Union party candidate, Senator Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa, and the former M-19 guerrilla chieftain and Democratic Alliance candidate, Carlos Pizzaro Leongomez, were also murdered. Upon his assumption of office on August 7, 1990, among the major challenges that the 43-year-old president had to face was how to end the wave of drug-related terrorism convulsing his country and thereby assure the survival of civilian and democratic rule in Colombia during his term (1990-1994) and beyond.
In 1994 Columbia's constitutional court voted 5-4 that it was legal to possess small amounts of hard drugs for personal consumption including marijuana, cocaine, and hashish. Alarmed by the implications, Gaviria and the government cracked down on drug use in public, signing a decree that banned drug consumption in public places and imposed penalties on two dozen categories of people who use narcotics, such as government employees or drivers of vehicles. Gaviria also appealed to church leaders, professional organizations, peasant groups, and students to support a referendum to amend the constitution and ban drug use. Although it appeared that such a referendum would be difficult legally to implement, Gaviria's actions apparently influenced the populace. Opinion polls showed a large majority of people opposed to legalization of drugs in Columbia.
In 1994 Gaviria was elected secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS). The OAS, a 35 nation organization and the world's oldest regional forum, had raised its profile in defense of democracy in Guatemala, Peru, and Haiti. Gaviria assumed OAS duties after his presidential term ended in August 1994. Surprising those who assumed he would lead a comfortable life as secretary general of a staid and sleepy forum, Gaviria launched an overhaul of the OAS, including a 30 percent reduction in staff. He defended the action, saying that the savings would free up resources for technical forays into areas such as trade and narcotics suppression. The OAS had no binding authority and no troops to dispatch, even though the organization assisted in reversing executive coups in Guatemala and Peru. Nonetheless, Gaviria pushed for change in the OAS, stating in The Miami Herald that "We just cannot accept becoming a diplomatic antique."
There are no English language biographies of President Cesar Gaviria currently available. Nevertheless, relevant information on the man, his times, and his country can be found in the following books and articles: Robert Dix, The Politics of Colombia (1987); Jonathan Hartlyn, The Politics of Coalition Rule in Colombia (London: 1988); Bruce Michael Bagley, "Colombia and the War on Drugs," in Foreign Affairs (Fall 1988); Jenny Pearce, Colombia: Inside the Labyrinth (London: 1990); and Bruce Michael Bagley, "Dateline Drug Wars: Colombia: Wrong Strategy," in Foreign Policy (Winter 1989-1990).
For periodical articles about Cesar Augusto Gaviria Trujillo see: Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, February 9, 1994; Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, March 27, 1994; Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, May 27, 1994; Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, June 12, 1994; and Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, January 6, 1997.