Gustavo Rojas Pinilla

Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (1900-1975) was a Colombian general and dictator-president. Though he interrupted briefly Colombia's civil war, his rule ultimately became an oppressive regime of terror.

Gustavo Rojas was born in ancient Tunja on March 12, 1900. After receiving his preuniversity education at Tunja Normal School, he began his military career in 1917, specializingin building airports. In 1927 he wrote a thesis at the Tri-State College of Engineering in Angola, Ind., on the building of airfields in Colombia. During the next 20 years, as he rose from lieutenant to general, Rojas was an engineer, building roads and airports. By 1945 he had become the director of civil aeronautics.

The Bogotazoriots of April 8, 1948, marked a turning point in Rojas's life and the start of his political career. He suppressed the Cali rioters with such efficiency and brutality that he won the hatred of the Liberals and the approval of the Conservative dictator, Laureano Gómez, who promoted him in 1950 to commander in chief of the armed forces and sent him in 1952 to Washington to represent Colombia on the Inter-American Defense Board and to Korea to inspect Colombian troops there.

In 1953, threatened with demotion and removal by Gómez, Rojas led a plot of army officers in a successful coup against the dictator and brought a brief stop to the bloody civil war in Colombia. Colombians were so thankful to Rojas for peace that they elected him president, but by June 8, 1954, Rojas had started his own violence.

Rojas used the army and police against all opposition in Colombia. Hundreds of thousands of Colombians fled burning villages for the comparative safety of mushrooming city slums. By the end of the Rojas regime, in 1957, over 300,000 Colombians were dead, and Rojas, the peace-maker and builder, had acquired a different reputation. Hubert Herring described him as a "sadist … one of the most savage and venal and altogether incompetent administrators in the history of the nation." Other historians were not so harsh. Vernon Lee Fluharty considered him a much-maligned reformer trying to modernize a semifeudal society which had been run for centuries by two small elite oligarchies. Fluharty saw these oligarchies as unwilling to give up their privileges or to "cope with long-smoldering social revolution." Fluharty excused the violence but incorrectly predicted that the two rival oligarchies would never cooperate.

The new military coup against Rojas came suddenly on May 9, 1957. After months of secret negotiations in Spain and Colombia, the Conservative and Liberal leaders jointly ousted Rojas and instituted their unique 16-year plan for "peace through alternation and parity." By this plan, Liberals and Conservatives alternated the presidency every 4 years after 1958, dividing the government jobs equally and giving Colombia years of comparative peace.

After a brief period of disgrace and exile, Rojas organized ANAPO, a rapidly growing party of left and right extremists who vowed to upset this "frozen democracy." In 1970 they claimed to have won a third of the votes and the presidency. When the Conservative Misael Pastrana was officially declared the winner, Rojas promised revolution and was held under house arrest. Bogotá was tense, but Pastrana became president.


Further Reading on Gustavo Rojas Pinilla

A chapter on Rojas appears in Tad Szulc, Twilight of the Tyrants (1959). For further information on his role in the context of Colombian politics see Vernon Lee Fluharty, Dance of the Millions: Military Rule and the Social Revolution in Colombia 1930-1956 (1957); John D. Martz, Colombia: A Contemporary Political Survey (1962); and Robert H. Dix, Colombia: The Political Dimensions of Change (1967).