Jorge Eliécer Gaitán

Jorge Eliécer Gaitán (1898-1948) was a Colombian political leader. Emerging from a humble background, he became the idol of the masses and a highly popular reformist leader. His assassination prevented his likely rise to the presidency of Colombia.

Born to an impoverished family on Jan. 23, 1898, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was forced to struggle for his livelihood from an early age. After working his way through Colombian universities, he studied penal law in Italy under the noted Enrico Ferri. Returning home to a law professorship at the National University, he came to prominence with publication of Las ideas socialist as en Colombia in 1924. In addition to this statement of a progressive reform program for the Liberal party, to which he belonged, Gaitán achieved national prestige with his congressional investigation of a workers' strike and revolt in the Santa Marta banana zone in 1929. His documentation of the excesses of management and of the army's repressive intervention made him a hero to the Colombian peasantry.

Rebuffed by the Liberals for his reformist ideas, Gaitán organized his own Unión Nacional Izquierdista Revolucionaria (UNIR). This "Revolutionary Leftist National Union" met little success in challenging the domination of Colombia's two traditional parties, and by the close of the 1930s Gaitán disbanded the group and returned to the Liberal party. Becoming an active leader of its left wing, he served successively as representative, senator, minister of education, and mayor of Bogotá. Continuing his law practice at the same time, Gaitán became an outstanding authority on Colombian penal law.

When mistrustful Liberal leaders refused to support his presidential candidacy in 1946, Gaitán ran for office on his own. Lacking organized support, he ran third in the race but soon afterward succeeded in capturing control of the Liberal party. When the party under his guidance won the March 1947 congressional elections, it was assumed that he would reach the presidency in the next contest.

Growing unrest under a Conservative minority government in 1948 aided Gaitán in strengthening his position as a champion of the people. On April 9, 1948, however, he was assassinated in downtown Bogotá during the convening of the Ninth Inter-American Conference. Although his shooting was not politically motivated, it provoked a severe wave of rioting, looting, and urban lawlessness which has gone down in history as the infamous bogotazo. Even in death a controversial figure, Gaitán is regarded by some as a selfish and opportunistic demagogue. Nonetheless, he remains the only 20th-century Colombian who reached the masses and gave them hope for a better life.

Further Reading on Jorge Eliécer Gaitán

The best account of Gaitán's background and career appears in Vernon Fluharty, Dance of the Millions: Military Rule and the Social Revolution in Colombia, 1930-1956 (1957). There is further consideration of his role in the evolution of Colombian politics in Robert H. Dix, Colombia: The Political Dimensions of Change (1967).

Additional Biography Sources

Sharpless, Richard E., Gaitán of Colombia: a political biography, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978.