(1903–1948) Colombian politician and reformer
Remembered mainly for the tragic manner of his death and the convulsions of violence sparked by his assassination on April 9, 1948—an event precipitating an explosion of popular outrage in Bogotá (the Bogotazo), and soon after, La Violencia (The Violence), which wracked Colombia through the 1950s and after—Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was born to a poor family on January 23, 1903. Entering school for the first time at age 11, and graduating from law school in 1924, Gaitán became a professor at the National University of Colombia and in 1926 earned his doctorate in jurisprudence at the Royal University of Rome.
Politically active from 1919 in the Colombian Liberal Party, in 1933 he broke with the Liberals to found the Revolutionary Leftist National Union (Unión Nacional Izquierdista Revolucionaria, or UNIR). His rise to prominence rested on his keen political skills, gifted oratory, populist message, and capacity to make that message resonate among ordinary people—especially workers and the poor. His discourse was filled with references to “the people,” a source of moral good, in contradistinction to “the oligarchy,” a force of evil, corruption, and oppression. Denouncing poverty, inequality, exploitation, and oppression, he advocated economic justice and reconfiguring the nation’s political life.
In 1935 he rejoined the Liberal Party, and in 1936 became mayor of Bogotá, an office he filled for eight months. In 1940 he was named minister of education, and from 1943 to 1944 served as labor minister. In 1945 he was nominated as the Liberal Party’s candidate in the May 1946 presidential elections, but was defeated at the polls due to a Liberal split, coming in third after Conservative Mariano Ospina Pérez, who triumphed, and the runner-up, Liberal Gabriel Turbay. Named Liberal Party chief in 1947, he was widely considered the favorite for the 1950 presidential elections. His assassin, Juan Roa Sierra, was killed by rioters moments after Gaitán’s death, leading to much speculation about who was behind the assassination. Gaitán’s daughter, Gloria Gaitán, 11 years old at the time of her father’s death, later implicated the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and its Operation Pantomime. No definitive evidence has surfaced to prove the allegation, which is nonetheless consistent with the broader U.S. cold war effort in the postwar years to stem populist leftist movements in Latin America and elsewhere. The assassination took place during the Ninth Pan-American Conference in Bogotá, and its Latin American Youth Conference, attended by Gaitán supporter Fidel Castro of Cuba, among others.
See also Colombia, La Violencia in (1946–1966).