The Bogotazo 1948

Throughout nearly all its history, political and economic power in Colombia was monopolized by a small elite which ruled through either the Conservative or Liberal Party, or through some combination of the two. Leaders of national stature who attemptedto organize the masses against the oligarchs were rare. The bogotanos, usually resigned to their poverty, had turned bitter in the years immediately following World War II. Times were bad; the rich made their clever adjustments, but, the poor suffered simultaneously from soaring prices and declining job opportunities.

Colombia in 1948 was closer to social revolution than it had ever been before or since. The old order was under challenge from a forceful and extremely popular politician, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, and the poor in the cities, especially Bogotá, were in a rebellious mood. But it was the assassination of the one that turned on the dreadful violence of the other. No one else was able to harness the savage energy of the mob; certainly not the feckless Colombian Communists, though they tried. The government preferred to blame the riots on Communist agitation and foreign intrigue, rather than to address itself to the underlying causes of popular discontent.

The assassination of Gaitán took place on 9 April 1948 on a downtown street as Gaitán was walking to lunch. The murderer was apparently one of those fanaticsor psychopaths who may never be excluded from calculations on the safety of dignitaries. His motives cannot be known for certain, for he was battered to death on the spot by frenzied bystanders. Inevitably, charges were raised of the complicity of the Conservative Party, of the Communists, and of the US. But no strong evidence of a political plot was ever produced.

On the afternoon of 9 April 1948, angry mobs suddenly and swiftly reduced the main streets of Bogotá to a smoking ruin. Radio broadcasts, at times with unmistakable Communist content, called for the overthrow of the Colombian government and of "Yankee Imperialism." Many rioters wore red arm bands [the traditional symbol of the Liberal Party]; some waved banners emblazoned with the hammer-and-sickle. A mob gutted the main floor of the Capitolio Nacional, disrupting the deliberations ofthe Ninth International Conference of American States and forcing Secretary of State Marshall and the other delegates to take cover. The army regained control of the city over the next day or two. But not before several thousand Colombians had been killed. It was the bogotazo.

The reaction in Washington was also dramatic and swift Congressmen and commentators alike lamented that Communist Russia had scored a signal victory in the Cold War. The recently organized Central Intelligence Agency in particular was rebuked for having provided no warning of this "South American Pearl Harbor."

The Colombians charged that both the assassination and the riots were parts of a "premeditated movement inspired by Communists and undesirable foreign elements" to sabotage the conference. US Secretary of State Marshall reported to the press that the riots had been Communist-inspired and as such were an extension to the Western Hemisphere of the tactics of subversion and violence that the Soviet Union was employing in Europe. In 1948 - the year of the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, of concerted Communist drives to gain power in France and Italy, and of the beginning of the Berlin blockade - a deliberate Soviet extension of the cold war to the Western Hemisphere was indeed a credible phenomenon to many US observers.

Marshall and other delegates to the Inter-American Conference accused Soviet Russia, and its tool, international communism, of instigating the riots. Basing their judgment on first-hand information and personal observation on the spot, they saw the same powers and patterns at work as in the attempted insurrections in France and Italy. And that made Bogotá, as Mr. Marshall said, not merely a Colombian or Latin American incident but a world affair, and particularly an illustration of the length to which Russia was willing to go in its (no longer) cold war against the democracies.

Within a few days after the riots the Colombian government began reporting that the assassination had been a non-political act. In time Marshall indicated that he believed that the Communists had taken advantage of the disorders but had probably not directly initiated.

The Communists were neither strong enough nor popular enough to take command. Gaitán had stolen most of their thunder through his own populistic appeals. In terms of both radio time and street leadership the bogotazo was mostly a gaitanista affair. In any case, frenzy and drunkenness soon diverted the mob from its interest in political vengeance and revolution, to violence and looting as ends in themselves.

Some Communists were able to raise the Soviet banner over the town hall of Barranquilla. Apparently it took but one army officer to tear it down. Liberal partisans gained control of Cali temporarily. A presumptuous group of local Communists then declared the establishment of the "Soviet Socialist Republic of Colombia." Here too the army swiftly reestablished government control.

There were many foreign radicals in Bogotá at the time, to advertise their causes in the publicity extended to the Conference of American States. Fidel Castro, then 22 years old, happened to be one of them. Thorough investigations indicate that he played only a minor role. Castro subsequently reported that he tried to turn the mob into a revolutionary force, but was defeated by the onset of drunkenness and looting. The episode may have influenced his adoption in Cuba in the 1950s of a guerrilla strategy rather thanone of revolution through urban disorders.

Political violence involving feuding Liberal and Conservative bands, never completely absent in Colombia, had been increasing in tempo since the return to power of a Conservative government in 1946. (The Liberals previously had ruled since 1930.) In the period before April 1948, the Conservatives, with help from army and police, had been getting the best of it. With the news of the bogotazo, Liberal partisans struck everywhere with fury. But soon Conservative bands had better arms and were able to retaliate. Rural warfare reached a new high level known as La Violencia, which was to claim more than 200,000 lives in the following decade.

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