La Violencia (1948-66)

The period known as "La Violencia" (The Violence), in which an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 partisans and others died, lasted for over a decade. Various authorities provide a variety of dates for this conflict, with civil strife starting in 1946 and 1947, and continuing until 1958, 1960, or 1966. La Violencia began as a street riot in Bogota (known as Bogotazo) that erupted in the wake of the assassination in 1948 of Liberal Party leader and presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan. Rural violence, which had begun as early as 1946, raged out of control in much of the nation after Bogotazo.

Generally speaking, the Violencia era is broken downinto four periods. Increasing political instabilitycharacterized Phase I (1946-April 9, 1948) as the Liberalparty under Alberto Lleras Camargo split its left and right-wing constituencies, losing power to a minority Conservative government. Phase II (Bogotazo-June 13, 1953) saw the bloodiest period of insurrection, with guerrilla warfare spreading inColombia from the Llanos into Tolima. Both Liberal andConservative campesinos organized into guerrillaself-defense groups. Phase III (June 13, 1953-May 10, 1957) coincides with the Rojas Pinilla dictatorship. The regime successfullyinitiated amnesty programs to quell the violence that hadengulfed the country. Phase IV (August 1958-1966) - encompasses the first two National Front governments of Liberal Lleras Camargo and Conservative Guillermo LeónValencia. It witnessed an extensive collaborative effortbetween the United States and Colombia in developing thelatter's internal security apparatus.

The Liberals’ fall from power because of a party split was an exact reproduction, with party roles reversed, of the Conservatives’ defeat in 1930. What came next also eerily resembled earlier events. Ospina, like Olaya previously, chose to ease the transition by forming a coalition government, and at the upper levels this approach at first worked reasonably well. In the backcountry, things were different; only this time reempowered Conservatives provoked trouble by setting out to avenge themselves on Liberals—and to make sure the Conservative Party would not again be cast into opposition. Outbreaks of violence spread through much of the country, so that what came to be called La Violencia (The Violence) actually began in 1946 rather than (as is sometimes said) on April 9, 1948, the day that the assassination of Gaitán set off the orgy of rioting known as the Bogotazo. The riots were not limited to Bogotá, but that is where the greatest destruction and loss of life occurred.

The official investigation identified Gaitán’s murderer as an unbalanced individual acting on his own, and this remains the most likely explanation, but the Liberal masses assumed that he had been struck down by a Conservative conspiracy. They proceeded to loot stores owned by the oligarchy in the hope that the government would fall. The Liberal top command, which had shortly before withdrawn its members from Ospina’s coalition in protest over mounting carnage in the countryside, briefly shared the latter hope. But Ospina refused to resign, the army gradually regained control in Bogotá, and the Liberal leaders reluctantly rejoined the government for the sake of restoring order in time of crisis or, in the view of Gaitán’s hard-core followers, to form a united oligarchic front against the demands of the people. Violence did diminish in the immediate aftermath of April 9, but it built up again, particularly as the date for new elections drew near. Before the next presidential vote, the Liberals again left the government and at the last minute withdrew their candidate on the grounds that, in the climate of violence, no fair election was possible. The Conservative most hated by the Liberals, Gómez, thus won the presidency unopposed in 1950, but in such a way that most Liberals refused to regard him as a legitimate ruler.

Except for the Bogotazo, La Violencia was overwhelmingly rural. It was also vicious, with atrocities freely committed by Conservative police or vigilantes as well as by Liberal guerrillas, who received no formal endorsement from party directorates but enjoyed widespread sympathy. In certain enclaves of PCC strength, self-defense forces arose that would develop into communist guerrilla bands. Gómez himself, who took office in 1950, proposed a long-term solution to Colombia’s problems in the shape of a constitutional reform project that would have retained some democratic forms but showed obvious borrowing from Franco’s Spain. Making little headway against the violence, however, he steadily lost support even within his own party. On November 5, 1951, Gómez, because of his delicate health, temporarily ceded power to his minister of government, Roberto Urdaneta Arbeláez. From 1948 to 1950 military officers replaced Liberal cabinet officers who had left the coalition government as a result of La Violencia. They cooperated with the radical Conservative president in closing the Liberal-dominated Congress and supported the uncontested election of 1950 that led to the Conservative dictatorship of President Laureano Gomez. The violence, government-ordered repression, and divisions within the Conservative Party brought the army leadership, especially its popular commander, General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, into conflict with Gomez. The inability of the civilian leaders to curb either the rural violence or their own bitter political disputes opened the way for Rojas Pinilla, now a general, to take control as military dictator in 1953. The political crisis erupted in June 1953 when Gomez was ousted by Pinilla, who assumed the presidency with the backing of moderate elements within the Conservative Party. A century of military obedience to civilian authority ended.

Hours after Gómez resumed his presidency on June 13, 1953, military leaders loyal primarily to former President Ospina replaced Gómez with General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (president, 1953–57). Beneath the veneer of military nonpartisanship, Rojas was close to the Ospinista wing of the Conservative Party.

Repressed Liberals and all but hard-core followers of Gómez greeted the 1953 coup with sighs of relief. A few Liberals joined the government, and many Liberal guerrillas accepted Rojas’s offers of amnesty; for a time, the level of political violence subsided. However, Rojas made no serious effort to win over the guerrillas, and eventually violence picked up again; it was also changing. The original political conflict between Liberals and Conservatives became increasingly blurred by elements of economic competition and sheer banditry, using the party labels as banners to cover actions carried out for material gain. American military assistance followed the needs of the Colombian military government. The U.S. provided significant support to the Colombian armed forces during the mid-1950s, even though some people criticized President Eisenhower's administration for supporting an undemocratic military regime in Colombia.

By offering amnesty to any guerrilla who would disarm, the new president initially held out a real incentive to end the violence. He also pledged to conduct a nonpartisan administration, which provided an added inducement to return to a peaceful society. Coupled with war weariness these steps resulted in reduced violence until 1956. Then the economy, which had been quite vigorous because of high coffee prices, took a downturn as the coffee market collapsed.

Rojas Pinilla made progress in reducing rural warfare; but by 1957 his regime had become so arbitrary and corrupt that he was put out of office by the oligarchy and the military establishment. When the president tampered with the electoral process in 1957, a military junta deposed him. The former in particular feared Rojas' efforts to organize a mass anti-oligarchical party. By then it was also apparent that the general, aside from being partisan, was building a political organization in the manner of Juan Peron of Argentina. Thus violence rose again and the public was increasingly disaffected by authoritarian rule.

Rojas tried brute force against those who failed to accept his overtures, but without much success, and so the death toll kept climbing. By 1957 it had reached a cumulative total on the order of 175,000, in a population that had grown by 40 percent since 1946 to more than 14 million. Meanwhile, a string of Rojas’s arbitrary actions—together with allegations of personal enrichment—eroded his support among both Liberals and Ospinista Conservatives. In May 1957, he was overthrown by another coup, organized by civilian leaders of both parties in conjunction with members of the business elite. A provisional military junta took his place but turned the government over to a sui generis bipartisan coalition the following year.

The junta, in turn, was succeeded by the National Front governing arrangement, which resulted in power sharing between the Liberals and Conservatives until 1974. When Colombia returned to civilian rule in the late 1950s, the US underwent a massive reappraisal of its foreign policy toward Latin America, fueled by the stunning Cuban revolution that abruptly introduced a communist bastion in the Western Hemisphere. Both U.S. and Colombian officials saw that the threat to hemispheric security was not from communist conventional forces, but from communist revolutions spurned by internal unrest.

The results of the Colombian military's civic action program showed that if the military is employed in projects which can be adequately supported by the forces involved, there are may benefits for all concerned. Military civic action can assist in national development in a number of possible ways: literacy training, national communications development, health care, and a strengthening of the support for the national government.

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