Jorge Eliecer Gaitan
Who he was: Jorge Eliecer Gaitan Ayala was a Colombian politician who served as a representative, senator, mayor of Bogata (1936), minister of education (1940), minister of labor (1943-44) and a charismatic leader of the Liberal Party, known for his powerful oratorical skills. Having been influenced by the philosophy of Mussolini while studying law in Italy, he was considered a populist, often winning popular support through the promises he made to the people regarding improved living conditions for them and land reform. This has led some historians to compare him to Argentina's President Juan Perón.
Jorge Gaitan spoke in 1946 about the existence of a difference between the "political country," made of oligarchs whose interests differed vastly from those of the citizens, who he called the "national country." His views were considered extreme by his own Liberal Party, the Communist Party who perceived him to be a competitor to their ambitions and the Conservative Party.
He was assassinated while campaigning for the second time for the office of president, on 9 April 1948, allegedly by Juan Roa Sierra. Sierra was immediately killed by an outranged crowd and the motive for the assassination remains unclear. In addition to the thought that Sierra was simply an outraged individual who had asked Gaitan for a job that was not given, various Colombian individuals or groups and foreign agencies, such as the CIA and the USSR, have also been accused. Gaitan was in favor of creating change through political means and had been vehemently and vocally opposed to the use of violence, which was at the time being promoted by the revolutionary Communist Party.
Gaitan's assassination immediately triggered the beginning of a period of extreme ongoing political violence between liberals and conservatives in which an estimated 200,000 people died. This period, spanning 1948 to 1958, is known as La Violencia. The development of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other paramilitary, terrorist organizations has also been attributed directly to this beloved populist leader's assassination.
Background: Jorge Eliecer Gaitan Ayala was born 23 January 1903 to an economically poor family. In spite of not beginning school until age 11 and enduring humiliation from wealthy schoolmates because of his family's improverished state, he finished his primary education at Colegio Martin Restrepo Mejia. Gaitan earned a law degree in 1924 and a doctorate of jurisprudence in 1926, at Italy's Royal University in Rome.
Gaitan became politically active in 1919, first locally during protests against then-President Marco Fidel Suarez. He became very popular while defending workers' rights following the massacre by the military of banana workers striking against United Fruit Company. Gaitan won the presidential election of 1930 with the Liberal Party. However, he broke with the party in 1933, forming the National Leftist Revolutionary Union, Unión Nacional Izquierdista Revolucionaria (UNIR). Over the next 15 years he held various political positions and finally campaigned for re-election as president, in 1948.
At the time of his assassination, violent political unrest prevented his family from being able to conduct a proper burial. Jorge Gaitan was buried in his home, now enshrined as the House Museum Jorge Eliecer Gaitan.