COLOMBIA more consistently and over a longer period than any other Latin American republic has made relatively democratic institutions work. From the beginning of the century down to the past two years they have worked in good economic years and bad, with a minimum of civil disorder and legal confusion.
But as 1949 drew toward a close, it looked as if an era might be ending. A minority party in control of the presidency, the Conservatives, has executed a political coup which lays Colombia under threat of years of rightist totalitarian dictatorship, if not of undeclared civil war.
For the United Stales the developments in Colombia have an immediate practical importance. If the rightist dictatorship maintains itself, the largest South American republic in the Caribbean security area, a country bordering the Panama Canal, will be indefinitely in the hands of a regime hostile to United State’s influence in inter-American affairs, if not unfriendly to the United States itself.
Colombia’s two-party system
Since the nineteenth century, Colombia has functioned politically through a two-party system in which the Conservative’s and the Liberals correspond to the Republican and Democratic parties in the I niled Stales. Knob party, that is to say, is divided between relatively react ionary and progressive wings. The reactionary Conservatives favor, in general terms, a strong-arm government which will keep Colombia’s masses of city workers and rural peasants in their place, while the progressive Conservatives favor gradual economic and social reforms through government manipulation of labor unions and farmers’ organizations.
Ihe reactionary Liberals have a laissez-faire, slate-rights philosophy akin in certain respects to that of the Dixieerats and their sympathizers in the f niled Slates, while the party’s larger progressive wing favors numerous welfare measures as a means of improving Colombia’s social economy.
These differences are further embittered by religious issues. The right-wing Conservatives would like to see the Roman Catholic Church more closely associated with the government as an educational and disciplinary agent. The left-wing Liberals are strongly, in fact sometimes violently, anticlerical. Many of their leaders would be happy to disestablish the church as the official faith of the nation, il they felt they could do so without alienating the peasants and the women in their following.
After the Liberals won control of i he government in 1930, these tensions within the party mounted with the responsibilities of the depression and the war years. In the 1946 election they split the party wide open on its presidential ticket. The right wing managed to hold on to the party machinery and nominate a wealthy physician of low political appeal, Gabriel Turbay, as the official candidate; the left wing ran a brilliant young Bogotá labor union lawyer named Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, on a strong welfare-state platform as an independent.
The split landed the Conservative candidate, Mariano Ospina Pérez, in the presidential palace by a modest plurality, but with a large Liberal majority against him in the Colombian Congress. And the poor showing made by Turbay, plus the excellent race by the left-wing independents, made it clear that Gaitan would be the party candidate in 1950. President Pérez began his administration with a cabinet of middle-of-the-road Conservatives, obviously with a view to making no unnecessary enemies either for his party or for himself.
The Bogotá riots
Then suddenly and dramatically, while the Ninth International Conference of American States was in session in Bogotá in April. 1948, Gaitán was assassinated by a local slum character of doubtful sanity. The death of the gifted rabble-rouser was avenged by his followers in the most violent and destructive tumult in South American history the celebrated Bogotá riots. Neither Colombian politics nor the once conciliatory Ospina Pérez administration has been the same since.
For in the wake of the Bogotá horror, the Conservative politicians around Pérez discovered certain strategies which they considered immensely to their practical advantage. A state of siege, the Colombian equivalent of martial law, was declared while the disorders were going on, and lasted until the following December. It proved a convenient device on several occasions for pushing the administration’s political opposition around.
The government, without particularly going into the evidence, promptly underwrote the charge that the riots were Communist-plotted and Communist-directed. The charge stuck with frightened upper-class Liberals as well as with Conservatives, and with religious Colombians, who were horrified at seeing the Bogotá churches burning. So it was an easy step from this propaganda success to the campaign accusation that the Liberal Party itself, to which both Gaitán and his following technically belonged, was Communist-infiltrated and Communist -directed.
After the riots President Pérez tried at first to rally the country behind him by naming a coalition cabinet composed of Conservatives and right-wing, “anti-Gaitanista” Liberals. The charge of Communist ties was rarely used except against Gaitán’s Liberal political lieutenants, and only press and radio defenders of Gaitán’s memory and of the welfare program felt the bite of the state-ofsiege censorship.
But by early 1949 the picture was rapidly changing. The coalition cabinet dissolved and the places of its Liberal members were taken over by notably right-wing Conservatives. Censorship disappeared at the end of the state of siege. But with Congressional elections coming up in June, the charge of Communist affiliations against the Liberals became a war cry of the Conservatives.
The terror begins
More significantly still, Pérez began replacing a large number of departmental (state) governors — appointed by the President in Colombia— with tough young Conservative extremists. As fast as they were appointed, the new governors shook up the provincial police departments, staffing them with hard-boiled local Conservative leaders and strong-arm men.
Liberals throughout the republic, whether local politicians or outspoken ordinary citizens, began running into all the known brands of police trouble — heavy fines and jail sentences for petty offenses, long waits for trial in jail when no charges could be proved, and police beatings for real or fancied resistance to officers.
On the eve of the June elections, mob violence began in numerous small towns and rural centers. When Liberal meetings were broken up or raided, and Liberal headquarters attacked or destroyed, the police were rarely on hand. If they came at all, it was usually just in time to arrest the Liberals on the scene who happened to be fighting back.
Obviously, the Conservatives were building up a terror machine to make Liberal Party activity or the casting of a Liberal vote dangerous to the individual. Its operations were not successful enough, however, to affect the June elections materially. The Liberals, in spite of the considerable shrinkage of their vote in the districts where the terror had been most active, retained their majority in the lower house of the Colombian Congress.
But when the new Congress convened in the early autumn, its Liberal members realized that they had won only a preliminary skirmish. The terror machine of the Conservatives was organizing itself and growing daily. If it continued to develop and to function, it could steal the much more important 1950 presidential election for the Conservatives, simply by frightening the peasant and Indian voters and the underprivileged town and city workers away from the polls.
The Liberals counterattack
The Liberal majority in Congress, then, were faced with a vital question. How could they use their constitutional powers as the republic’s legislative body to stop the terror from operat ing?
Expert constitutional lawyers promptly came up with an answer. Congress could legally enact that Colombia’s next presidential election, normally held on the first Sunday in May, should take place during a period when Congress was in session. Then, if the terror machine seemed to be getting out of hand, the Liberal majority in Congress could do a good deal toward checking it by filing impeachment charges against President Pérez. In fact, the mere filing of an impeachment would suspend the President from his office until the trial was over, and put in his place an “interim President-designate” chosen by the Liberal majority.
The Liberal leaders thought the chance was worth taking, and advanced the date of the presidential election to November 27. The required constitutional session of Congress was to end on December 17. That would give the Liberals all the time that was necessary before election to wield the impeachment club, and three weeks afterward.
The change of the election date naturally stepped up the terror in the Colombian countryside, and the Liberals retaliated vigorously. Beginning in September, the small towns and rural regions of Colombia became a field of operations for armed bands that ranged the valleys at night, burning political headquarters, police stations, and the homes of rival political leaders, and assassinating political enemies. Death casualties mounted to hundreds a week.
The Conservatives heightened the tensions still further by naming the toughest of all their reactionary leaders, Laureano Gómez, editor of the Bogotá newspaper El Siglo, as their presidential candidate. Gómez, who had left Colombia during the Bogotá riots with the mobs yelling for his blood, came back last spring from a year’s voluntary exile in Spain with plenty of old scores to settle with all Liberals except a few wealthy rightwingers in his social circle.
An outstanding pro-clerical politician, he made political hay in the campaign with charges that Dario Echandia, his Liberal opponent, and former Colombian ambassador to the Vatican, is a tool of atheist Communism and of Good Neighbor influences from “heretic’ United States which are little better.
The affront to the Liberals involved in the Gómez candidacy had little effect on the campaign, except to increase its partisan violence. But gradually in the contest of terrorisms the Conservatives drew ahead. By the beginning of November, it was clear that, with the support of the provincial police and governments, the Conservatives had muscled into control of the election boards which would do the vote-counting on November 27.
With this development, the elaborate Liberal program for controlling the election through the party majority in Congress essentially collapsed. Darío Echandía withdrew his candidacy on October 31 on the ground that the Conservative government could not guarantee free and orderly elections. On November 9 an official delegation from the Liberal majority waited on President Pérez with a notification that they proposed to start impeachment proceedings. The President replied with a state-ofsiege proclamation tougher than the one at the time of the Bogotá riots.
All political discussion was banned from press, radio, and public platforms. Public meetings were forbidden — and so were further sessions of the Colombian Congress. The Liberal members, meeting in secret, issued a declaration that they would continue to meet and transact constitutional business regardless. But the statement was chiefly academic.
The army, as usual, obeyed the sitting government’s commands to move into the principal cities of the republic and keep order. And in the provinces the terror continued on both sides. On November 27, under the most rigid dictatorship in her modern history, Colombia elected Gómez President. Technically the vote for him was all but unanimous; the Liberals strictly maintained their boycott of the polls.
Until Gómez’s inauguration next August, and for nearly a year afterward, Colombia will find herself in a constitutional tangle almost beyond hope of unscrambling. It is difficult to see how the Conservatives can pull her out of it. The terms of the present Senate and Chamber of Deputies of the republic run constitutionally until late in 1951.
The normal course of the Conservatives, then, in order to hold on to office, will be to govern for almost two years by terror and decree law. What will remain of Colombia’s promising democracy after so long a period of restraint and turbulence remains to be seen.