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(History repeating itself?)

The drive to intensify capitalist agriculture to satisfy the American marketplace coincided with a general collapse of the world economy. From 1885 to 1930, the Colombian government was controlled by the Conservative Party, which despite its founding principles, staked out a typically liberal development program. This involved strengthening the state, extension of the transportation and communications systems into the countryside, encouragement of foreign investment, etc. The Great Depression manifested itself in Colombia through a drop in export earnings. As unemployment in the advanced capitalist countries grew, coffee became less affordable.

A general sense of helplessness led to a Liberal Party victory in 1934, as the new president López Pumarejo called for a "revolution on the march," a Colombian version of the New Deal. The trade unions provided Pumarejo with one of his main bases of support, while the Communist Party served as his most trusted lieutenant within the union movement. Support for the Pumarejo government turned out to be disastrous for the labor movement as it relied on him to solve their problems rather than using their own independent power. Real wages fell between 1935 and 1950 and social expenditures were virtually stagnant in the same period. This was a "New Deal" without teeth.

It was in the countryside, however, where resistance to the Liberal government was mounted most sharply. Peasants, especially in the eastern part of the country, sought to grow coffee on their own plots in order to take advantage of the continuing external demand for the stimulant. In many cases they occupied the land of large haciendas and pressed for ownership. The Liberal government tried to co-opt the squatters movement and bring it under control, just as the PRI in Mexico had done with the followers of Zapata. To some extent, this policy paid off as a layer of the peasantry won title to land and became less militant.

However, just like in the United States, a section of the bourgeoisie regarded Liberal Party reformism as Bolshevik and began to organize a counter-revolution. One of the main props of the Conservative Party's right wing assault was the Catholic Church, which viewed the "revolution on the march" as a threat to its influence on uneducated and insecure peasants. After 1935, paramilitary associations cropped up with the support of bishops and businessmen. Conservative Party intellectuals openly identified with Spain's Franco at this point and Laureano Gómez in particular promoted the concept of 'hispanidad,' a Colombian version of Falangist thought.

The concrete social and economic goal of the Catholic-Conservative axis was to break the back of the agrarian revolt, which they saw the Liberals as temporizing with. In particular they wanted to abolish Law 200, which gave landless peasants the right to occupy and own land. These differences continued to divide the two parties, even after the end of the depression and WWII, as the lingering effects of the 1930s downturn combined with the structural imbalances of the Colombian countryside served to maintain class tensions. Poverty and unequal land distribution simply could not be resolved within the Colombian two party system, although electoral politics did provide a medium for the voiceless to raise their concerns.

As the Conservatives pushed relentlessly from the right, the Liberals began to cave in. Upon taking office in 1945, Alberto Lleras Camargo, Pumarejo's Liberal successor, immediately appointed three Conservatives to his cabinet as a concession. As the 1946 elections approached, the Liberal Party split into two factions. One, advocating compromise with the right-wing, was led by Gabriel Turbay. The other was led by Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a populist who openly called for resistance to the bourgeoisie and a deepening of the agrarian revolt. He was hostile to the trade unions which he saw as a bureaucratic apparatus dominated by the Communist Party in bed with right-wing Liberals. The statements of the Communist Party of Colombia left no doubt as to their loyalties. In their newspaper, they declared in 1937: "Our post is at the side of the reformist government of López [Pumarejo] . . . Today we are not subversives. The only subversives are the falangist Conservatives. We Communists aspire to become the champions of order and peace."

Despite the CP's fondest hopes, order and peace were impossible. When Gaitán's wing of the party won control of the Colombian congress in 1947, working class strikes and protests broke out in the cities and land seizures intensified in the countryside. The masses felt emboldened by the populist victory. Right wing paramilitaries lashed back at the popular movement and political violence would claim 14,000 lives by the end of the year. On February 7, 1948 Gaitán led a silent protest of 100,000 people through the streets of Bogotá and delivered a speech for peace. Two months later, he was assassinated, thus setting off "La Violencia," described succinctly by Eduardo Galeano:

"The violence began with a confrontation between Liberal and Conservative parties, but the dynamic of class hostilities steadily sharpened its class-struggle character. The Liberal leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitán--known half contemptuously and half fearfully to his own party's oligarchy as "The Wolf" or "The Idiot"--had won great popular prestige and threatened the established order. When he was shot dead, the hurricane was unleashed. First the spontaneous bogotazo--an uncontrollable human tide in the streets of the capital; then the violence spread to the countryside, where bands organized by the Conservatives had for some time been sowing terror. The bitter taste of hatred, long in the peasants' mouths, provoked an explosion; the government sent police and soldiers to cut off testicles, slash pregnant women's bellies, and throw babies in the air to catch on bayonet points--the order of the day being 'don't leave even the seed.' Liberal Party sages shut themselves in their homes, never abandoning their good manners and the gentlemanly tone of their manifestos, or went into exile abroad. It was a war of incredible cruelty and it became worse as it went on, feeding the lust for vengeance. New ways of killing came into vogue: the corte corbata, for example, left the tongue hanging from the neck. Rape, arson, and plunder went on and on; people were quartered or burned alive, skinned or slowly cut in pieces; troops razed villages and plantations and rivers ran red with blood. Bandits spared lives in exchange for tribute, in money or loads of coffee, and the repressive forces expelled and pursued innumerable families, who fled to seek refuge in the mountains. Women gave birth in the woods. The first guerrilla leaders, determined to take revenge but without clear political vision, took to destroying for destruction's sake, letting off blood and steam without purpose."

This counter-revolution resulted in the murder of 300,000 people, one of the great bloodbaths of Latin American history. Was this bloodbath necessary? One of the things that is difficult to gauge in Colombia is the extent to which such excesses are a function of bourgeois "over-corrections" such as the kind that ideological frenzy often leads to. Would Colombia have been better off if the Conservatives had been open to the idea of allowing Gaitán's populism to prevail? Certainly he did not intend to abolish the capitalist system, but only to eradicate some of the more glaring injustices. In this, he was no different than Guatemala's Arbenz, or any other middle-class reformer who has emerged in the past half-century. Suffice it to say that right-wing anticommunism involves a level of fanaticism that once unleashed is difficult to bottle back up like a genie. When the history of this barbarian epoch is finally written, anticommunist fundamentalism will be recorded as much more demonic and violent than anything ever encountered in the middle ages.

full: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/state_and_revolution/revolution_in_colombia_part_one.htm
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