The life and death of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán influenced the course of events in twentieth-century Colombia to such an extent that today, twenty-eight years later, the nation is plagued by what that life did and did not accomplish. During his political life Gaitán awakened the masses to the need for dramatic change in Colombia’s social and political structures. His assassination brought to the masses an awareness of the difficulty of change. To the leaders of the traditional political structure Gaitán’s death pointed up once again the delicate balance of their historic hold on the nation. Efforts to save the system for and by those who dominated it resulted in la violencia, a period of dictatorship, the National Front, and the present democratic façade which governs Colombia.
In view of the events of modern Colombia, a sound and documented study of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán is needed. This volume does not fill that need. It is neither sound nor documented. With an organization that defies analysis, the author takes us from Gaitán’s poverty-stricken youth, to his study of penology in Italy with Enrico Ferri, to his involvement in Liberal Party politics and his ultimate idolization by the masses. Not content with this, the author felt the need to blend into Gaitán’s story a history of Colombian political parties, often going back to the Núñez period. Having provided us with the life and times of Gaitán the author graciously brings the reader to the Sección Final in which we are given a separate account of Gaitán’s assassin, Juan Roa Sierra, and yet more rambling commentary about Gaitán’s tragic youth.
The thrust of Gómez Aristizábal’s argument, much of which is valid, is that Gaitán was not original in terms of political, social and economic thought. The author views Gaitán only as a charismatic and demagogic leader whose impassioned oratory excited the masses.
The book contains a wealth of interesting material, but unfortunately much of it is not relevant to Gaitán, at least not very relevant. We learn, for example, that Rafael Uribe Uribe, Gaitán, and John F. Kennedy all died on a Friday. Then, by means of a quote from Oscar Wilde we are informed that Jesus Christ also died on a Friday. The point, I trust, is that great tragedies befell charismatic leaders on a Friday. This reviewer wonders if the author wrote this book on a Friday.