Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was a Colombian political leader best remembered for his vociferous left-wing position-taking, and for his assassination in 1948, which touched off the rioting known as the bogotazo. In the introductory chapters of this biography, the author argues that Gaitán should be further memorialized as an atypical leader who formed a “social movement.” This claim, however, is not clearly explained or defended. Indeed, the body of the work, which treats Gaitán’s life, clearly portays him as a traditional caudillo: insecure about his low social background, vain, craving recognition, and transparently egocentric in his political actions.

When a labor law consistent with his own stated position was put forward in congress, Gaitán attacked it, lest its promoters encroach upon his limelight. He founded his own tiny party—the UNIR—and then ditched it, as everyone had anticipated, after it had served as his springboard to a Liberal party nomination for the Senate. He split the Liberal party in 1946 by running for President against another Liberal, Gabriel Turbay. Turbay voiced the same policy positions as Gaitán, was the stronger candidate, and was the official nominee of the Liberal Convention; yet Gaitán refused to withdraw. With the Liberal vote divided, the minority Conservative party candidate, Mariano Ospina Pérez, won.

The costs of Gaitán’s egotism extended beyond the Liberal party. In the delicate post-1946 period, with Liberals and Conservatives edging toward the civil war known as la violencia, Gaitán became the major Liberal spokesman. The times called for statesmanship; Gaitán knew only intransigence and infighting. Gaitán was not alone in bearing responsibility for the terrible la violencia, for there were many other politicians like him. But if one wishes to understand why countries are plunged into catastrophes, it is instructive to examine this informative account of the personality and career of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán.