This biography of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán traces the Colombian populist from his lower middle-class origins in Bogotá, through his hard won education, to his explosion upon the Colombian political scene in 1928 and subsequent two-decade career as the Liberal party’s leading maverick. The Gaitán of this study is a compelling, human figure, a man of finely honed social conscience who fought to promote the welfare of Colombia’s forgotten poor at a time when such outspokenness was regarded by the entrenched political elite as needlessly unsettling to national tranquility and in plain poor taste. Yet he is also revealed as an intensely ambitious politician who used a demagogic speaking style to excite and manipulate his followers. All the while he yearned to be accepted by the social and political aristocracy that rebuffed him for his humble background and obvious mestizo ancestry.
Richard Sharpless convincingly argues his thesis that Gaitán owed his success to the support of an inchoate, amorphous urban proletariat formed as a consequence of national modernization. The strongest sections of his work are those dealing with Gaitán’s short-lived political party created during the 1930s, his description of the role of modern caudillism in a populist context and his analysis of the visionary Gaitanista program of 1947. In developing these and other useful parts of his study, the first on Gaitán in English, Sharpless drew heavily upon Gaitán’s personal archive, and interviews with the leader’s wife, daughter, and others who worked with him over the years.
One of two weaknesses in this biography is the author’s too heavy reliance upon a handful of secondary sources when dealing with topics not specifically related to Gaitán or his political program. This lends it a certain shallowness and allows factual errors to creep in. For example, it is not true that the governor of Tolima supported a Liberal revolt against the government of Ospina Pérez in 1947 (p. 162), nor is it true that Ospina created a special political police to deal with violence that same year (p. 167). More damaging is the author’s sandwiching of his study between short introductory and concluding chapters that pay ritualistic obeisance to the notion that Gaitán’s followers were class-conscious “urban masses who aspired to the privileges of the wealthy minority. . .” (p. 180). This statement contradicts the author’s thesis that Gaitán’s movement was a populist one. Such flaws tend to muddy this otherwise sound work.