Most Colombians regard Jorge Eliécer Gaitán as a pivotal figure in their nation’s history, whose assassination on April 9, 1948 irrevocably changed the course of events in the twentieth century. The dramatic career of this maverick Liberal, his tragic murder, and the ensuing riot known as the Bogotazo that destroyed much of downtown Bogotá have spawned voluminous literature in Spanish, but for many years failed to capture the attention of scholars writing in English. In 1978, Richard Sharpless published the first full-length Gaitán biography in English based on an exhaustive review of his personal archives. Now Colombian-born Herbert Braun expands the analysis by examining Gaitán’s life and the dynamics of the Bogotazo within the context of twentieth-century Colombian politics.
Rejecting frameworks commonly applied by political scientists to interpret Latin America, Braun argues that between 1930 and 1950 Colombian Liberals and Conservatives shared power within a unique political culture of “convivencia,” or the politics of civility in which they saw themselves as civilistas defending the institutions of the nation, rather than as caudillos leading the nation into war. Forming a narrow circle, these oligarchs regarded all outside their group as “pueblo.” They saw public life as a matter of intellectual creativity and attempted to forge a sense of community by instilling moral virtue and noble thoughts in the pueblo. As a man of humble origins, Gaitán, despite his prodigious efforts, was never fully accepted by the convivialistas. By identifying with the aspirations of the millions who formed the pueblo and by convincing them that his interests were their interests, he shook “convivencia” to the core. Gaitán’s death and the response of his enraged followers shattered the old relationship between leaders and masses, and Colombia broke apart into the civil war called La Violencia.
In the first two-thirds of the book, Braun reinterprets the life of “the most maligned public man of Colombia” (p. 6) against the backdrop of “convivencia,” drawing on his writings, as well as on information gleaned from interviews conducted with his closest associates. He devotes the last third to a meticulous reconstruction of the Bogotazo. Observing that historians have dismissed the rioters as “an expression of a barbarous underside of Colombian society” (p. 4), Braun uses oral and written accounts to describe their actions and to set forth their feelings. He concludes that the surprising aspect of the Bogotazo was not the looting but that the behavior of the crowd can be understood “in terms of the historical relationship between the pueblo and the convivialistas and Gaitán’s relationship to both” (p. 204). Gaitan had made the crowd feel that they could participate in political decisions. His death thrust them back to their deferential and reviled place. Unwilling to move back and unable to move forward, their anger had only one outlet—the destruction of a society in which they could no longer live.
As biography, social history, and political analysis, Braun’s book is a tour de force whose appeal will not be limited to Colombianists. Combining the methodology of historians and social scientists, he exposes the pitfalls of applying generic theories to unique circumstances. While rehabilitating the rioters, he treats the convivialistas with objective sympathy, and the Gaitan that emerges is not a superhero but a man flawed by ambition and egomania. Best of all, Braun has captured the drama of these tumultuous events. At the cry “¡Mataron a Gaitán!” he thrusts the reader into the crowd that sought to revenge its leader and brought an end to an era.