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Things Come Apart, 1930–78

Enrique Olaya Herrera (president, 1930–34) was a moderate Liberal who had served as an envoy to the United States under the Conservatives before being elected president. To ease the transition, he established a coalition government, with Conservatives in his cabinet and elsewhere, and in Bogotá bipartisanship generally prevailed. In some parts of the country, however, Liberals who had been accumulating grievances (real or imagined) during the long Conservative ascendancy now seized the opportunity to take revenge. The result was spreading violence, especially in the eastern departments, which came under control in 1932 only when a border conflict with Peru over Leticia, a Colombian outpost on the Amazon, induced members of both Colombian parties to set aside hostilities in the cause of national defense. The dispute was settled by direct negotiations in 1934, when Peru recognized Colombian sovereignty over the port.

Colombia weathered the Great Depression rather successfully. More than half of the population was still rural and able to feed itself, while a sharp fall in coffee prices was partially offset by increased volume. The Olaya administration followed an orthodox policy of cutting expenses while at the same time raising tariffs, measures that both saved foreign exchange that would have gone to imports and stimulated domestic manufacturing. The government did not show great interest in fundamental social or economic reform, although it did more than previous Conservative administrations. New legislation established the eight-hour working day and explicitly guaranteed the right of labor to organize. Also, Colombia finally gave married women the same rights as their husbands to dispose of property, but suffrage for women remained a topic too hot to handle, as a result of both traditionalist Roman Catholic views on the role of women and Liberal fears that women would be too prone to vote as their priests suggested.

Olaya’s successor, Alfonso López Pumarejo (president, 1934–38, 1942–45), was more receptive to the demands for change being put forward by labor activists, avant-garde intellectuals, and the recently founded Communist Party of Colombia (PCC), whose support he accepted, without giving it any formal share of power. He abandoned coalition government and grandly titled his program the Revolution on the March. His main service to organized labor was simply to reject any notion of using force (as the Conservatives had done) against strikers and to side instead with the workers in labor disputes. He sponsored the first agrarian reform law for rural workers, the effectiveness of which is still debated but which was a symbolic step of some importance.

Above all, López presided over a set of constitutional amendments that reintroduced universal male suffrage, declared that property rights were limited by social rights and obligations—thereby legitimizing more extensive government regulation of the economy—and eliminated the previous constitutional provision requiring public education to be always in accord with Roman Catholic doctrine. The extension of suffrage was, if anything, a help to the Conservatives, who were strongest in rural areas where illiteracy was higher, but the business sectors of both parties expressed concern over the treatment of property rights. Even more controversial was the education reform of 1936, which, by outlawing racial and religious discrimination in education, helped to reopen the struggle between clergy and anticlericals that caused such strife in the previous century.

Many even in López’s party felt that he was moving too fast. The Liberal candidate nominated to succeed him—and who won easily, with Conservatives abstaining on the ground that their opponents would not allow a fair vote—was a more moderate figure, Eduardo Santos Montejo (president, 1938–42). Partisan rancor briefly was put aside, but it soon returned, and it intensified once López won re-election to a second term in 1942. Distracted by the economic shortages resulting from World War II and by the demands of wartime cooperation with the United States, which Colombia had readily agreed to while Santos was president, López this time launched few reforms but still faced the hostility of those offended by his earlier policies. He even had to face one coup attempt by disaffected military; it was unsuccessful, but nevertheless alarming, because Colombia had for many years experienced nothing of the sort. Shaken by the political agitation surrounding him, López resigned from office before completing his second term.

A passionate Francophile, Santos had looked to the United States to help support both France and Colombia and the rest of the world against Adolph Hitler. The United States, for its part, as it first prepared for and then entered the war, was anxious to assist reliable friends on its southern flank. Hence, the tightening of formal U.S.–Colombian relations—while reflecting the growth of economic and cultural ties and even a sort of ideological affinity between Colombian Liberals and U.S. Democrats—also had much to do with developments on the larger world scene. Once the war began, Colombia gave full cooperation to the United States both before and after Pearl Harbor. The Santos administration never declared war, but it expedited the supply of strategic materials and supported all proposals for hemispheric defense collaboration made at inter-American gatherings. Wartime collaboration with the United States eventually reached the point of an outright declaration of war on the Axis, made after López had returned to the presidency and technically in retaliation for German attacks on Colombian shipping in the Caribbean.

Liberals liked to blame the vehemence of Conservative opposition on the supposed influence of European fascism, and undoubtedly Hitler and Benito Mussolini favorably impressed some Conservatives. More Conservatives felt an affinity with the Spanish variant of fascism under Francisco Franco. More important than foreign ideology, however, was the sheer frustration felt by Conservatives over their loss of power. The major parties were in fact rather evenly matched, although with the balance beginning to tip in the Liberals’ favor (thanks to the advance of urbanization, among other factors). Conservatives insisted that they were the true majority and were denied the power they were entitled to by Liberal chicanery. After making this charge, Laureano Eleuterio Gómez Castro (president, 1950–53) emerged as the party’s national leader and with vitriolic passion denounced everything done by the Liberal regime.

As if Gómez’s relentless opposition were not enough, the Liberal leadership found itself attacked on another front by a dissident Liberal, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. A gifted lawyer and orator of middle-class origin, Gaitán espoused a social democratic program not much different from López’s Revolution on the March, but he assailed his party’s establishment as involved in a tacit alliance with its Conservative counterpart to ward off real change. He appealed in particular to the social resentment of the middle and working classes against the mostly well-born and lighter-skinned figures who staffed the higher levels of government and of all the nation’s institutions. When he presented himself as candidate for president in 1946, Gaitán carried Bogotá and several other large cities, while the Liberal machine was able to control most smaller Liberal strongholds and deliver their vote to the party’s official candidate. The two Liberal contenders between them received a majority of the vote, but thanks to their division the winner was the Conservative, Luis Mariano Ospina Pérez (president, 1946–50).

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