On April 9th, 1948, Colombian presidential candidate Jorge Gaitán was assassinated in Bogotá, sparking a period of intense political violence.
Gaitan, an advocate for the poor, was favourite to win the 1950 election. His killing consolidated a pattern in which political differences were routinely resolved through the barrel of a gun.
The door to democratic change was slammed shut and only now, seventy-four years later, has it been prised open for good.
Former US president John F Kennedy observed that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” The victory of Fidel Castro in Cuba in 1959 showed that an armed movement could overthrow a dictatorship while the victory of democratic socialist Salvador Allende, in Chile in 1970, demonstrated that radical progress could be achieved at the ballot box.
Colombia’s political class would tolerate neither.
In 1959 the National Front agreement was implemented, allowing only candidates from the two major parties to compete in elections. When this agreement ended in 1970, dissident candidate Rojas Pinilla came close to victory in a poll widely regarded as fraudulent.
Colombia’s M-19 guerrillas took their name from this event, launching an armed insurrection, seeking democratic reforms. Gustavo Petro joined the M-19 while still a teenager, indignant at the poverty around him.
The M-19 entered a peace process in the late 1980s in return for democratic reforms. The rebels-turned-politicians made major strides, a decisive influence in the crafting of a new and progressive Constitution in 1991.
The promise of change came to an end with the assassination of several progressive presidential candidates as the door slammed shut once more.
It is rare to meet a Colombian who has not been touched by violence, whether a politician of the right or left, a peasant farmer or wealthy landowner, a journalist or trade unionist, the exiles, the seven million displaced by war, the kidnap victims, their sons, daughters and friends.
The raw statistics do not capture the pervasive low-level fear common in everyday life. Eduardo Santos, a friend, actor and rock music devotee, was dragged into his local police station in the 1970s for a mandatory haircut, his flowing locks an offence to the forces of law and order.
As a visiting student in the 1980s, I was run out of a small town at gunpoint. Two men approached me, late one evening, pointed their guns and ordered me to leave. “We know what you’re doing here”, they growled.
I was working as a language assistant with a grant from the British Council.
I returned as a journalist to the country I considered a second home, covering landmark 1990 elections and the subsequent drift toward political chaos.
In 1993 I waited for a lift in the late afternoon at a bus depot. An hour later a car bomb exploded at the spot where I had been waiting, probably the work of Pablo Escobar, campaigning to persuade the government to reject extradition.
In 1998, a prominent lawyer and good friend, Eduardo Umaña, was assassinated at his home in Bogota. Umaña defended trade unionists and political prisoners. He refused state security, insisting that it would be pointless, as the state was responsible for the attempts on his life.
I recall the anger, helplessness and hopelessness which accompanied this personal blow, a sense that nothing would ever change and all effort was futile.
Gustavo Petro’s victory is fragile and the forces ranged against him are powerful. The journey made by Francia Márquez, his vice-president, offers a powerful antidote to the pessimism of the past.
A woman of colour, from a humble background, an activist since she was thirteen, her village threatened by the construction of a dam. Marquez was displaced by violence and survived an assassination attempt, she is a single parent who led a march of 80 women from her home to the capital, Bogotá. She is no mere adornment to boost Petro’s credentials, earning her place on the ticket, winning 750,000 votes in a presidential primary in March.
Petro’s campaign promises would rest comfortably within a European Green/Left spectrum; an end to oil and gas exploration, legalise marijuana and abortion, negotiate with the remaining rebels, outlaw the right to bear arms and end compulsory military service.
In Colombia however Petro’s plan is nothing short of a political earthquake.
On a brighter note, Petro’s victory highlights the emergence of a progressive Latin American left committed to preserving democratic institutions. In sharp contrast the region’s stagnant left, in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, are impoverished, authoritarian regimes, preserving power through shutting down opponents by any means necessary.
‘You can’t spend your life settling old scores’, observed Pepe Mujica, former Uruguayan president, advising Petro to embrace the future. Mujica, once a Tupamaro rebel, was imprisoned and tortured for fourteen years during the dictatorship era.
The wounds are deep, the trauma profound, the tasks immense, yet cracks of light break through regardless.
Michael McCaughan is a journalist who has reported extensively from Latin America