On 9 April 1948, the Colombian politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán stepped out of his office with a group of friends to walk to Bogotá’s Hotel Continental for lunch. An assassin confronted him in the street and shot him three times in the face and chest. He died shortly afterwards. His supporters caught the 20-year-old culprit, Juan Roa Sierra, and beat him to death. His body, naked except for a blue and red striped tie, was dumped in front of the Presidential Palace. It remained there for two days. ‘El Bogotazo’, the night of violence sparked by Gaitán’s assassination, left more than 3000 people dead and Bogotá half in ruins.
Gaitán had carried the hopes of a new radical politics in Colombia. At the age of 26, he had led the condemnation of the army’s massacre of striking banana workers in Ciénaga in December 1928 (a central episode in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude). During his speech to the senate, Gaitán displayed the skull of a child killed by the tirade of bullets aimed at the peaceful demonstrators. In 1948, after a short spell as mayor of Bogotá, he was leader of the Liberal party and its candidate for the coming presidential election. With the support of the growing urban working class, he stood a real chance of forming the first government led by someone outside the country’s elite. It wasn’t to be. More than 200,000 people were killed in the ten-year civil war (1948-58) known as La Violencia. Decades of guerrilla warfare followed, from which Colombia is only now emerging.
García Márquez was still a baby in nearby Aracataca when the banana workers were massacred. In 1948 he was a reluctant law student in Bogotá, where he had begun to publish his first writings. Living only three blocks from where Gaitán was shot, he was having lunch when he heard shouts from the street and rushed out to see what had happened. By the time he reached the scene, Gaitán had been taken away in a car and Roa Sierra was dead, but that didn’t stop Gabo from constructing his own version of events more than half a century later in his autobiographical Living to Tell the Tale.
In the crowd was his uncle, a Gaitán supporter, who urged Gabo to go to the university and join the student revolt. Instead, he went back to his digs to finish his lunch. His building was later set on fire; he escaped with some of his belongings, but left behind several unpublished stories. He went to the pawn shop where he’d left his typewriter in hock, only to find it ransacked. But El Bogotazo gave him the excuse to give up his studies, leave the capital and return to the Caribbean coast to work as a journalist.
Another 21-year-old law student in Bogotá that day, less reticent about joining the popular uprising, was Fidel Castro. Having travelled from Cuba to organise a congress of Latin American students, he had met Gaitán two days earlier. The older man had been impressed and they had agreed to meet again on the afternoon of 9 April. Castro and his colleagues were heading in the direction of Gaitán’s office when they encountered rioters shouting: ‘They killed Gaitán!’ He led a group that stole arms from a police station, but soon became disillusioned with the purposeless violence and returned to Cuba a few days later. It’s possible that he drew on his experiences in Bogotà when in the revolution of 1953 he chose guerrilla warfare rather than urban insurrection as his main form of attack.
Castro and Gabo didn’t meet until 1960. Much later, by then close friends, they reminisced about events in Bogotá in 1948 and how their paths might have crossed that day. Castro said that the chaos was typified for him by a man standing on a street corner trying to destroy a looted typewriter. He offered to help, threw the machine in the air and watched it smash on the pavement. ‘What did you do in El Bogotazo, Gabo?’ he asked. Smiling, ever inventive, García Márquez replied: ‘Fidel, I was that man with the typewriter.’
Original post and comments: London Review of Books