- Gaitanismo, Left Liberalism, and Popular Mobilization in Colombia
Gaitanismo has been one of the most popular subjects of Colombian historiography. W. John Green's book seeks to provide new explanations for the movement's political constitution during the first part of the twentieth century. Green writes against those scholars that understand Gaitanismoas a mere result of the corruption or personalistic manipulation of unsophisticated, disoriented (i.e., premodern), and passive masses unable to create more radical political paths. Instead, he argues that Gaitanismo was an autonomous popular movement that consistently—and radically—challenged both Colombia's oligarchy and its two-party political system. By using previously unexamined letters written by Gaitán and his followers, as well as interviews and Gaitanista press, Green traces the historical and political conditions that gave rise to Gaitanismo as a left-liberal mobilization.
Green contends that political analyses of the period have concentrated on the [End Page 758] different relations and agreements between liberal and conservative elite about what ideas and political parties should govern society. In contrast, Green's historical account show how several divisions within the Liberal Party created political spaces for the formation of a more popular, left-liberal, collective, and inclusionary understanding of liberalism that supported land rights and ideas of social justice. These appropriations of liberalism constantly questioned a more "elite liberalism" that privileged the individual, private property, and more exclusionary notions of social equality, justice, and democracy.
These leftist liberal interpretations emerged to inspire—and shape— Colombian political trajectories during the late 1920 s and early 1930 s. Green argues that such adherents supported the short-lived Unirista (Unión Nacional de Izquierda Revolucionaria) experiment and the emergence of López Pumarejo and his Revolution of March. A few years later, the same left-liberal appropriations, reworked, put López's revolution into question and opened the door for the consolidation of Gaitanismo's radical popular challenge to the Colombian political establishment. Furthermore, Green contends that by the early 1940 s, Gaitanismo had successfully created a multiclass movement that overcame gender, race, and regional hierarchies and mobilized a unified pueblo against the oligarchy. Women, mulattoes, blacks, mestizos, and working and middle classes throughout Colombia were homogenized politically and coalesced into a unified pueblo that envisioned more "democratic rights and more popularly controlled institutions which in turn were closely related to widespread demands of social and economic justice" (p. 265 ).
By the mid-1940 s, Gaitán sought integration with official (elite) liberalism; this political strategy proved painful for the movement, however, and Gaitnanismo "did not spell the end of mobilization's popular character" (p. 265 ). It was obvious that Gaitán would be the Liberal candidate in the 1950 presidential election and therefore the next president. While it was not clear if Gaitán would act as political conciliator to unite the Liberal Party or social agitator to divide it, the oligarchy could not "stand in suspense." Gaitán himself was assassinated on April 9 , 1948. Green concludes that, although it is not clear who was behind this assassination, there is no question about the political consequences of Gaitanismo's brutal repression: it brought an end to a radical path of popular mobilization, "swept away much of the legitimacy of [Colombia's] political class, and completely altered its political environment for decades to come" (p. 261 ).
While Green argues persuasively that Gaitanismo mobilized popular support—and certainly provides sufficient evidence—he homogenizes and essentializes the complex political meanings of popular mobilization. It is clear, for example, that Gaitán and Gaitanismo articulated "left-liberal" political language such as social justice, economic equality, and popular representation and that the pueblo used this language to unite in opposition to the oligarchy. It is less clear, however, how people—"almost all identifiably subaltern" (p. 10 )—appropriated the meanings of these political languages to mobilize Gaitanismo as a radical and popular movement. [End Page 759] What did people mean when they claimed to belong to the...