In the history of Colombia, one of the most controversial periods was the dictatorship of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, which lasted from 1953 to 1957. It was not a typical dictatorship. For some historians, it was not even a coup d’état, but rather an agreement between the country’s two major parties, the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party, to curb the violence and political struggles that were happening at that time.
This period left an indelible mark on the country, marked by various social and economic events that still resonate in the collective memory of Colombians. Let’s analyze the social context in which this dictatorship unfolded, its impact on society and the economy, as well as its historical evaluation.
Rojas Pinilla’s dictatorship had its roots in a deeply divided and conflict-ridden Colombia. In 1948, the assassination of the political leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan triggered the Bogotazo, an outbreak of violence that led to a civil war known as “La Violencia.” During this time, guerrillas and paramilitary groups fought for political and territorial control, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and displaced.
Amidst this chaos, Rojas Pinilla came to power in 1953 through a coup d’état and promised to restore peace in the country. During his government, he implemented populist measures to gain the support of the population, such as agrarian reform and recognition of labor unions. However, he also violently repressed political opponents and censored the press, creating a climate of fear and repression.
Ultimately, the dictator became a victim of his own political practices, and in 1957, a military coup removed him from power. A military junta agreed to return the country’s government to civilian power. The first democratic elections were held in 1958, with the formula of the National Front, an agreement between the two major parties to share power. Liberal Alberto Lleras Camargo was elected president with almost 80% of the votes.
Gustavo Rojas Pinilla
Economically, Rojas Pinilla’s dictatorship faced significant challenges. Despite efforts to industrialize the country and diversify the economy, Colombia remained dependent on the export of raw materials such as coffee and oil. Lack of investment in infrastructure and education, along with government corruption, limited economic growth and increased social inequality.
During the dictatorship, there was also significant growth in external debt and uncontrolled inflation, leading to periodic economic crises and increasing dissatisfaction among the population.
Rojas Pinilla’s dictatorship has been the subject of intense debate among historians and Colombian society. Some argue that his government brought some stability and economic progress, especially in rural areas. However, the majority agree that his regime was authoritarian and violated human rights, leaving a legacy of repression and abuses.
The regime undermined democracy and hindered the country’s institutional development. The lack of alternation in power and the regime’s absolute control generated political and social stagnation that affected citizen participation and free expression. Likewise, the system that emerged from the dictatorship exacerbated political exclusion, leading to the birth of armed insurgencies, with violence that persists to this day.
Currently, Colombia continues to face challenges stemming from that long dictatorial period. The consolidation of democracy and national reconciliation are still pending issues for Colombian society.
The challenge: reconciliation and inclusive nation-building
The years of Rojas Pinilla’s dictatorship represent a dark period in Colombia’s history, marked by political repression, economic instability, and social violence. While some aspects of his government have been positively evaluated, most recognize the negative effects and consequences that still endure in present-day Colombian society.
In addition, scholars confirm that it opened an era, known as the National Front, of perversion of the democratic system, as the two major parties designed a model in which they shared power. The rest of the political candidates were excluded, which led some of them to take the path of armed struggle.
The challenge, 70 years after the start of the dictatorship, is to forge a path towards reconciliation and progress, and construct a democracy based on a more just and inclusive model. A democracy that leaves behind the scars of the past and embraces a truly participatory and diverse nation-building process.