Monday, June 10, 2013

Gustavo Rojas Pinilla: Political Chameleon

Flowers on dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla's tomb in Bogotá's Central Cemetery.
Grl Gustavo Rojas Pinilla.
General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, who seized power 60 years ago this week, was Colombia's last outright dictator: he shuttered newspapers and massacred university students. But Rojas Pinilla was also a populist hero - and a progressive who gave the vote to women - and even the inspiration for an idealistic leftist guerrilla movement. Today, he retains a sort of progressive aura in the public memory. Go figger.

In 1963, Colombia was hemorraging from La Violencia, a vicious fratricidal war between Liberal and Conservative guerrilla armies. The far-right President Laureano Gómez was too sick to govern. Colombians called for a strong hand to stabilize and pacifize the country.

A memorial on Ave. Septima to the university
students massacred by Rojas Pinilla's
Popular sentiment backed by the military turned to the accomplished general Rojas Pinillas, an engineer who had also directed infrastructure projects and been Colombia's delegate to the United Nations. His June 13 coup was bloodless and Rojas set about mending the country. He pardoned the guerrillas, introduced television and began a series of infrastructure projects financed by strong coffee prices.

But power corrupts, and the benevolent Rojas turned tyrannical. When spectators booed his daughter at an event in the bullfighting stadium, Rojas responded the next week by infiltrating the stadium with toughs, who beat and stabbed to death an undetermined number of government opponents. The newspapers censored by the government ignored the massacre. The very Catholic Rojas also persecuted protestant evangelicals.

The Justice Palace in flames following the
1985 M-19 guerrilla attack.
In 1955, students protesters marching down Ave. Septima were swept by government gunfire, killing some dozen of them. The next year, Rojas closed El Tiempo y El Espectador, Bogotá's two main newspapers (they promptly reopened under new names), and others.

But it was apparently the resurgence of La Violencia which finally turned public opinion and political party leaders against Rojas, forcing him out of power and into exile.

He was replaced by a military junta which oversaw the transition to a quasi democracy (for 15 years the Liberal and Conservative parties simply passed the presidency back and forth).

A plaque in Bogotá's City Hall denouncing
the attack by 'subversives' on the Justice Palace.
But Colombia wasn't done with this savior-turned-tyrant. Rojas returned, now transformed into nationalist populist. At the head of his ANAPO party, in 1970 he ran for president against conservative Misael Pastrana and lost narrowly - according to the official results. Rojas supporters cried fraud, likely with good reason. The election stood, but out of that allege fraud were born the M-19 guerrillas, whose legacy continues in Colombian politics.

The Justice Palace on Plaza Bolívar in Bogotá was
destroyed in a 1985 M-19 guerrilla  attack and
rebuilt about the year 2000.
The M-19 - young, educated, idealistic and media-savvy, carried out a series of dramatic operations which culminated disastrously with their 1985 attack on the Justice Palace on Plaza Bolívar. After the M-19 took the magistrates hostage, the military counterattacked with tanks fire. The Justice Palace was destroyed and about 100 people were killed, including 11 of the 12 justices. The building was burned and gutted.

A plaque in Bogotá's City Hall memorializes
people disappeared during the Justice Palace
A few years later, the M-19 turned in their weapons and became a political party. In 1991, they even played an important role in the writing of Colombia's new Constitution, and can be credited for its progressive features.

Today, some of the ex-M-19 leaders are in Congress, and one, Gustavo Petro, is mayor of Bogotá.

Rojas' legacy has also persisted in more destructive ways. His grandson, Samuel Moreno Rojas, was mayor of Bogotá from 2008 to 2011, and allegedly stuffed his pockets in a huge corruption scheme. Now, Samuel and his brother Ivan, a senator, are in prison awaiting trial. They claim to be innocent.

Ironically, Samuel Moreno is accused of taking kickbacks on contracts for work on Ave. 26 - which his grandfather had constructed.

And Rojas' legacy probably isn't over.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

1 comment:

pieter precies said...

Can you tell me how and who financed the coup of Pinilla in 1953??