Olga Elena Mattei meditates on peace and violence in Colombia

The Hollman Morris matter has occupied some of my thinking since it was reported that he was denied a visa by our State Department. The State Department undoubtedly believes it has sufficient good reason to act the toady to Álvaro Uribe in this matter. It is of course not based on any investigation, but rather simply the unthinking flow down an institutional rut caused by politics unrelated to Colombia, Morris, terrorism or the like. It is nothing more than a gigantic Milgram experiment. State Department bureaucrats have long-since internalized the instinctive support for violent repression of anything slightly “pink” in Latin America. Any strong man who claims to be doing so has the unwavering support of State. (You can read the State Department’s official whitewashing of Álvaro Uribe in its background note on Colombia, which has an exceptionally long and hagiographic view of his adminstration.) The institution is not capable of nuanced thought. It may from time to time throw its weight against the Pentagon, but not to debate first principles, simply the best way within a very narrow window to achieve the same goal or to promote someone who is thought better capable of promoting the career objectives of those concerned.

Whatever crimes we as a nation (and we as consumers) have committed against Latin America, they have all been justified as being in the best interest of the people there. And no matter what we claim about ourselves, we don’t believe liberation from authority is necessarily a helpful goal for our Southern brethren. This has been true since the great pro-French revolution radicals of our country tried to influence events away from revolution, whether it be the slave revolt in Hayti or the Miranda expedition against Venezuela. We have always acted as though, for Latin America, self-determination had to be imposed from the top.

Colombia has had the misfortune of having too many resources. A Colombian once said that perhaps the history of the United States would have been different if gold had been found in the 13 colonies. Colombia not only had gold and silver but emeralds and agricultural resources. The climate and soil was suitable for all sorts of products, including those which had relatively inelastic demand: coffee, tobacco, and various narcotics made illegal and therefore profitable in all the rich countries. And there were vast lands for illegal organizations to hide virtually any number of men, factories and equipment.

A history of hierarchy and violent enforcement of it (from long training by the Spanish) made the tolerance necessary for a representative democracy a thing not easily achieved. Accordingly, after World War II “La Violencia” followed the assassination of a popular Liberal Party candidate for President in 1948,  Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, and the riot in Bogotá that erupted on its heels (the so-called “Bogotazo”). The Conservative and Liberal Parties unleashed violence that resulted in the deaths of 200,000. The Church, which can always be counted on in such cases, supported the more reactionary elements of the Conservatives and whipped up anti-communist and antisemitic passions.

The Conservative government under Mariano Ospina attempted to stanch the bloodshed by adopting a policy of political repression. He banned public meetings in March 1949, then removed all Liberal governors in May. By October, with an impeachment proceedings a possibility, he had the army shut down the National Congress.

Bad as Ospina was, he proved to be nothing more than the typical mildly reactionary Latin American businessman that he was. (He rose to prominence through the National Federation of Coffee Growers (Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia), of which he was a prominent member and officer since the late 1920s.) It took his successor, Laureano Gómez, to show how ruthlessly reaction could operate. Gómez, the leader of the Conservative Party, had no opposition in the election of 1949 because the Liberals, in protest, refused to field a candidate. Colombia was about to see the iron fist; there would be no velvet glove.

There was nothing about liberal democracy that appealed to Gómez. Nor did the triumph of the liberal democracies over fascism particularly impress him. (He had been an early supporter of Franco and remained loyal.) Gómez had the principal attributes of the European fascists of the first half of the century. He claimed aristocratic birth. He had a technical education (he was an engineer). But most importantly, he thrived in intra-party politics. In the 1930s he gained control of the Conservative Party and maintained his control through the support of the reactionary wing. During the Bogotazo the working class of Bogotá (overwhelmingly supporters of the assassinated Gaitán) suspected that Gómez plotted Gaitán’s murder and therefore went looking for him and destroyed his newspaper building and his suburban estate when he could not be found in the Capitolio. They were not alone in that belief. An Intelligence Divison report by the U.S. Naval Department’s Office of Chief of Naval Operations, dated May 24, 1948, concluded: “The theory which holds most water, based on all known factors, is that ROA [the gunman] executed a plan evolved by a small conspiracy of rabid Conservtives, possibly Laureano GOMEZ, Colonel Virgilio Barco (Chief of Police), and Jose Antonio MONTALVO …” Gómez feared for his life and decided to leave Colombia at once. He was Foreign Minister at the time and used the pretext to visit Spain where he met Generalissimo Francisco Franco and gave a statement to the Falangist newspaper El Alcázar, June 19, 1948: “Colombia was and is menaced with falling under Soviet tyranny, through which attempts are being made to strike a blow at the United States in the environs of the Panama Canal. This is something more than a cold war.” He remained there for a year. When he returned from exile in June 1949, he greeted the assembled Conservatives with the Fascist salute.

Shortly after taking office Laureano Gómez removed, by decree, the Second Designate, the Liberal Eduardo Santos, eliminating one possible motive for assassinating him and ensuring that his successor would be a Conservative. He appointed Roberto Urdaneta Arbeláez his War Minister, and Urdaneta pledged to end banditry in the country. Anyone who violated curfew, carried arms without a permit or fled the Army was considered a bandit, subject to summary execution. Needless to say, this produced more rather than less violence in the countryside, which in turn gave purported justifications for even more repression. Fascism’s symbiotic relationship with mauraders is cemented by violence.

Repression took all the classic forms under Gómez: press censorship, suspension of courts, violence against opponents, religious intolerance. The hatred that daily mounted, like the death tolls, was enough that by 1953, before he could impose a neo-fascist constitution on the country, a combination of the Ospina wing of the Conservative Party, the Liberals and, most importantly, the Army deposed him in a military coup that installed General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla.

At first Rojas Pinilla’s rule was relatively enlightened. He offered amnesty to those rebels who put down their arms. He loosened restrictions on the press. He offered greater civic participation to women. But when the violence erupted again, he reverted to the classic Latin American strongman role. Repression and violence predictably followed once again. The incident that put a face to the peculiar combination of pettiness and savagery of the administration was called the Bull-Ring Massacre by Time Magazine (Feb. 20, 1956). At the bull fight that marked the opening of the season in Bogotá, the Liberal former President Alberto Lleras Camargo received an ostentatious and long ovation when he entered. When the dictator’s daughter and son took their seats in the Presidential box, the crowd whistled with such hostility and for so long that the couple was forced to leave. The next week, according to Time:

“the regime bought $15,000 worth of tickets and distributed them to thousands of policemen, plainclothesmen and government employees. On bullfight day the official ticketholders were waved through the gates; other fans were carefully frisked for weapons.

“Inside, the government boys took up their positions and sent up lusty vivas for President Gustavo Rojas Pinilla. Soon anti-Rojas spectators began to give themselves away by their glowering silences or muttered retorts. When the oppositionists were fully identified, the bullyboys opened up. Whipping out blackjacks, knives and guns, they attacked in milling fury. Victims were tossed screaming over the guardrails high above exit passageways; hundreds of others were toppled into the arena. Pistols banged away. The toll: at least eight dead, 50 hurt.”

The dictator was not simply unapologetic. He closed down the one paper to get the story, Medellín’s El Colombiano, by requiring its editors to bring all news to an out-of-the-way military post before printing anything. The Bogotá papers had already been shuttered.

In July 1956 Rojas Pinilla had become so anathema that the Liberals were able to come to terms with Gomez (again in exile in Franco’s Spain) in a Declaration of Benidorm, which proposed a form of coalition government, the National Front. The year 1957 would prove a watershed year in Colombian politics. Beginning on January 30, two Opposition leaders announced their “uncompromising” stand against the proposed re-election of the President. On the night of April 23 and the day of April 24 hundreds of thousands of Colombians demonstrated in Bogotá and other cities in support of the acceptance by Alberto Lleras Camargo of the joint Liberal-Conservative presidential nomination. When the government arrested in May a Conservative politician involved in the organization of the National Front withspread demonstrations by students, strikes by workers, and riots ensued. Eventually even the Church and the army deserted Rojas Pinilla. He went into exile.

And miraculously the country voted approval of the National Front formula in December, and then elected Lleras Camargo the following year. And even more miraculously he served his term and then vacated office for an elected successor in 1962. The New York Times opined on August 8: “Life and politics being what they are in Latin America these days, it is news that Colombia has peacefully inaugurated a President after a democratic election and an uninterrupted term of office for his predecessor.” It appeared that a form of self-government, without the fist, was taking hold. But signs were not uniformly optimistic. A week later the New York Times reported (8/16/62): “Bandits bombed and machine gunned a bus in the Department of Boyaca, about 100 miles northeast of [Bogotá], today, killing the driver and twenty-three passengers and injuring twelve passengers.”

It was in this context that our poem of the week was written by Colombian poet Olga Elena Mattei. Ms. Mattei is a highly renowned poet and journalist from Medellín who has won numerous international prizes for her poetry (which is collected in more than a dozen volumes). This poem is from the first book, and fittingly addressed the question of whither Colombia at that time, so long ago now, that it looked like there might be hope. But even then, hope was mixed with anxiety.


from Silabas de Arena (1962)

by Olga Elena Mattei

Corteza de naranja,
paz de sol en la mañana,
voz del agua;
concreción de esmeralda.
Meditación de la espiga
en la esperanza.
Toda la voz de los poetas
se desgrana
con las mismas palabras,
porque es buena la cosecha,
porque la tierra es mansa,
porque la torre nos regala
con la oración de su campana.

¿Por qué alzar el brazo y la bandera
gritando una amenaza
sobre el curvado vientre de la esfera
y en el regazo blanco de la patria?

¿Para qué llorar con las palabras
y vociferar cosas malvadas?
¡Decir hierro, bala,
fusil, cadaver, arena ensangrentada.
Sangre y olor de habitación quemada,
botas, piedra, traición, y represalia…
viuda, odio,
fuego y asesino!
¿Para qué? ¿Por qué Dios mío?
¿Qué pasa sobre el mundo
que en todas las gargantas
hay solamente nudos,
y gritos en las almas?
Fuimos todos hermanos
en la fiesta del agua,
y todos alcanzamos la palabra
de sangre redimida
en la esperanza;
todos escuchamos tu tabla
de mandatos
y ahora
¿hacia qué lugar llevamos
nuestra raza?


[translated by DK Fennell]

Peel of an orange,
the sun’s peace in the morning,
sound of the water;
the hardness of emerald.
Meditation on the sprig
of hope.
All the voice of the poets
is sprinkled
with the same words,
because the harvest is good,
because the land is peaceful,
because the tower gladdens us
with an oration of bells.

Why raise a fist and a banner
shouting threats
at the curved womb of the Earth
and the white lap of our country?

Why desolate with words
and shout out evil things?
To say iron, bullet,
gun, corpse, blood-drenched sand.
Blood and scent of burnt homes,
boots, flint, treachery, and reprisal …
widow, hatred,
fire and assassin!
For what? Why, dear God?
Why is it that all over the world
that in all the throats
there are only lumps
and cries in the heart?
We were all brothers
in the fiesta del agua,
and we all reached the understanding
of blood redeemed
in hope;
we all listened to your list
of demands
and now
to what place do we take
our people?

Where indeed. It did not turn out well for Colombia, but that is a long and very complex story and one that the United States becomes more intertwined with. It is also an immensely sad story. Shortly after what is called the “Siege of the Palace of Justice” in 1985 I viewed the burned skeleton of the building that housed the Surpeme Court in downtown Bogotá. I could still make out the version of the famous quotation by the great liberator and leader Santander, which was inscribed on top of the building that formerly housed the highest judicial authority of the country: “Colombianos, las armas os han dado la independencia, las leyes os darán la libertad.” (Colombians, arms have given us independence, laws will give us liberty.) You could still clearly see the quotation. And just as plain were the shell marks from the artillery fire by the army.

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