Seventy years ago, the Liberal populist leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was gunned down in downtown Bogotá, Colombia, as the hemispheric nations gathered in the same city to discuss the economic fate of the region as it geared away from the global war economy of the 1940s. His assassination sparked a long civil war that is yet to be fully resolved. Liberals accused Conservatives for the assassination of the populist leader, igniting spontaneous street violence that slowly spread like wildfire across the whole nation and that ultimately polarized civil society. The result was the emergence of parastate social, economic, and political actors that have since challenged the national and foreign stabilizing stakeholders interested in consolidating the structures and systems that would allow the nation to return to social, economic, and political order.
Here in the United States, the current polarization and divisiveness advocated by both political parties, their constituents, and propaganda systems might in the moment seem to be the right strategy but it is dangerous for the nation’s stability in the long run. I am aware that I am not comparing apples to apples, but I am also aware that the level of political polarization has reached all the way to the core of our communities, neighborhoods, and families just like it did in Colombia.
When the Alabama cotton company where my father worked as a sales representative for Latin America transferred him to Colombia in the late 1960s, his biggest culture shock was not the lack of infrastructure or the idiosyncrasy of the people, but the political divisiveness. He understood the discrepancies between Liberals and Conservatives, he had been exposed to this dynamic in his Texas experience, but he had never seen the use of physical force, violence and human rights violations as means to oppress the political opposition.
His job took him out of the city and into the rural areas where he could market his cotton machinery equipment to large landowners and local elites that controlled cotton decision-making processes. It was in these areas of the country that he saw first-hand the impact of political bipartisan violence. He quickly learned that in a foreign market you quickly needed to read the political map and become a chameleon, tailoring your sales pitch to both Conservatives and Liberals so that your product could enter their ideologically divided markets.
Doing business in Colombia was challenging because it was intertwined with political ideology. The market’s ability to influence business decisions was replaced by the dynamics of the civil war. Some regions were pro business and pro free trade and others were protectionist and nationalist. Parastate actors from the left and right began to support the ideological efforts of both traditional political parties taking the internal conflict to a dangerous level that bypassed conventional norms of armed civil confrontation, leading to the structural violation of human rights and the eventual displacement of hundreds of thousands of people that were bystanders in a ideological confrontation between traditional political elites.
Media outlets controlled by elites representing the two political parties used the instruments of propaganda to escalate the divisiveness among constituents, instigating violence and persecution. The “Colombian necktie” and beheadings became the common methods of sending a clear message to political opponents as the political ideological map divided the country between Conservative and Liberal territories. Meanwhile these territories became centers of confrontation between leftist guerrillas, right wing paramilitaries, civil society, and the official military and police forces that operated on behalf of the party that was in power. Even the Catholic clergy was divided between left and right, perpetuating violence within the bipartisan territories.
By the time I was born in Bogotá new parastate forces had joined the conflict, including organized crime and narcotics traffickers that were also divided across the political lines. I vividly remember the climate of violence and insecurity and I also remember my maternal grandmother reminding me that our family was Liberal and therefore I was a Liberal by birth. Only when I came back to the United States to live with my father did I realize that I could excel the freedom to choose my own political ideology and to form my own political views. It was culture shock to me; it was eye opening to understand and observe how Democracy and “freedom” worked in the American context.
It was only under the Obama administration that I began to see a shift in the socio-political dynamics. Divisiveness and hate began to surface, but it was under the Trump administration that the aggressiveness escalated to new highs. It is concerning to think that the political polarization might take our nation into a scenario only experienced in unstable places like Colombia. Listening to talk radio from the left and the right here in Maine is now not very different than listening to radio in Colombia as they prepare for presidential elections this year. It was shocking to reflect on the fact that the current debate about “fake news” was actually part of the propaganda systems implemented in Colombia the same day that Gaitán was assassinated.
Seventy years after his assassination the crime remains unresolved and the political violence continues to destroy communities and families across the South American nation. Political polarization and divisiveness continues to dominate the political rhetoric, and propaganda systems continue to misinform constituents. Accountability is inexistent as those in power continue to pardon those parastate actors that have spearheaded the human atrocities that have shaken the nation decade after decade.
As I said earlier, I am not comparing apples to apples, but the misfortune experienced by Colombians must serve as a reminder of the dangers that could result from political polarization and divisiveness. The United States achieved long-term political, social, and economic stability thanks to its bipartisan cohesiveness that allowed the nation to steadily push toward capitalist economic development. We need to be united more than ever and put aside our political differences. We need to move as far as possible from the toxicity that has contaminated the hearts of Colombians since the assassination of Gaitán. Avoiding the long-term consequences of political divisiveness is a matter of national security.