Why the Communists are Winning as of 1976...
The intrigue accelerates.
A key figure in the preparations for the Bogotazo was Romulo Betancourt, who had seized power in neighboring Venezuela by coup d’etat. His Democratic Action Party ruled in Caracas and fomented left wing revolutions elsewhere in South America. In his youth, Betancourt had been expelled from Venezuela for organizing the Communist Party. Proceeding to Costa Rica, he led the Communist Party there during 1930-35, but broke with the Reds, not on a matter of principle, but because he considered their tactics too clumsy.
“We can introduce Lenin and Stalin to these (Latin American) people without using that word which reeks of sulfur and brimstone, Communism.” Betancourt wrote in a 1931 pamphlet, The Minimum Program of Penetration.
Betancourt invited the Colombian Liberal leader Dr. Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, to Caracas in 1948 to persuade him to lead an armed uprising. The latter “used to tell friends how Betancourt had offered his arms and money to start a revolution in Colombia ... Gaitan steadfastly turned down Betancourt’s overtures and continued his own personal crusade against the extreme Left and extreme Right ... so he was murdered.” 1
Betancourt wanted an alliance of left wing governments to dominate the Caribbean. To this end, he worked with the Communists, the Caribbean Legion, the Red Trade union movements of Mexico’s Lombardo Toledano and the semi-Marxist Arevalo regime in Guatemala. Despite this careful groundwork, his unstable regime in Venezuela was toppled seven months after the Bogotazo.
As we have seen, Gaitan did not share Betancourt’s ideology. Although a man of contradictory impulses and beliefs, he evinced a genuine hatred for lawless violence. Moreover, as the leader of the majority political party in Colombia, Gaitan had no need for revolution. He could look forward to winning power through the ballot.
The Conservative Party had elected its candidate, Dr. Mariano Ospina Perez, President solely because the Liberal Party vote was split between two candidates. The death of one of them left Gaitan the acknowledged national leader.
Dr. Gaitan had expected to be named a delegate to the Inter-American Conference. When he was passed over, he resented the snub. In the belief that his anger would induce Gaitan to cooperate in mass action to disrupt the Conference, a Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party decided to approach him openly and did so.
Gaitan not only refused to have anything to do with the plot, he publicly denounced the Plenum’s stratagem and repudiated violence of any sort against the Pan-American meeting. The courageous decision probably cost him his life. To escalate sporadic manifestations against the Conference into a volcanic outburst of mass anger and violence, the right catalyst was needed. The murder of Gaitan, a national idol, would be the sure-fire answer for the Communists, who now regarded him as a turncoat.
Almost daily straws in the wind contributed to my mounting concern. Police arrested a man for trying to plant a bomb in the Capital where the delegates were meeting. A leaflet calling for revolution and condemning oligarchs who “dine in state while the people go hungry” was distributed on the streets April 7. Large quantities of arms - machine- guns, rifles, automatics and revolvers - were smuggled in Colombia from Venezuela. When the Colombian government protested, Venezuelan authorities alleged that the arms must have been stolen from their arsenals. This deceived no one, least of all Security Chief Alberto Nono and other high officials who had ample evidence to the contrary.
Convinced that the Colombian Communist Party was “too stupid and ineffectual” to call the shots, the International Communist high command assigned two local Red leaders, Antonio Garcia and Gerardo Molina, to serve as liaison between the militant trade unions and the Soviet ligation, while importing a select cadre of foreign Communist leaders and gifted young activists, a group of ten.
These hard-core individuals, according to Security Chief Nono, included Blas Roca, leader of the Cuban Communist Party; Gerardo Machado, leader of the Venezuela Party, and Salvador Ocampo, an outstanding Chilean Communist and Secretary General of the Chilean Federation of Labor; two professions in the business at hand - Milorad Pesic, a Yugoslav agent of international Communism, and Luis Fernandez Juan, described as a “Red General” in the Spanish Civil War. Less well-known, at the time were two Cuban students: Rafael del Pino and the 21 year old Fidel Alejandro Castro.# This was distinguished company for a Cuban student leader who main credentials consisted of his implication in several terrorist murders of leaders of rival student factions. I learned later that Fidel Castro and his friend del Pino had been sent to the Conference and financed by the political organization of Argentine Dictator Juan Peron, and had received warm letters of recommendation from Romulo Betancourt in Caracas, where they stopped over in route to Bogota.
Since their arrival at the Medellin airport on March 29, Castro and del Pino had been under close surveillance, and for good reason. “These two men,” according to Nono, “came as replacements for two Russian agents stationed in Cuba, whose were known and who were expected by the Colombian police.”
On the evening of April 3rd, during the third act of a play which was being attended by the President of Colombia and his wife, a shower of leaflets fell from the gallery of the theater. “Detective Number 6,” who had been assigned to the duty of protecting the President, rushed to the balcony and grabbed Castro and del Pino red-handed, tossing out the leaflets, which had been printed in Havana and “were definitely Communist in style and revolutionary phraseology.”
After arresting the pair, Detective Number 6 proceeded to their hotel room, where he found Communist literature and letters of recommendation from Betancourt “with whom they claimed to have close relationships of friendship and political affinity.”3
Detective Number 6 decided that these two were dangerous customers, meriting systematic interrogations, but he did not receive permission from a police department heavily infiltrated by radical officials who were tolerant of Communism.
It strikes me in retrospect that the acumen of the unidentified Detective Number 6 is remarkable, in that he had no way of knowing, in April, 1948, that Castro would play a major role on the world stage. I also find it significant that Number 6's reports was published in the Bogota press in August, 1949 and in Caracas a month later, when Castro was virtually unknown outside of a narrow circle of student terrorists in Havana. Neither the detective nor other Colombian officials had any motive to stress or exaggerate Castro’s role in the Bogotazo.
The two Cubans were ordered to report on the following Monday to Dr. Camilo Cortes Zapata, Chief of the alien Section of the National Police. When they failed to show, Cortes and Detective Number 6 paid a visit to the Cubana in the Hotel Claridge, and searched their rooms.
They discovered literature with photos of Dr. Gaitan. When questioned about their interest in Gaitan, del Pino replied that the literature had been given to them by Gaitan’s admirers, than they did not know him and had no interest in him. Yet as the detectives left the hotel, a friend informed them that he had seen the pair the day before in Dr. Gaitan’s offices. There was also a telegram, which read” “La Habana, Cuba, 3 de Abril, 1948 ... Fal-Pino. Bogota., Hotel Claridge. Seguro. Es a Diez. En Punto ., IGLESIAS.” FAL stands for Fidel Alejandro Castro; Pino for Rafael del Pino. The test translates: “Confirmed. Ten. Punctually.” The identity of Iglesias is unknown to me.
In Bogota, Castro was using a letter drop - A woman named Olimpia Castro - at No. 5-48A, South 11th Street. Among his papers was found a plan of the Capitol, the conference site, with penciled markings showing the locations of the Dominican and Chilean delegations. The rioters of April 9th were able to get as far as there.
Nino noted that while the two Cubans had no contact with the inept official Colombian Communist Party, they were meeting secretly with Antonia Garcia and other undercover activist who served as Liaison between the Soviet Ligation and the trade union Red. Then, on April 3rd, a damaging letter to Castro from his fiancee, Mirtha Diaz Balart, was seized. Primarily a love letter, it contained the incredibly indiscreet sentence, “I remember that you told me you were going to start a revolution in Bogota.”
The violence was to erupt on the 9th. On the 8th, Castro and Rafael del Pino met with militants of the Colombian Federation of Labor (CTC) to indoctrinate them on the techniques of the general strike and the armed seizure of power. The two Cubans promised to return the next day, but their arrest was ordered and they did not return.
On the 9th, Detective Number 6 was on the job in the central business district of Bogota. In his report, he wrote:
“There, in the Colombia cafe, seated at a table with two other people were the Cubans. It was 11:30 a.m. I am sure that I am not mistaken. There is another witness to the scene, Detective Diego Quinones Olarte, who heard the Cubans talk about the way I had arrested them and heard them mention my name.” Moments later, with Detective Quinones, I saw del Pino standing in the door of the Colombia Cafe, talking with a shabbily dressed individual whose photograph would later appear in the newspapers as the murderer of Dr. Gaitan.”4
The photograph proved to be that of Juan Roa Sierra, a twenty-five year old drifter, who came from impoverished surroundings. He had been institutionalized and was characterized officially as “a lazy lunatic.”
At fifteen minutes past one on April 9th, the fuse of the Bogotazo was ignited. In the words of Plinio Mendoza Neira, an eyewitness.
“It was so dramatic, brutal and surprising that I can barely reconstruct it. I had to speak to Gaitan about something urgent. I went to his office at noon, but met him leaving with friends ... I invited him then in the presence of all of them, to lunch in a restaurant.” Gaitan accepted and they left the office together. “When we reached the main door, I took Gaitan’s arm and as we moved a little away from our friends, I said: ‘What I have to say is very brief.”
“I suddenly felt that Gaitan was pulling back, trying to cover his face with his hands and trying to get back to the office building. Simultaneously, I heard three consecutive shots and then another one fractions of a second later. Gaitan fell to the ground. I bent over him to help, without being able to avoid the immense surprise that this absurd occurrence caused me.
“What happened, Jorge?” I asked.
“He didn’t answer. He was transformed, eyes half open, a bitter grimace on his lips and his hair in disorder, while a tread of blood ran under his hand.”
Elias Quesada Anchicote, an employee of the Granada Drugstore, was the last person to talk to the presumed murderer. He recalled:
“At this moment, the mob was crowing around the door, trying to get in. I turned toward the customer and said: “Why did you commit this crime of killing Dr. Gaitan?” He replied with great sadness, ‘Ah, sir ... weighty matters of which I cannot tell you about.’ I said to him, ‘Tell me who told you to kill him, because at this moment you are about to be lynched by the people.’ And he replied, ‘I cannot..’ Then they forced open the door and hurled themselves upon him .. 5
If Roa Sierra Killed Gaitan, his motive remains obscure. A Scotland Yard team in Colombia claimed that he resented Gaitan’s failure to give him a job. Its report is extraordinary in that it submitted no ballistic evidence as to whether the gun taken from Roa was the murder weapon, does not list the witnesses interrogated or reports their statements, and bases its conclusion almost entirely on apriori theorizing. It concluded that Castro and del Pino did not inveigle Roa into committing murder, on these bizarre grounds:
“It is obvious that, if the mental condition of Roa and his attitude toward Gaitan had progressed to a critical point in which mere incitement by two foreigners was needed to precipitate him to assassination, then he would also have reached this critical point without the necessity of this incitement.”
In plain English, what the British team seems to be saying is that nobody need persuade anybody to do anything, because he will do it anyway.
Certainly, Roa was neither a Communist nor a Communist sympathizer. It is plausible that this weak-minded creature could have been persuaded or bribed by Communists to stand in the street with a loaded pistol (without firing it) to enable the real assassin to escape. Since he was poor and a former asylum inmate, he might well have been cajoled into playing the “pigeon.”
If Gaitan and Roa were liquidated by Communists, it is significant that Detective Number 6 saw Fidel Castro and Rafael del Pino at the scene an hour-and-a-half before the crime, that del Pino was reportedly seen talking to Roa, and that, according to another witness, the Cubans were speaking in low voices to strangers at the scene a few minutes before the assassination.
The evidence in support of this theory is persuasive but by no means conclusive. Experienced New York Times reporter, Milton Bracker, was concerned with whether the assassin had been put to death by accomplices whom he believed were there to protect him and secure his escape;(New York Times, April 24, 1948). Ambassador Beaulac theorized that Roa’s death might have been “caused by persons anxious that he not live to testify concerning the reasons for his act.”
If the Communists did not engineer the murder plan, Gaitan’s assassination could not possibly have better suited their purpose.
Within a matter of minutes, mobs controlled by a skillful, invisible leadership began to run amok, escalating their furious lynching of Roa Sierra to widespread violence and destruction.
As in the case of Dr. Martin Luther King’s murder, some of those who participated in the looting, arson and savagery may have been driven by grief and anger over the death of their leader; but many, simply exploited the killing as a pretext for release of greed, envy and pent-up destructive urges.
Rumors spread that Laureano Gomez, the respected leader of the Conservative Party, had instigated Gaitan’s assassination. Though the report was baseless, crowds swarmed through Gomez’s office bent on lynching him, but the quarry had fled. Frustrated, the mob smashed and looted furniture, paintings and files, before burning the building to the ground. They directed their attention next to Gomez’s newspaper, El Siglo, one of the finest in Latin America, and reduced the building to rubble and ashes with dynamite and gasoline fires.
Another phalanx of the raging mass of several thousand moved on the headquarters of the Inter-American Conference, prime target of the Communists, symbolically. All radio stations were speedily occupied and placed at the disposal of the revolutionaries. The orchestration of a skillful conductor was evident in the cues to the mob and in the selection of targets for arson and demolition - the Chancery, the Palace of Justice, the Nuniciature, the Archbishop’s Palace, the conservative newspaper, El Siglo, and of Catholic seminaries, convents, and schools. One of the main objectives achieved by the Red planners was the destruction of valuable records, while cinemas, theaters and places of recreation were spared.6
Communists and other left-wing extremists commandeered microphone and broadcast all-out blasts of hatred again the Christian religion, the alleged oligarchy ruling Colombia and, of course, the United States. The rabble was kept in a frenzy by a flood of lies, among them that Gomez had been given refuge in the American Embassy, that Uncle Sam was responsible for the assassination of Gaitan and by even more lurid fabrications.
“The heads of Gomez, Valencia and Montalvo are hanging from the lamp posts of the Plaza de Bolivar,” one radio announcer declared. This and similar appeals to sadism paid off in such revolting spectacles as a soccer game in a neighboring town in which a priest’s decapitated head served as the “ball.”
About an hour before Gaitan’s murder, Edna was preparing to go down to the center of the city from some shopping when the phone rang, and a fateful call it turned out to be. General Marshall’s aide, Major/now Lieutenant General) Vernon Walters, asked if it would be convenient for his boss to drop by on his way from the Conference headquarters to lunch at his residence, only fifteen minutes from our house. Edna said she would be delighted. Marshall and Major Walters arrived shortly and visited for about forty minutes, during which time Walter Donnelly and I arrived for lunch.
When Marshall departed, it was too late for my wife’s shopping expedition, which would have taken her into the heart of the conflagration during the period of maximum violence. General Marshall afterwards often said that his decision to pay my wife a visit probably saved his life, because the visit delayed his lunch long enough so that he was informed of the uprising and remained at his house. Grady Matthews and Jerry Grimes, my pilot and co-pilot, came by after lunch with frightening reports of serious trouble downtown. They were on their way to the airport to see to the safety of our DC-3. I ordered my car at once and drove with Donnelly toward our Conference headquarters. As we approached it, we encountered a berserk mob of several thousand, some of who were ripping down the flags of the twenty-one American republics that lined the street in front of the Conference site.
This was my first inkling that a revolution was in full swing. As yet, looting crowds had not reached the area nor were barricades going up. With our path blocked by an angry, menacing mass of humanity, I did not need to think twice before instructing my chauffeur to carry out that discreet G.I maneuver known as “Getting the hell out of there.”
Meanwhile, Marshall and Harriman’s parties were having their share of excitement. An attack was carried out on Marshall’s residence in an effort to wipe out its occupants, forcing Marshall to escape to a safer house, along with Harriman, Bill Martin, Pat Carter and Jim George.
Returning to our house, I was listening to the car radio just in time, after a confused bubble, to hear a voice say in Spanish:
“This is Fidel Castro of Cuba. The President has been killed. All the military establishments in Colombia are in our hands. The Navy has surrendered to us. The revolution has succeeded!”
The name Fidel Castro meant absolutely nothing to me at the time. Probably it stuck in my mind because this was the first intimation I had that we were in the midst of an insurrection, and that we might all find ourselves trapped inside a Communist-held enclave.
Meanwhile, reports of President Ospiona Perez’s demise were being exaggerated, though by only a hair. He had been approaching the Palace, after attending a cattle exposition, just a few minutes after the shooting of Gaitan. He saw people converging on the Palace in taxicabs painted red, piling out and joining a menacing crowd shouting slogan.
Near the Palace gate, a red taxi suddenly accelerated toward the President’s limousine with evident intent to ram. The few soldiers of the presidential guard on duty at the gate took aim on the charging vehicle. At the last moment, the driver lost his nerve, applied his braked hard and barely avoided the collision. The President made it safely inside the Palace gates, now aware that the opposition had launched an armed struggle for the conquest of power.
“Mr. President, they are attacking the Palace,” Ivan Berrio, Chief of the Presidential Guard reported gravely. “The crowds are dragging the naked body of a man they say is the assassin of Dr. Gaitan and are trying to force their way down Seventh Avenue. They have broken all the windows facing the street. I await your orders.”
The President knew that only a handful of loyal guards stood between him and a bloodthirsty sea of humanity.
“Fire only if fired on by the insurgents,” he ordered Berrio, then called an immediate meeting of the Council of Ministers to declare a state of siege. Crowds had been exhorted by radio to loot the hardware stores for arms and had been given instructions for the manufacture of home-made Molotov cocktails.
The police had joined the uprising and invited the mobs to help themselves to firearms in the police stations. The Palace of Justice, the Palace of San Carlos, and other historic buildings were already on fire. As President Ospina Perez later appraised the emergency:
“A total attack was directed at the Palace, the chief target of the mutineers. Having taken it, they planned to assassinate the President whereupon the Republic would fall into their hands. The arson and sacking elsewhere was part of the plan to seize the Palace, to spread terror and anxiety, and to seize all type of arms to achieve their purpose.
The Minister of War, Fabio Lozano y Lozano, urged the President to move his desk from its corner position, where it was visible to enemy snipers, but Ospina Perez opposed this change flatly.
“I believed that my duty was to stay in my usual place to thus strengthen the morale of the brave defenders of the Palace, all of who were in exposed positions of great danger,” he later declared.
Advisers pleaded with the President to take his wife by car to Techo, where an airplane was awaiting to fly them to Medellin, a city loyal to the Government, thus escaping the ferocity and cruelty of the attacks of the mob. The President was made of sterner stuff. He believed that, unless he stood firm and rejected retreat in any form, the morale of the defenders would dissolve, and Colombian democracy would be washed down the drain.
“Neither my beliefs as a Catholic, nor my conservative philosophy permitted the slightest vacillation.” he told reporter Ochoa. “I gave the order consequently to defend the Palace inch by inch ... I observed that I would remain at the presidential desk because I wished, at the supreme moment to die in the place of my usual activities.”
He made one compromise, for the safety of his young son, Gonzalo, who he permitted to be transferred to the American Embassy by Jesuit Fathers “Because we wanted to prevent his being taken hostage by the rabble and because we could visualize ourselves in the situation of General Moscardo with his son, which came instantly to mind.” Here he was referring to the siege of the Alcazar in Toledo during the Spanish Civil War by the loyalists.
Two priests delivered Gonzalo, about twelve years old, to Ambassador Beaulac’s residence. The Embassy staff saw to it that he was kept safe from the raging mobs.
When they learned that the only three tanks left in Bogota seemed to have uprising and were advancing with their guns trained on the Palace, the President and his heroic wife, Berta, believed that their last hour on earth was at hand. The tanks approached with revolutionaries riding on top of them “waving red flags and shouting vivas for the mutineers.”
Ospina Perez was well aware that the old walls of the Palace could not withstand tank fire. From inside the Palace, as the tanks came within range, rifleman began picking off agitators riding atop the rumbling vehicles, one of whom tumbled down under the treads, and was crushed. The tanks halted, then began a retreat through the mob, for it turned out that their commanders had not deserted; they had been trapped by the rabble.
“The Venezuelan radio stations,” the President recalled later, “some of which had been inciting violently to revolution, broadcast the false news that my corpse and the bodies of various Conservative leaders were being dragged through the streets of Bogota.” (El Tiempo, April 9, 1968).
On that first day of the insurrection, sixty of our Embassy people and Delegate Norman Armour had an uncomfortably close call when the Reds trapped them inside the Chancellery building and set it afire. Flames were soon raging on the two lower floors. Overlooked by the mob, a new paint store on the ground floor was stocked with highly inflammable materials, threatening the Americans on the upper floors of the eight-story building not only with death by fire and suffocation, but with a potential explosion that could have blown the structure to bits. Fortunately, the paint store had no sign or glass doors and gave no clue to its content.
While Armour and other volunteer firefighters held the conflagration in check, emergency plans were improvised to evacuate everyone through the burning lower stories of the Chancellery and brave small-arms fire in a dash across the street to sanctuary in a building directly opposite.
Fortunately, the high elevation of Bogota, at which the rarefied air provided insufficient oxygen to feed the fire at maximum efficiency, worked to our advantage, although damage was extensive. A drizzling rain helped also, enabling the Chancellery, of latest construction, to fare better than other structures in the City.
Around evening of the first day, the loyal troops had returned from maneuvers in force and saved the day. Zuleta sent troops to enable the Chancellery’s occupants to escape with their lives on the next morning.
During most of the street fighting, Edna and I were trapped in our house, where we saw to it that the policeman assigned to guard us was well fed. Perhaps for this reason, he refused to join in the uprising, asking and receiving my permission to remain hidden inside the house.
Through the entire horrible emergency, the telephone operators merited high praise for remaining at the switchboards without respite and little food for stretches or twenty- four to thirty-six hours, maintaining vital communications - another Communist miscalculation. Their heroism was later formalized by a commendation from their government.
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