9 April 2016
When he was still a young academic, Castro went to Colombia in April 1948 in order to organize and participate in various events meant to counter the 9th Summit of the Organization of the American States, which was taking place in Bogota that year.
“Colombia lived a great effervescence, there was a very strong popular movement, led by the Liberal Party of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan,” recalled Castro.
He made the trip in order to organize a Latin American Students Congress along with other students. Colombian students put him in contact with Gaitan, whose assassination a few days later sparked the Bogotazo.
Andean-like, smart, intelligent person
Remembering the meeting with Colombia’s charismatic leader, Castro described an “Andean-like, smart, intelligent” person, emphasizing how friendly he treated him and his comrade Rafael del Pino Siero — who would become a prominent figure of the Cuban Revolution. Gaitan offered some of his public speeches, among other things, and promised to make an appearance at the Students Congress’ closure.
One of the Gaitan’s speeches, entitled “Prayer For Peace,” left Castro with a particularly moving memory. It was pronounced in the end of a silent march for peace, organized two months earlier, when 100,000 people protested against the crimes of the armed conflict.
“I was used to seeing protests in Cuba where a student or campesino was killed, like in other countries,” said Castro. When I arrived in Colombia, I found it strange that journalists would write press releases about 30 deaths here, 40 there … There were daily massacres in Colombia.”
The Cuban leader added that most of the crimes were carried out by the then-governing Conservative Party, and that Gaitan, the leader of the opposition, was surely to become the next president.
However, Castro and del Pino Siero were arrested and interrogated a few days before the Bogotazo because they “imprudently” distributed leaflets protesting against various causes like Panama’s canal and Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, or demanding the independence of Puerto Rico, and the return of the Malvinas Islands, among others.
On April 9, 1948, they were released and were about to meet with Gaitan again when they heard the news.
They killed Gaitan!
“We saw people running in the streets, shouting ‘They killed Gaitan!’” Castro told Blanco. “Less than 10 minutes before the news started spreading, people started to gather like a whirlwind, like a cyclone,” throwing stones and vandalizing offices. The Bogotazo had begun.
Castro himself grabbed a small iron bar in his hands and joined the protestors. “No one can picture the great adventures I lived in such a short period of time! But all these experiences taught me about the mass struggle.”