When he was still a young academic, Fidel 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,” Fidel recalled to journalist Katiuska Blanco Castiñeira.
He made the trip in order to organize a Latin American Students Congress along with other students. While there, Colombian students put him in contact with Gaitan, whose assassination a few days later sparked the Bogotazo.
Fidel described the larger-than-life Gaitan as 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 promised to make an appearance at the Students Congress' closure, but did not live to fufill the promise he made to young Fidel.
One of the Gaitan's speech, entitled “Prayer For Peace,” left Fidel Castro with a particularly moving memory. It was pronounced at the end of a silent march for peace, organized two months earlier, when 100,000 people protested against the crimes of the armed conflict that had already begun but was about to explode.
“I was used to seeing protests in Cuba where a student or campesino was killed, like in other countries," said Fidel. "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.”
According to Fidel, most of the crimes were carried out by the then-governing Conservative Party, and that Gaitan, the leader of the opposition, was sure to become the next president.
However, Fidel and del Pino Siero were arrested and interrogated because they “imprudently” distributed leaflets protesting various issues including the Panama's canal, the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, the independence of Puerto Rico, and the return of the Malvinas Islands, among others.
On April 9, 1948, the two were released and were about to meet with Gaitan again, when they heard the news.
“We saw people running in the streets, shouting 'They killed Gaitan!'” Fidel told Blanco. “In less than 10 minutes before the news started spreading, people started to gather like a whirlwind, like a cyclone." The Bogotazo had begun, and upwards of 3,000 Colombians would lose their lives by days end.
IN PICTURES: Fidel Castro: A Remarkable Life in 14 Pictures
Fidel 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."
More than 50 years and over 220,000 deaths later, revolutionary Cuba would be the stage for a 4-year negotiation to put an end to that brutal conflict. Just days before Fidel's death, Colombia's left-wing FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government signed the final deal meant to usher a new era of peace in the South American country.
For Colombia's rebels, Fidel was an example to follow both in the pursuit of justice that led them to the jungle, as well as the pursuit of peace that brought them to the negotiation table.