Jaime Garzón’s Colombia: a Nation Through the Art of a Prophetic Humourist

By Mauricio Rivera

Jaime Garzón was shot dead in Bogotá on August 13, 1999. His assassination, as those of political leaders Jorge Eliecer Gaitán (9 April, 1948) and Luis Carlos Galán (18 August, 1989) remains amongst the darkest episodes of Colombian republican history. Not only because of the ascendancy that these men had over Colombian society, but also because the real causes, as well as the names of those responsible for their murders, remain unknown.

My analysis of Garzón’s work is based on some of his comedic sketches produced during the 1990s and also on some extracts from a conference Garzón gave at the Corporación Universitaria Autónoma de Occidente (a university in the city of Cali) in 1997. This conference, which is analysed in more detail a few paragraphs below, shows an aspect of Garzón’s character that goes beyond his role as a satirist and political critic and portrays the image of the artist as an educator, which is a vision of the artist (particularly the twenty-first century artist) that I defend in a related essay.

Godofredo Cínico Caspa and the Colombian traditional parties

One of Garzón’s most popular characters was Godofredo Cínico Caspa: an old-fashioned, hard-lined, conservative man of law.[1] This character may be seen as a contemporary representative of that criollo aristocracy exposed in Changó el Gran Putas.

In one of this character’s sketches (embedded below) Godofredo broadcasts a monologue about the right to vote in Colombia.

The transcript (and translation) is as follows:

You are being addressed by Godofredo Cínico Caspa: last bastion of our national dignity and decorum. In these days our honourable republican congress has been debating about the so-called ‘obligatory vote.’ Since when do our rulers want to popularize a right, a right and a privilege of the righteous people?[2]

I do not understand why they fail to refer to the fountains of democracy and the rivers of tradition and consult the constitutions of the nineteenth century: which stated that those with the right to vote were only men, over 35 years old, married, with an income greater than 1,500 pesos and who could demonstrate acts of intelligence. Since when are women allowed to vote? May they leave the polls and return to the kitchen. It’s not O.K. for communists and opposites to have the right to vote. When did we allow this to happen? The righteous people should be electing the righteous people. We might be few, that’s evident, but with dignity and discretion we shall elect our rulers. What the hell, Álvaro and I will end up electing the president of 1998. Good Night![3]

Before analysing the content of Godofredo’s monologue, it is important to focus on the symbolism behind this character and what he represents within the Colombian social, political and historical context.

 Godofredo always addressed the nation from his office, which was full of books and folios. This is a reference to the abundance of laws and a criticism of the bureaucratic nature of the Colombian legal system. The lighting in Godofredo’s office fades from the red to the blue. This is an allusion to the Colombian traditional parties: the Liberal Party (historically represented by the colour red) and the Conservative Party (historically represented by the colour blue).

When Godofredo talks about the constitutions of the nineteenth century, he is referring to a period in Colombia’s history that was marked by a succession of constitutional changes, followed by a succession of civil wars (see the table below).[4]

 Table 1 – Civil wars and constitutional changes in nineteenth century Colombia

Civil Wars     

 Constitutions

  • War of 1831 between centralists and federalists.
  • Constitution of 1832: constitution of the Republic of Nueva Granada and installation of a presidential/centralist regime; Santander elected as president.
  • 1840 War of the Supremes a.k.a. War of the Convents (Guerra de los Supremos o de los Conventos).
  • Constitution of 1843: radicalisation of centralist politics.
  • War of 1851: conservative uprising against the politics of Liberal president José Hilario López.
  • Constitution of 1853: first federalist constitution.
  • War of 1854: between the “Golgotas” (traders and defendants of free-trade) and the Draconianos (artisans defendants of protectionism).
  • Constitution of 1858: centralist by nature, the “Confederación Granadina” is the new name of the county.
  • War between1860-62: between the conservative/centralist government and the liberal/federalist party.
  • Constitution of 1863: federalist by nature, the “Estados Unidos de Colombia” is the new name of the county.
  • War of 1876-77: because of the division in the liberal party between the radical Aquileo Parra and the moderate Rafael Nuñez.
  • Constitution of 1886: which lasted until 1991 and was conservative by nature (i.e., acknowledged the relationship between the state and the Catholic church, was centralist and was economically protectionist.
  • War of 1895: Against the presidency of Rafael Nuñez who on this occasion was president from the Conservative Party.

 (Source: Virtual Library Luis Ángel Arango, Central Bank of Colombia[5])

As the table shows, since the early stages of its republican life (and until the late twentieth century) Colombia was governed under a rigid bipartisan structure. For many years (until the creation of socialist and/or Marxist guerrillas in the 1960s and later with the proliferation of drug-dealing mafias in the 1970s and 1980s), partisan sectarianism was the main cause of violence in Colombia. Because of this, the wars between Liberals and Conservatives have been a constant reference in many artworks from Colombia’s republican history: including One Hundred Years of Solitude.

In one of the novel’s passages, when Colonel Aureliano Buendia (before becoming a leader of the Liberal cause) is talking with his conservative father-in-law, Don Apolinar Moscote, the latter describes the main ideological differences between the two parties in the following terms:

The Liberals (sic) were Freemasons, bad people, wanting to hang priests, to institute civil marriage and divorce, to recognise the rights of illegitimate children as equal to those of legitimate ones, and to cut the country up into a federal system that would take power away from the supreme authority. The Conservatives, on the other hand, who had received their power directly from God, proposed the establishment of the faith of Christ, of the principle of authority, and were not prepared to permit the country to be broken down into autonomous entities. (p. 98)[6]

However, as García Márquez also pointed out after the aforementioned description, beyond the ideological differences between the two parties, and throughout its entire republican history, as was also evident in the period of Spanish colonialism, Colombia has been ruled by a small elite.

This semi-aristocratic, dynastic political order is evident in the fact that many Colombian presidents have been the sons, grandsons and nephews of former presidents and/or political and military leaders. To name a few of the most recent: the current president Juan Manuel Santos (elected in 2010) is the grand-nephew of former president Eduardo Santos (president from 1938 to 1942); his predecessor Álvaro Uribe (president from 2002 to 2010) has blood ties with Rafael Uribe (who was the military leader of the Liberal army during the Thousand-days War[7]); and his predecessor Andrés Pastrana (president from 1998 to 2002) is the son of former president Misael Pastrana (president from 1970 to 1974).

At the end of his monologue, when Godofredo says that “Alvaro and I will elect the president of 1998”, he is referring to Álvaro Uribe, who back then was governor of the State of Antioquia and was emerging as a national figure, partly because of his promotion of self-defence groups (as exposed in more detail a few paragraphs below).

John Lenin and the Colombian Left

Amongst Garzón’s characters, the one who stands as the opposite of Godofredo Cínico Caspa is the left-wing, militant, public-university student John Lenin. In one of his sketches (embedded below) John Lenin speaks about the relations between the US and Colombia, particularly in regard to the traffic of narcotics.

The transcript (and translation) is as follows:

The gringos’ tails are made of straw and their noses full of powder compañeros! Besides, from snorting it all, they also want to get into our huts[8]; which might be also made of straw, but are as honourable as the sweat of the oppressed peoples compañeros! Because the enemy sees the straw in our wagon[9], but fails to see the cosa nostra sticking out of his imperial eagle-eye compañeros!  Behind every ‘traco-democracy’[10] there is a ‘narco-imperialism’ compañeros. Look at the case of Dukakis and Gore compañeros, who have the snow of corruption upon their shoulders, in the sense that they get closer to power with the ‘narco-dollares’ given to them by our ‘narco-paisanos.’ Against the drugs, may the gringos snort them all! Thank you compañeros.

This sketch follows on the idea of Yankee Imperialism exposed in Garcia Marquez’ account of The Massacre of the Banana Fields, and presents the traffic of narcotics and the so-called War on Drugs, as the latest episode of what may be interpreted as a neo-colonialist relation between the USA and Colombia (and by extension other drug-producing and/or exporting countries like México, Perú, Bolivia and Venezuela).

As shown in the sketch, behind John Lenin, there is a graffiti that reads “Extra Adicción para los Gringos” [Extra-Addiction for the Gringos]. Here, Garzón is playing around with words in order to make reference to the extradition treaty that marked the relations between Colombia and the US in the late 1980s and early 1990s (which led drug lord Pablo Escobar to declare war on the Colombian State).

Dioselina Tibana and Nestor Elí, servants of power in Colombia

Garzón created the characters of Godofredo and John Lenin while working in the TV show Quac!, which was a parody of a newscast from the mid-1990s called QAP. During this time, Garzón also created the characters of Dioselina Tibana and Nestor Elí. Dioselina was the maid at the Casa de Nariño, which is the house of government and residence of the Colombian president. Nestor Elí was the doorman of the fictional Colombia Building.

 

Quac! aired during the presidency of Ernesto Samper (1994-1998). This government was marked by a scandal known as the 8,000th process: where it was proved that Samper’s presidential campaign had been financed by members of the Cali Cartel.

At the end of Samper’s government, the guerrilla groups in Colombia, particularly the FARC, grew in number and strength, shifting their strategy from guerrilla warfare to holding a positional army. During this period, the FARC managed to seize power in many peripheral regions. This rise of the guerrillas can be explained by the fact that, unlike most Latin American guerrillas from the 1960s and 70s that vanished with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Colombian guerrillas found in the traffic of narcotics a source of income that has proved to be more reliable than aid from the former Soviet Union.

Between 1996 and 1998, the FARC reached its maximum military and political power since its creation in 1964. During this period, they struck the heaviest blows on the Colombian armed forces, and also began a practice of indiscriminate kidnapping of civilians that ended up turning the population against them (and, as exposed in more detail a few paragraphs below, also led to a general support of right-wing policies and ideologies that matched the rise of Alvaro Uribe’s popularity).

Samper was followed in the presidency by Andrés Pastrana. After losing the 1994 election, Pastrana was the person who revealed the audiocassettes that were the original evidence of the infiltration of drug-related money into Samper’s presidential campaign. In 1998, Pastrana came to power with the promise of organising a peace process with the FARC. This process began on January 7, 1999, and was ended by the government three years later, after the FARC seized an airplane that had departed from the city of Neiva and kidnapped the senator Jorge Eduardo Géchem, on 20 February 2002.

Jaime Garzón had a personal relationship with Pastrana, as he had worked as chief of tours when Pastrana was campaigning for Mayor of Bogotá in the late 1980s. During this time, Pastrana was kidnapped by Pablo Escobar’s Cartel of Medellin. Garzón was there at the time Pastrana was seized. In an article titled Memorias de risa y tragedia (Memories of laughter and tragedy), published on the tenth anniversary of Garzón’s death, journalist Fabian Cristancho (2009) tells of Garzón’s reaction when this was happening:

That day, 18 January 1988, seeing Pastana’s imminent kidnapping, Jaime said to the kidnappers that they should take him as well. “Can’t you see I’m the chief of tours?”[11]

Heriberto de la Calle

During the first years of Pastrana’s presidency, Garzón created one of his most popular characters, the shoe polisher Heriberto de la Calle. Dressed as Heriberto, Garzón interviewed different personalities from Colombian public life while polishing their shoes: from politicians to celebrities and sports figures. Below, I have embedded two of Heriberto’s polishing interviews. In one of them, Garzón interviews Fabio Valencia Cossio: a political leader from the Conservative Party, who at the time was a congressman and would later become Minister of Interior and Justice during Álvaro Uribe’s government. The following is an extract from this interview:

Heriberto de la Calle (HdC): “Look Dr. Valencia I had to tie up my shoe polish (…) because there’s a lot of politicians coming here.”

Valencia Cossio (VC): “That’s why I wear sneakers… (laughter)… I heard rumours they are kicking you out.”

HdC: “Kicking me out of the newscast?”

VC: “Yes, because you are too much of a hassle, and people don’t like it.”

HdC: “But who am I hassling Dr Valencia? Nobody. I’m just repeating what I hear in the neighbourhood; for instance about the AUC:[12] they say the biggest electors in the country are ‘el Mono Jojoy’[13] and Fabio Valencia Cossio.”

In another interview, Heriberto is polishing the shoes of his former boss, the then presidential candidate, Andrés Pastrana. The following is an extract from this interview:

HdC: ”You know something else Dr. Pastrana, when you’re sitting over there (meaning in the presidential seat), you have to be aware of the paramilitary. How come the army passes by, then the police passes by and a few moments later: Boom! Someone wipes out 14. How’s that possible?”

Pastrana: “Strange isn’t it?”

HdC: “I’m just trying to help. So don’t say I didn’t tell you so; you know, when they are kicking your ass.”

Garzón’s prophecies about Uribe and the rise of the Right

As mentioned before, the failure of the peace process with the FARC led the majorities in Colombia to shift towards the right and ultimately elect the candidate that personified the thirst for retaliation against this guerrilla: the former governor of Antioquia Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

On February 11, 1994 (during the last year of César Gaviria’s presidency), the Congress passed a law that authorised the formation of neighbourhood watch groups named Convivir[14]. Between 1995 and 1997, when Uribe was governor of Antioquia, he became the main promoter of these organisations. Since that moment, Jaime Garzón was openly critical of these groups, which were often related to the paramilitary groups that had been forming all over the country since the 1980s.

In the first sketch quoted above – where Godofredo speaks about the right to vote in Colombia – Garzón makes a reference to Álvaro Uribe as a member of what he called the righteous people. Below, I have included another of Godofredo’s sketches, in which he specifically speaks about Uribe.

The transcript (and translation) follows:

What national pride did I feel when I saw the cover of Semana Magazine showing the image of the pacifist, cooperativist and most dignified governor of Antioquia: Dr. Álvaro Uribe Velez. A man with a strong-hand and an armed fist; a leader who, with his mighty cooperativism, impulses peaceful ‘self-defence-groups’; which he, enlightened by the sons of Faruk, has decided to name Convivir. The magazine is right in projecting over the national arena the light of this neo-liberal genius. Álvaro can fit the country inside his head; he foresees this great nation as one big zone of total public order: in other words, as one big Convivir. Where the righteous people may finally enjoy our rents in peace, the way it should be. And it shall be him who will finally bring the redeeming North American soldiers, who will humanise the conflict and make of Uribe Velez the dictator that this country needs! Good night.

Garzón also satirised and criticised the Colombian armed forces. This can be seen in the video embedded below. The YouTube clip is titled Sieg Heil, mein Führer! – La verdad de Álvaro Uribe Velez [the truth about Alvaro Uribe Velez], and includes two sketches from Quac!, and a short extract from the conference that Garzón gave at the university in Cali. Throughout this video, in-between the selected footage – there are titles where, whomever edited it, accuses Uribe of promoting paramilitarism in Colombia and refers to the armed forces as “pawns in Uribe’s political chessboard.” This clip was uploaded to YouTube on April 5, 2007, by the user reyes300; the video has no credits.[15]

Beyond the speculation about who is behind Garzón’s assassination – where rumours point to the paramilitary groups, to members of the Colombian army and, as the aforementioned video shows, to Uribe himself – what can be said is that Uribe was elected president in 2002, forming a political coalition that included various politicians who since then have been declared guilty for being financed by paramilitary groups. It can also be said that while in his first term, Uribe’s coalition reformed the constitution, allowing him to aspire for re-election – which he did and was elected as president for a second term; and that two members of Congress (named Teodolindo Avendaño and Yidis Medina) have been judged for receiving a bribe to vote in favour of the constitutional reform that allowed the re-election.

In the extract from the conference at the University in Cali (which took place in 1997), Garzón acknowledged what at the time was a slight rise in Uribe’s popularity, which he believed to be “very dangerous”. In this conference, there is a moment, which I would like to leave as a concluding statement, when an attendant asks him about the role of NGOs in Colombia and, while stating the risks of being independent, he ends up talking about the threats that he was receiving at that moment (two years before of his death).

The text and translation of this extract are as following:

Independence has a price, and that price is to subject oneself to something … take me for example, I’m not truly independent, I’m just making jokes, and yet they keep calling my house and leaving messages saying, ‘we know where you live, we are going to cut your tongue’ and so forth. Everyday. That’s my daily bread. That changes one’s life. For instance, I now change my underwear everyday. Of course, imagine the corpse all shat down. I’m not afraid they won’t recognise me, because who else has teeth like these… But  life’s changes and every morning you end up grooming yourself for death.

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