Hugo Chavez Political Cartoons
I just got back from a cool editorial cartoonists conference in Colombia last week. I’m an editorial cartooning wonk and it was great fun to go to a conference where I didn’t know the cartoonists. In fact, the Colombian political cartoonists rarely get together themselves and it was interesting for them to meet each other.
Bogota is a huge city of about 8.5 million people, full of universities and libraries and a thriving community of cartoonists. Colombian politics are crazy, bloody, complex and difficult for me to digest in just a week of cramming. Colombia is the second biggest country in South America and the third largest recipient in the world of US foreign aid, because of all the drug issues there. The US State Department brought me to Colombia on a speaking tour to attend the conference as the only American cartoonist.
The event was organized by the local Alliance Francaise, the French and US Embassies, along with Jean Plantu’s “Cartooning for Peace” group that he set up in response to the Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy. I don’t think I’ve ever met a cartoonist who wasn’t for peace, so the purpose of the group might seem a little confusing, but it turned out to be pretty straight forward, as an opportunity to talk about press freedoms for cartoonists. Cartoonists suffer under various constraints in different countries and most of the talk was about where to “draw the line” on this and that.
I was impressed with the Colombian cartoonists who seem to have a macho attitude and take pride in speaking truth to power. Colombia has a violent history and their cartoons are bloody. Many of the cartoons were about the so called “false positives” Â where the Colombian army was paid to kill paramilitary guerillas, and killed many innocent, civilian “false positives” along the way, identifying the innocents as militants in order to collect more bounties.
The only two Colombians who came to mind when I first arrived were Juan Valdez and Pablo Escobar, theÂ MedellÃnÂ drug kingpin. Colombia had many years where drug gangs ran roughshod. Â Colombians order delivery of everything – even McDonalds, harking back to the days when it was unsafe to walk the streets. The government didn’t do its job of protecting the people from lawlessness, so Colombians banded together, funding paramilitary groups for protection from the criminals. Of-course, once they were formed and armed, those paramilitary groups became lawless themselves.
The FARC is a Marxist guerilla group that raises their funds through kidnappings, drug dealing and contributions from nutty euro-communists. In 2008, the Colombian security forces successfully rescued some hostages that the FARC had been holding for years, including former beauty queen, senator, presidential candidate and French dual citizen, Ingrid Betancourt. A high profile Colombian raid into Ecuador killed FARC leaders and led to a diplomatic wound with Ecuador, which seems to have recently been healed.
Now the streets are safe enough that pedestrians can worry about being mugged rather than riddled with bullets from narco-or-Marxist-terrorists, thanks to scandal-plagued, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, supported by the USA, who has done a messy but assertive job of crushing the paramilitaries. The cartoonists savage Uribe, who is term limited out of office soon, and may try to re-write the laws allowing him to run for another term. (2/27/10 – the Colombian Supreme Court just nixed Uribe’s plans and he won’t be running again.)
The Colombians despise their neighbor and FARC supporter, President Hugo Chavez, who cut off economic ties between Venezuela and Colombia to protest Colombian military cooperation with the USA. Newspapers have stories every day about Chavez’s dysfunctional regime.
With such a bloody, circus of local events, it is not surprising that the Colombian cartoonists draw almost exclusively about issues concerning Colombia and its neighbors. Editorial cartoons from around the world are not reprinted in Colombia, just as we don’t see Colombian cartoons reprinted in America (although we should be adding a couple of Colombian cartoonists to our site soon. I’m not sure how well their cartoons will be understood by our readers).
The Colombian cartoonists are a spirited bunch, with crazy one-word pen names such as Mico (monkey), ChÃ³colo (corn-on-the-cob), Matador (killer) and Bacteria.
Mico is also a national TV star; he dresses up like a woman, holds an umbrella and talks about politics with his actor partner on a popular show that he writes each week called “Tola y Maruja.”
Bacteria took his name to honor his mother who died from a bacterial infection soon after giving birth to him. Some of this Colombian stuff is pretty strange.
Other Colombian cartoonists who impressed me are Vladdo, Betto, Mheo and Consuelo Lago, a charming cartoonist who has drawn an editorial cartoon for over forty years, called “Nieves” (snow) featuring a young black girl who makes cynical comments on the Colombian news.
I gave lectures at colleges, to the public and to groups of journalists in Bogota,Â MedellÃnÂ and Cartagena. I was impressed with the audiences; they understood everything and laughed at all the same things an American audience would laugh at. (Here’s a nice Colombian interview of me with a video in English.) There were lots of questions about censorship and about where cartoonists “draw the line” on topics they won’t touch. I encouraged everyone to think of editorial cartoons as a barometer of freedom. In many countries, cartoonists never draw their leaders; cartoonists in Venezuela aren’t allowed to draw Hugo Chavez; cartoonists in Cuba never draw Fidel Castro. In Colombia the cartoonists ridicule their president Uribe every day and their lack of respect for their president speaks well of healthy press freedoms in Colombia.
Cartoons are important in Colombia and it is great to see the respect that cartoons command and to see how they have an important spot in so many newspapers and magazines; even so, Colombian cartoonists complain about many of the same business problems that plague American cartoonists. Business is bad for newspapers and cartoonists are poorly paid.
The big national newspaper, El Tiempo, features three editorial cartoons a day; they work with six cartoonists, who each draw three cartoons a day for the newspapers ““ that is 18 total cartoons from which the newspaper picks only three, and those three are the only ones the newspaper pays the cartoonists for. The cartoonists were passionate in complaining to me about this. The story was different at the number two paper, El Espectador, which typically prints every cartoon submitted from the cartoonists who work there and lets them draw what they want. Â (The offices of El Espectador were blown up by theÂ MedellÃnÂ drug cartelÂ in 1989.)
Cartoonists in the USA also complain about editing, and it is sometimes difficult to explain to foreign audiences that editing isn’t the same as censorship. Freedom of the press belongs to the guy who owns the press. InÂ MedellÃn, the excellent cartoonist for the El Colombiano newspaper, Esteban Paris, must draw cartoons that illustrate the newspaper’s editorial every day ““ frustrating, but it also happens in the USA. When I worked with Gannett’s Honolulu Advertiser in Hawaii, the other cartoonist there, Dick Adair, worked under the same editorial constraints as Esteban Paris.
The Colombian cartoonists usually have second jobs, because making a living as a cartoonist is difficult in Colombia. Cartoonists in the USA find themselves in the same tough times. In Cartagena I met a shy and charming cartoonist named Panti, who has worked for decades for the El Universal newspaper and is retiring. El Universal is looking to hire a new, full time cartoonist to replace Panti. It looks like a nice gig, with editors who let the cartoonist draw his own ideas and don’t ask for multiple cartoons to pick from each day ““ and Cartagena is a lovely place. Colombian cartoonists take note, and send in your samples!
One fun thing about being an editorial cartoonist is that I sometimes get invited to strange places as a cartoon celebrity. I just finished a week in Algiers at their second annual comics festival. Algeria is a huge country, a former socialist member of the Soviet block and a former French colony in North Africa.
The people here like to be thought of as more European than Arab, and they seem relieved that their country has recently emerged from many years of internal violence. There was an ugly civil war here in the 1990′s that has wound down to the point where Algiers is pretty safe, but there are military guards with machine guns everywhere, and we can’t drive very far without going through armed checkpoints. That is probably why it is safe.
Here’s one photo that I saved before my camera disappeared, of a typical apartment building covered with satellite dishes. A satellite dish is a necessity here as the three channels of state run broadcast television seems to be despised by everyone. Even the tiniest hovel has a satellite dish.
There was another American cartoonist here, Jan Eliot, who draws the syndicated strip, “Stone Soup.” We had an interesting day at the “Casbah,” the old Ottoman Empire part of Algiers that is a giant bazaar. The streets in the Casbah are too narrow for cars. The bustling Casbah is filled with tiny shops and tables with every kind of stuff – except tourist junk, because there are so few tourists here. Algeria isn’t an easy place for a tourist to visit, so we don’t see Algiers t-shirts or snow globes; I saw no Starbucks and no McDonalds.
The language here is a strange mix of French and Arabic, where the locals take French verbs and conjugate them like they are Arabic verbs, making an incomprehensible mish-mash. The economy is a mish-mash too; Algeria seems to be a work in progress for a government that still has its head stuck in a Socialist past. Under a new law, consumer credit is banned in Algeria. Any business in Algeria must be 51% owned by Algerians, driving foreign investment away. Getting anything done here is a quest. People don’t show up on time and don’t seem to have much concern about productivity. There is a lot of confusion. The economy is sustained by oil revenue.
Since emerging from the violence there seems to be a yearning for a cultural renaissance here, and the cartoon arts benefit from that. Algerians like a strange mix of Arabic manga and euro-style storytelling comics, but the star cartoonists are political cartoonists. The most famous cartoonist here is Ali Dilem, the cartoonist for the French language newspaper “Liberte.”
Algerian cartoonists struggle under pressure from the government. I’m told that Ali Dilem, who now lives outside of Algeria, faces 25 lawsuits from government officials he has insulted in his cartoons. The threat of civil suits may keep some cartoonists from criticizing the government, but the cartoonists I met seemed eager to continue pushing the limits. They were all very interested in what the limits were for American political cartoonists, expecting that we had similar problems with the government.
There was an exhibition of the work of a famed Algerian cartoonist named “Slim,” who has drawn socially conscious newspaper comic strips for decades here, and saw some of his cartoonist colleagues killed in the violence of the 1990′s. Slim likes making fun of Algerian women who wear veils; he draws the veils much like the beak of a bird, and has the women walk around looking like ducks.
Most women here dress like Europeans. Â I’m told that the teenage girls, when they want to rebel and annoy their parents, will often take to wearing the veil ““ which is quite disturbing to parents who rebelled against their own parents to reject the veil.
Le Hic is another star political cartoonist I met here; he draws in a more traditional political cartoon panel style for the big French language daily L’Expression, and we hope to add him to our site soon.
I had a great time here with a cartoonist named “Baki” who draws for the huge Arabic language daily, “The Sunrise,” which has a circulation of 850,000. Baki and I went to a school for troubled children and drew a mural on a big wall on the street, which the children quickly jumped in to paint. It was pretty crazy, and I had a lot of great photos of the event ““ before I lost my camera. Very frustrating. I was planning on posting a lot of photos in the blog. Baki and I drew a cartoon together for his newspaper and I toured their offices. I was impressed. It looks like newspapers are still thriving here.
The Festival invited cartoonists from all over the world to attend; names I’d never heard of from strange places, and from all over Africa. In many countries, editorial cartoonists are still the most important cartoonists, and there were quite a few editorial cartoonists here ““ a candy store for me. I may have a few exotic cartoonists to add to the site soon. I met up with my cartoonist buddy, Tayo, from West Africa, who will also probably be blogging about the Festival. That’s me with Tayo at the right, before I lost my camera. The festival was really very nice.
My first event at the comics festival was a panel discussion about “Comics and Cinema.” I don’t really know why they wanted me to talk about that, since I don’t work in the entertainment industry, but from their perspective, I live in Hollywood and I used to work for the Muppets, so what the heck. I’ll talk about anything. It turned out to be pretty funny. I showed up when the seminar was scheduled to start, and there was no one there ““ I thought I was in the wrong place. No. Everyone shows up late here; they started filtering in a half hour later. Another cartoonist pontificated the whole time in French and I ended up not saying much at all.
I gave another seminar all by myself, about my own cartoons and political cartoons in America. This one went pretty well, but was also a funny Algerian experience. My translator apparently didn’t please the crowd, who understood my English well enough to know that they didn’t like the translation, calling out their objections. I said that the audience for our web site, like most Americans, is not very interested in cartoons about events around the world, and is more interested in celebrities. I pointed out that Janet Jackson’s boob was the most popular thing ever on my web site site. The translator couldn’t bring himself to say, “boob,” leading a young cartoonist in the audience to draw the cartoon below.
Here’s another take on my translator, given to me by a cartoonist in the audience.
A question I got a lot was, “Have you drawn any cartoons about Algeria?” I haven’t. It is hard to think of when Algeria was in the headlines in America. The only time I ever read about Algeria is when Algerian President Bouteflika is quietly hanging with his more vocal buddies Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, affirming their coalition against evil America.
President Bouteflika won re-election recently with an unbelievable 90% of the vote. One Algerian told me that even the Prophet Muhammad himself couldn’t really get 90% of the vote.
Maybe I’ll draw a cartoon about Algeria. We’ll see.
The festival was really very nice and I should thank the organizers for inviting me. It was great fun.
Next I’ll be doing a couple of workshops in Cairo, then I’m off to Jerusalem and a session with Palestinian cartoonists in the West Bank city of Ramallah.