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!