Thecountry would do well to reflect on the 10-year anniversary of themurder of comedian Jaime Garzon, who dared to build national optimismon a foundation of piercingly honest humor.
Inthe 1990’s, Colombia was in dire need of a laugh. Decades of escalatingviolence had dehumanized the country. Pessimism, repression andresignation had virtually silenced honest political discourse. Most ofthe country’s leaders were inactive, confused, corrupt and abusive andfew people had the power or courage to hold them accountable.
JaimeGarzon, a comedian with big dreams and the country’s working class inhis heart, challenged this fear and pessimism with a uniquely Colombianand remarkably brave brand of humor.
Ofhis countless memorable characters, shoe shiner Heriberto de la Calleis perhaps the most dear to Garzon’s fans. Heriberto was illiterate andconfused by Colombia’s chaotic history and politics, but hiskind-heartedness and innocence shed light on the gravity of thecountry’s problems and even showed the country a way forward.
Heriberto’sharmless exterior and immense popularity led many national leaders toaccept an offer for a shoeshine and informal interview. By askingsimple, naïve questions, heastutely cornered national figures into showing all their stupidity,self-importance, selfishness and distance from the Colombian people.
Heribertoadded a human touch to the distant, dehumanized world of Colombianpolitics and served as the people’s ambassador to the political class.Nobody spoke the truth more directly and simply than Heriberto. Nobodyshowed more clearly Colombians’ ability to remain happy despite theabsurdity and brutality of their daily lives.
Inone particularly chilling interview, Heriberto asked journalist AlfredoMolano about life under paramilitary threats. Molano’s description ofhis own fear and isolation was unusually honest for Colombiantelevision. Rarely did the national TV audience get a similar chance tounderstand the political and emotional cost of paramilitary repression.
Ofcourse, Jaime Garzon himself received threats during much of his careerand was murdered by the AUC in 1999 for attempting to facilitate therelease of hostages held by guerrillas. Allegedly, in a display of hisusual courage and decency, Garzon tried to schedule a meeting withparamilitary leader Carlos Castaño shortly before his assassination todiscuss death threats he had received.
On the 10thyear anniversary of Garzon’s murder, it is important to recognize hiscomedic talent. Indeed, there has not been a humorist of Garzon’shonesty and courage in the past 10 years.
ButColombians should also reflect on the state of his dream and legacy.More than simply making jokes, Garzon hoped for a better Colombia whenthe country as a whole had abandoned hope. He spoke truth to power whenit was dangerous to speak the truth and virtually impossible to speakhonestly to those in power.
Inessence, his humor was intended to reinvigorate the national politicaldialogue with a touch of genuine Colombian humanity and optimism.Sadly, since his death, the country seems to have moved in the exactopposite direction.
Indeed,ten years later, Garzon’s dream is all but dead. Colombia’s conflictrages on and its politics are as stagnant and dirty as ever, virtuallydevoid of any true dialogue. Journalists, opposition leaders and humanrights defenders remain targets of violence while the truth – about DASwiretaps, parapolitics, corruption in Congress, and countless otherurgent issues – is frustratingly elusive.
So,as we approach many important anniversaries for Colombia, let the tenthanniversary of Garzon’s assassination be a reminder that the countrydeserves – and should strive for – honest leadership and a healthierdemocracy. Let us honor Jaime’s life and work by dreaming as big as hedid, by asking more of our leadership and by never losing sight of ourcommon humanity.