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Satire or Death! (and pardon the redundancy)

Translation by Giovanna Aguilar, Candesco Productions

I begin this speech with an apology because I thought this event would take place at Cooper Union’s The Foundation building, a New York City landmark overflowing with ghosts, unlike this newer building. So for the beginning of my speech, correct your reference point to where those ghosts reside and follow them as they cross the street to join us this afternoon.

And now I will read my speech that begins rather inappropriately: Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues, the public and public in general: It is challenging for me, a history aficionado to speak in a room resonating with so much legacy, a building still inhabited with the spirits of Lincoln, Grant, Teddy Roosevelt.  Or even Barack Obama, who will live for a long time but whom we can imagine floating here into eternity. Yet it is even more challenging for any humorist to speak here , the place that introduced to New York audiences the patron saint of modern humorists, Samuel Clemens, better known by his pseudonym Mark Twain. Additionally, I fear it is not easy to deliver a speech in the company of ghost of Tom Sawyer, who elucidated that “common sense is very uncommon.” I repeat: Satire. Politics. Latin America.

Because no matter how much political satire evolves in our continent, it will always be a species on the verge of extinction. And it is not due to a lack of material to nourish our satire. Quite the opposite. From the Rio Grande to Patagonia, there has always been an abundance of corrupt politicians and autocracies, from the left and right, and even the ambidextrous who are eager to seize an opportunity. (I remind you that this building still echoes the speeches of the late Hugo Chavez, reincarnated in the little bird Maduro and the living spirit of the slanderer Evo Morales the great slanderer of chickens). This is our America—a continent where we hope our trains could be as dependable as our political scandals; a continent where our presidents are either so idiotic to evoke our bouts of laugher or are so deceitful to drive us to tears; a continent where our parliaments are crammed with all kinds incompetents that we envy Caligula’s appointment of his horse to the senate. In our America, the presidency confuses public funds for a personal ATM. Our leaders do not only embezzle public funds for personal gain, but also hand over power to a brother, wife or the dumbest of his drivers. You ask why we have not produced a plethora of political satire? How can our continent—afflicted by a wave of military coups, animated dictatorships and a history of genocides—cradle of monsters as original as narco-guerrillas and express kidnappers—not be the undisputed world champion of political satire?

It certainly is not because of a lack of raw material that Latin America’s political satire is not basking in greater prestige. Rather it is due to an overabundance of negative stimuli. Persistent political instability and demagoguery to cover up abusive power make satire one of the most vulnerable professions in the continent. Meanwhile in the Western world, satirists have the right to exercise freedom of expression. In our countries, however, freedom of expression is usually reserved to those in power and their supporters. I should remind you about how here in the United States even the president makes fun of himself to entertain the press once a year. And about the annual Mark Twain Prize awarded to a humorist during a tribute ceremony in front of her colleagues and the president. However, in our countries the best satirists feel fortunate if they have not been issued an arrest warrant that year. That reminds me of an interview conducted with that little great writer Augusto Monterroso. When this exiled and occasional political satirist was asked why Latin American humorists have to approach politics differently from other intellectuals such as Bertrand Russell, he responded that: «In England and the United States Russell’s ideas could be pursued but not his testicles.” He added that unlike in Latin America “the police are not in the pursuit of ideas but rather are relentless to tear off a man’s testicles.”

This is not a mere assumption in Latin America where we have a martyr, Colombian humorist Jaime Garzon, who was assassinated in 1999 by paramilitary forces in an apparent collusion with the armed forces of his country. And the list of humorists imprisoned, persecuted or driven into exile is much longer than that of politicians who have been charged with the very crimes these comedians have dared to denounce.

But it is not just about the violence inflicted upon them. Ultimately, humorists are exposed to the imminent threat of becoming a historical hero in order for their work to be valued. Moreover, satire is neither considered a viable job nor much less art form. Satire is a hobby to be battered or tolerated, reluctantly.

Whoever is in search of fame or fortune should not pursue this profession; it does not garner the compensation or respect it deserves. In Latin American, where societal hierarchies are artificial and oppressive, political humor can be a grave insult. That overly inflated, thin-skinned power resorts to ceremonious rhetoric and posturing to counter what it perceives to be a mortal threat to not be taken seriously. The opposition is not different from those in power. They too do not value satire unless it is directed toward its rival. Partly because their greatest aspiration is to someday assume the same artificial and inflated role of authority as their rival.

Even the most disinterested opposition believes that any mockery of a power will not only undermine whom they may oppose successfully but also their very own resistance.

Ultimately what happens to politics in our America is that it replicates our forced yet fragile cultural hierarchies that are impenetrable by humorists or jesters. If the most esteemed poetic voices live or die in the shadows of our countries, what can we expect of those working in less serious matters than those describing the sunset? In Latin America, we recognize that the arts is as fragile in our own republic as in others, continually playing a balancing act against the erratic moves of our residents. But I ask: Isn’t satire really but the impassioned dance of our spirit against the status quo?

On the other hand and unlike scientists, humorists and caricaturists cannot even take solace in their pursuit of the very truth they speak ad nauseam about because, in fact, it is in full view for all to see. And talking about truths, we must look at the nakedness of the king. While his sycophants laud over the lavishly adorned velvet suit covering the body of power, his opponents question the impropriety of using the kingdom’s wealth to pay for it. Here we find satire’s persistent to utter what all see but do not dare to mention: that despite what the king says he is actually rubbing his private parts, quite vulgarly, in our faces for public exhibition.

All of the above may explain why Latin America, a culture with notable satirists as Cervantes and Quevedo, has relatively few well known artists and writers exclusively dedicated to political satire. It is true that there is not much opportunities for money or glory in that business. Because unlike wine, political satire does not improve over time, but rather it ages as fast and poorly as alcoholics.

Now comes the moment in speech when all that I previously discussed becomes personal, like my memory of the early 90s when I set out with a couple of friends to create a presentation of a Cuban caricaturist of the1930s, the great Eduardo Abela and his most famous character, Bobo. Apparently, the false naïveté with which Bobo mocked the dictator of the 1930s proved to be more threatening and challenging to the censors of the 1990s’ dictator. Like the caricature of a waiter confronting Bobo to ask why he always answers “nothing” when asked what he would like to order that prompted Bobo to respond with another question: “So, I cannot say ‘nothing’ here?” Fortunately at the that time censors went after our ideas not our testicles.

I do not attempt to discredit Latin American political satire with what I have shared. Quite the contrary, I hope satirists will finally receive overdue recognition for their contributions by exposing the extremely difficult and risky circumstances they confront. Because not only satirists must endure violence or its threat from those in power, but also mistrust from opposition and disdain from intellectuals, while struggling with their own doubts. Therefore, it is not surprising that the most prolific satires are from the audio-visual world, where the least cultural biases exist – – from caricatures to comedy to pop music and shows on TV and Youtube.

From the magnificent and seminal engravings of Mexican Jose Guadalupe Posada, playful historical publications such as those from Brazilian Topaze, Chile’s La Chiva, Argentine Caras y Caretas, Cuban comic Policy to philosophical songs of Argentine Facundo Cabral, the cultured and playful Les Luthiers, the sharp and relaxed drawing of Quino and his compatriots Roberto Fontanarrosa, and whoever created the one pointing to a priest saying: “He was of of those who were not silent to the crimes of a dictatorship.» «What did he say?» asked a speaker. «He said, ‘There must be a reason.'»

I also recognize my bias toward wacky satire like in the songs and plays of Leo Maslíah and the irreverent Chilean humor in The Clinic, or poems of the Venezuelan Aquiles Nazoa narrated. Also included are the internationally acclaimed and awarded caricaturists Pedro Molina and Manuel Guillen of Nicaragua, Kemchs and Naranjo of Mexico, or the Cuban Osmani Simanca, Eduardo Abela (grandson), Boligán, Ares and Abuja. Or that of Ecuadorian Bonil who confronts his adversaries in his country’s courts and within the insanity of a government that has one of the most hilarious constitutions in the world. And those on television-or pocket TV- YouTube, I confess my utter weakness for the comedy of Argentine Diego Capusotto, the Venezuelans of “the Presidential Island» or the Brazilians Porta dos fundos – “Backdoor.”

While written satire is relatively limited compared to audiovisual productions, it remains a respectable medium. I think of the Venezuelan Miguel Otero Silva and his compatriot Otrova Gums, author of books like «The baddest man in the world» and the phrase «Public opinion is nothing more than private opinion turned into an epidemic.» I think of the Mexican Jorge Ibargüengoitia and the Argentine Copi and (again) Fontanarrosa, an illustrator and writer.

I must not forget one of the most prolific satirists of our continent, the Colombian Daniel Samper whose fate took an ironic turn when is brother became president.

But I admit to be tempted by the infrequent, rare yet subtle satire of our profession. I think of Monterroso’s banana satires of «Mr. Taylor” or García Márquez’s «Blancaman the good one, seller of miracles” or specific moments of the Patriarch.”

I think of Julio Cortázar in «With legitimate pride,” in Juan Jose Arreola’s «The prodigious milligram» and «The Switchman,” in Virgilio Piñera’s «Servants» and «Again Louis XIV,” or in Vargas Llosa’s “Captain Pantoja and the Special Services.”

But when we talk about political satire, you must allow me a moment of chauvinism. Do not forget that Cuba in its 114 years as an independent nation has had proportionately more years of dictatorship than any other country in Latin America. We can say that Cuba’s history for the past two centuries has been marked by long periods of autocracy with fleeting instances of democracy. In any corner of the continent, Cubans can proclaim themselves experts in dystopias, prophets of totalitarianism, and gurus of social armageddon. Thus, we have unwittingly become experts in the effects that ideals and social resentment can have on a people distracted from their civic duties and in almost every community.

(And the demolishing and unanimous damage produced by certain established regimes open the window to humor, like Venezuelans who have made the evolutionary leap from the TV show «Welcome» to “the Presidential Island,” cartoonists as Rayma or «bipolar Chiguire»).

Referring to Cuba, I already mentioned Eduardo Abela whose spark illuminated the night machadista, but I could also talk about the Cuban -Puerto Rican Pablo de la Torriente Brau, who came to this very city to seek refuge from autocracy and wrote one of the most savage satires against war in our language.  But it had to be one the most extensive and perfect of Latin American dictatorships, now accepted as part of the continental landscape like the Andes or the Amazons, that has spawned one of the most notable satirical artists known south of the Bravo River. We can mention those champions of clever humorists who published as Zigzag, Sable, Pitirre, DDT, Hyena Sad, Coven, the radio program of Ramon or the master of literary satire Hector Zumbado, who recently died. But hose suppressed publications’ shrewdness was futile when the master Zumbado suffered a suspicious accident that forever hindered his ability to speak or write.  Also included is the powerful theater movement that began with the likes of Sign of Humor, firewood Humor, Sala-Manca, We-Y-Other, Oñondivepa, Live Tongue Viva and many others whose entry into satire was met with good fortune leading to popular theater and television characters like Mentepollo island, the Bacán or Panfilo. (It is not by chance that Barack Obama, during his famous visit to Havana, would choose to meet with humorist Pánfilo instead of the less affable elder. 

However, it is often in those desolate moments of freedom during exile when national satire is at its best. From the political caricatures of Prohias, creator of the famous series of Spy vs Spy and anthropological humor that storyteller who was Guillermo Alvarez Guedes to Ramón Fernández Larrea’s letters to a litany of others including Garricha who recently said, ”nobody knows what they have until Lauzán draws it.”

Or I can refer to many of the humorists mentioned in the previous paragraph who have had drink salt water to keep creating despite not having nation or companion who understand them. Anyone who hears so much praise for Cuban humorists must think: «Yes, the dictatorship remains despite so much satire.» As if the duty of satire is to overthrow governments. No, it never has been. I do not know of any caricature that has provoked the fall of a government anywhere in the world. If it did happen, it was by pure accident because that is not satire’s purpose.

We must acknowledge Borges, who so often was wrong about politics yet as many times was on point, when he said that «Dictatorships foster oppression, dictatorships foster servitude, dictatorships foster cruelty; more abominable is the fact that they foster idiocy. To fight against those sad monotonies is one of the many duties of writers » And the first duty of satirist, I would add. Of course, those were different times. Now it is understood that violence is not always needed to arrive and stay in power. There is no need to exterminate entire populations if their neurons can be massacred. While social techniques have changed the idiocy remains the same.

In any case, the duty of satire is to be combat those sad monotonies that require us to relinquish our obligation as thinking beings. Those monotonies always challenging our common sense to accept that two plus two equals five. Or that eternal redemption can be achieved with the arrival of certain political power. Prior discussion was about the simple and tough job that political satire has in denouncing naked power. But that is not the most important one. It is more important to defend ourselves against stupidity and meaninglessness resulting from political passions. There is no point for us to attack what seems unfair and ridiculous if we cannot defend and preserve our common sense, which allows us to continually prove who we really are and who we aspire to be. It is common sense that enables us to understand each other despite our inevitable differences. Common sense also reminds us that while our classification as homo sapiens may be exaggerated, we should never stop aspiring to legitimize it.

Thank you very much.

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