This Sharp-Tongued 'Shoeshine' Keeps the Mighty on Their Toes

Helping Colombians Laugh

It was high campaign season during Colombia's presidential race last year. Andrs Pastrana and the two other candidates, live on television, sat in a row as a toothless character dressed in ragged clothes approached them and, one by one, began to polish their shoes.

Squatting at the feet of independent candidate Noem Sanin, he blurted out, "But, Ma'am, don't you get tired of talking the same nonsense day after day?"

The candidates had agreed to the "roast." Ms. Sanin's response was roundabout, in the manner of many politicians. Still, it was not the sort of treatment you might expect.

But this is no ordinary shoeshine. He's Jaime Garzn, Colombia's most popular humorist - himself a regional mayor, in Sumapaz, in the mid-1980s.

Mr. Garzn has attained a rare neutral status in the midst of Colombia's fractured war. A comedian who punctures balloons on all sides of issues, he's been able to use his position to help broker talks between rebels and local officials in the hills near the capital.

COLOMBIA'S rough-and-tumble politics, powerful drug cartels, and reputation for corruption could make it a tough place for a comic. It's not always safe to criticize. But everyone is expected to take a joke.

"There's a biography of Charlie Chaplin where he says, 'If you're going to tell the truth, you'd better make them laugh - otherwise they'll kill you,' " says Garzn, barreling though Bogot's downtown. He stops at a traffic light alongside a motorcycle courier.

"Where ya goin'?" asks Garzn, who then tears away from the light as the biker's face begins to register that the joker in the Jeep is that shoeshine guy from the 12 o'clock news. Perhaps no one has succeeded as well as Garzn in making Colombians laugh through hard truths.

"Colombians are cruel in their sense of humor," he explains. "It eases the pain of the situation."

During the scandal-ridden administration of Ernesto Samper, which ended in August, Garzn mounted a farcical "news" program that helped the government decide to push through new regulations for TV news. Many saw these as a direct attack on the company that produced Garzn's QWAK News.

"QWAK News was all lies, but we told the truth," says Garzn, relishing the irony. While the show ran afoul of many powerful figures, Garzn never worried much about repercussions.

"It hasn't caused much trouble, except for a few threats, which is normal here," says Garzn, cutting across two lanes of traffic. The comic is late for a lunch date with congressman and former guerrilla commander Antonio Navarro.

"Fighting with a comic looks bad. If they make a big fuss sometimes I'll get them again and they look even worse," says Garzn. He adds that the allegations he joked about were always backed up by facts.

One of Garzn's favorite targets was then-US Ambassador Myles Frechette. As the US started getting tough with Mr. Samper in 1995, Mr. Frechette became controversial here. Garzn invited the ambassador to a party and asked him how he would react to being parodied. "I said OK, as long as he hit everybody equally hard, and he sure did," says Frechette from Washington.

Since QWAK ended last year, Garzn has reappeared as the shoeshine man who asks sharp questions. He's chatted with ex-presidents, celebrities, even Nobel laureate writer Gabriel Garca Mrquez.

Garzon also writes a more serious column for the magazine Cambio. But he has no intention of giving up political humor. "I think [it] can be constructive," says Garzn as he pulls up to Mr. Navarro's house.

"Don't worry, I won't be long," he adds, flashing a smile. "I have to shine Miss Colombia's shoes at 3 o'clock."

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