The Comic Who Wants to End the Nation-State
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because comedians are challenging broken politics around the world.
By Wesley Tomaselli
The world’s colonizing powers once fussed over how to slice up their empires into brand new nation-states that would bloom into beautiful, modern democracies.
But some figures in the post-colonial world say they are fed up with the ugly realities that curdle beneath their nation-states’ sparkling constitutions. Santiago Rivas Camargo is one of them. This Colombian comic wants to end Latin America’s defective nation-states once and for all.
“For me, countries don’t make sense,” says 37-year-old Rivas, a bearded, bowling ball of a man who friends say floats like a feather despite his size. “I think everywhere you look countries are going through a crisis of meaning. OK, maybe Sweden shouldn’t have to go. But in Latin America? Come on, there are some countries that just didn’t work out.”
It’s the dumbest thing to try to solve the problem of power by becoming powerful.
Around the world, nation-states harboring liberal democracies are getting challenged by comedy. In Ukraine, voters picked 41-year-old comedian Volodymyr Zelensky to be their president. A decade after founding Italy’s Five Star Movement, comic Beppe Grillo is growing closer to pulling Italy out of the Eurozone. In other cases, comedy is the vessel for politics, given how many Americans have gotten their news in recent years from The Daily Show. “It’s not hard to understand why a comedian would be in political fashion at the present populist moment,” writes Tej Parikh for Foreign Policy. “First, they tend to reject the values and authority of the existing power establishment — whatever shape that establishment might take.”
But Rivas isn’t going after the establishment as much as he is taking aim at his fellow citizens’ assumptions of how a nation-state should work. “Colombia is like a battered woman who works all day for very little money to provide for her family … then she wakes up with a black eye,” he writes in his most recent book, Acaba Colombia, explaining with searing irreverence why Colombians should end Colombia. Thing is, as Rivas explains, Colombia always decides to stay and inhabit a vicious circle of abuse instead of embracing true change.
And in contrast to some comics-turned-politicians, Rivas rails against populism. “Populism all over the world needs authoritarianism to give itself value. The truth is that these populists are authoritarian figures that break with classical liberalism,” says Rivas. “I think comics are necessary around the world. But all this showmanship? You’ve got to be very careful with that, and you’ve got to be able to tell when humor is linked to the truth and when it isn’t.”
Growing up in Bogotá, Rivas dressed in all black and fought with his Catholic boys’ school over its ultraconservative codes. His family ran a business making crossword puzzles, letter soups and mazes for some of Colombia’s national newspapers. Rivas broke away to study art at the National University in Bogotá. His friend Javier Beltrán recalls Rivas’ fear of flying insects (butterflies petrify him), applauds his love for scotch (especially Glenfiddich) and worries about the comic’s cardiovascular system. “He doesn’t know how to say no,” sighs Beltrán. “He’s always going 100 miles an hour. I fear a heart attack.”
But it appears that Rivas has one speed only. By the time he was in his early 30s, the comic was hosting a television show, teaching youngsters the art of collage and DJing for a top-secret circuit of underground music festivals called La Recontra. Poised as an alternative to party venues blaring Colombian folk and plain vanilla pop music, the group’s mantra is ‘Celebrate and Resist.’ To this day, he still plays shows around Bogotá into the depths of the night.
Then, suddenly, the music stopped and Rivas’ world flipped upside-down. In 2018, a new public television director named Juan Pablo Bieri pulled Rivas’ long-running show The Pure Criollos off the air. “He’s got no idea what he’s saying,” Bieri said at the time. “He’s making fun of the same government that feeds him, that pays his salary.”
It backfired. Accusations of censorship boiled, forcing Bieri to resign. But the episode cut deep for Rivas — whose main platform now is satire show Los Incorregibles on a YouTube channel called SHOCK — and he felt compelled to stop what he perceives as a general move against free speech by the current administration. Together with a group of lawyers and activists, the comic is suing the government for internet and communications legislation they claim violates the constitution.
It could plunge him into the political arena, thinks Omar Rincón, a television critic and columnist who has observed Rivas’ rise. “Politics is like sex; it’s like losing your virginity. You didn’t exactly know what you were getting yourself into, and then you did a little bit of it without realizing what you’re doing, and you like it,” explains Rincón. “Democracies need to be able to self-criticize and look at themselves in the mirror. And Colombian politics needs political humor.”
That said, Rivas has just barely penetrated Bogotá’s political sphere, observes Rincón. His satire still weighs heavier than his politics at this point. As Colombia heads into midterm elections this year, Rivas wrestled with running but finally rejected an offer to run for office under a left-wing party. “It’s the dumbest thing to try to solve the problem of power by becoming powerful,” he says.
That’s partly why Rivas is drumming up ideas for what he calls “a movement, a party … I think there are points on which lots of people agree, and I think you could build a lot of consensus around that.” Basic human rights and the preservation of liberties top his list. In Colombia and other parts of Latin America, Rivas sees citizens giving up their freedoms in exchange for security and burdensome taxation that ultimately produces little tangible results.
“A long-term project doesn’t need me or anything, specifically. I would hope that my audience would see it that way,” says Rivas. “That would be the opposite of authoritarianism.”