She's Redefining the Tone of Latin America’s Political Conversation
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because María Paulina Baena is speaking out in a country where violence is used to silence the truth.
By Wesley Tomaselli
Just before a shoot, María Paulina Baena loosens her tie and lights up a Marlboro outside the offices at El Espectador, one of Colombia’s main newspapers. “I’m not nervous now, but I will be,” the 26-year-old tells OZY. With no formal training as an actor, she performs “on intuition. It’s all spontaneous.” Dressed in a Charlie Chaplin–style black suit anchored by Adidas sneakers, Baena later settles in at her desk, fixes her hair and hunches over a gigantic black microphone on the set of La Pulla, a sort of Latin American Young Turks. Baena is the web series’ comical, irreverent talking head backed up by a team of four writers, fellow staffers at the newspaper, who gather to skewer and satirize the news of the day.
Minutes into a quick line review, Baena is already doubled over, laughing. “This is such a killer script. I’m actually kind of scared,” she says. Seconds later, she’s deadpan and they’re rolling.
In a world weary of “post-truth” and “fake news,” Baena and her team of writer-producers are in a class of their own. La Pulla (The Jab) is black humor and hilarious. But it also serves up some of the most incisive and respected political commentary anywhere in Colombia. With a following of some 202,000 subscribers, the show takes on everyone and everything — from gay rights to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to why people kill each other so often in Latin America. If someone in politics pisses off Baena and her team — say, a member of congress flip-flops on health care — you can count on her to pop up on social media with a 4–5 minute YouTube video tearing that person apart. No one gets spared.
Doing satire in this country with a take-no-prisoners approach is risky.
“María Paulina found a special voice that the country needs,” says radio personality and commentator Santiago Rivas, a seasoned polemicist himself who’s worked closely with Baena.
Rivas calls Baena “brave.” That’s because doing satire in this country with a take-no-prisoners approach is risky. Colombia’s convulsive political history is filled with frightening examples of intolerance for what Baena is doing. The office La Pulla uses to film in belongs to El Espectador’s publisher, Fidel Cano — no stranger to violence intended to quash criticism. In response to the paper’s investigations into Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel in the 1980s, assassins murdered Cano’s uncle, the publisher at the time, in 1986. Three years later, narcos bombed and destroyed El Espectador’s Bogotá offices. And in 1999, political satirist and peace activist Jaime Garzón was murdered by Colombia’s paramilitaries.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 47 reporters were killed in Colombia between 1992 and 2016. That’s more than Mexico or Brazil for the same 24-year period, and it makes Colombia one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to do their work. Baena’s brand of criticism isn’t too far from what her colleagues were doing 30 years ago when her paper’s publisher was gunned down. “People ask me if I’ve received threats, and I don’t know why, but I haven’t,” she says. Rivas says he believes the assassinations of activists and journalists in recent decades have made Colombia even less tolerant of political satire or any form of criticism of the status quo.
If slightly paranoid at times, Baena is mostly unfazed. Since launching in March 2016, the show takes on the most urgent issues facing Colombia and the rest of the world: the environment, drugs, gender issues, the role of church and state and, of course, the paradoxes of war and peace. At times more actress than critic, Baena breaks from her journalist’s neutral tone and appeals to millennials’ hunger for smart, visceral commentary. Preproduction, the La Pulla team is feverishly swapping ideas on Slack. Baena says, “Whatever’s really making us spew venom” guides the script-writing, and each show is the product of about 30 hours of collaborative effort. The secret sauce? “There’s no hierarchy. There’s no boss,” says Baena. “It’s a group based on an organic, controlled anarchy … an editor has never had to intervene.”
In her off hours, zooming through Bogotá on her scooter, Baena reminisces about growing up as a zookeeper’s daughter who “always had a repertoire of, like, 50 jokes at a time” in school. When she enrolled in university for journalism, being a reporter was synonymous with having a pretty face. But being just a pretty face wasn’t for Baena. Hired by El Espectador right out of university, she started as a print reporter and got picked as the show’s talking head from an audition. Looking ahead, she wants to continue developing La Pulla — taking it as far as it goes while considering how to reinvent herself, and the format.
But not everyone’s a fan of Baena’s subversive commentary. Colombian political analyst Hector Hurtatis tells OZY, “Unfortunately this is a very sexist country. There are conservative sectors of society that attack you for being a woman. There’s a mentality out there that thinks of her as too aggressive.” Sure, people troll Baena for being “condescending” and for “talking down” to her audience. But, as Hurtatis points out, “a lot of people also like her for that tone.”
For a 26-year-old, Baena is surprisingly chill about her emerging role as polemicist, speaking out against the country’s most powerful personalities. At the garage entrance to her offices in the north of Bogotá, I watch as a man stops an SUV and scours it with the help of a German shepherd. “What are you looking for?” I ask. The voice behind the impenetrable black sunglasses says flatly: “Explosives.” In a blunt contrast to Baena’s sarcasm, this was no joke.