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UPDATE REGARDING COVID-19: Please note that the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) is not a grantmaking program and is unable to assist artists financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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¡El Arte no Calla! - Episode 2 of our new podcast in Spanish

El Arte no Calla!,” a new monthly Spanish-language podcast of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), explores art, freedom of expression, and human rights in Latin America. In each episode, ARC's Latin America Representative Alessandro Zagato will invite a different guest to help analyze the varying states of artistic freedom in Latin America and the violations that artists and activists are suffering in the region.

In our second episode, Alessandro discusses art and activism in Colombia with Juan David Arenas, director of the magazine and cultural platform Cartel Urbano. Along with mass protests that took place last November, there has been a wave of repression and censorship in Colombia, now exacerbated by the presence of the coronavirus. As in many countries around the world, the government has exploited this situation to calm the waters and silence critical voices. In November, Cartel Urbano was raided by police forces, along with other arts organizations and collectives, for having made the work of critical dissident artists visible.

You can listen to episode two, "Cultura Critica, Represión y COVID-19 en Colombia con Cartel Urbano,"* below or read on for an English transcript.

If you want to listen to episode one, you can do so here.

Courtesy of Cartel Urbano

Episode 2: Critical Culture, Repression, and COVID-19 in Colombia with Cartel Urbano

Alessandro: In November there was a strong protest movement in Colombia. What is the current situation in the country?

Juan Davíd Arenas (Cartel Urbano): On November 21, a great movement started here in Colombia. A general strike was called, which led to a week of marches, demonstrations, and activism on the streets. There is widespread discontent in Colombian society, which I think this government has to deal with but which has been brewing and growing for many years. We are a society that in the last 50 years has experienced an armed conflict, and this conflict has silenced free expression due to strong social polarization.

Then, a slightly more free citizenry was awakened, a bit more independent from traditional political parties. They are the ones who make up the great 21N movement, which mainly engages the health and education sectors and addresses very deep human rights problems that exist in this country. There is, for instance, a very high mortality rate of social activists. After the peace process [in 2016], we hoped that these activist leaders, who mainly represent marginal voices, could have more room in the public discussion, but this did not happen. This situation led to the growth of a movement similar to a wave of others in other Latin American countries, like Chile and Mexico, in which issues of gender violence converged with others, and many independent activists woke up. Let's say that such movement growth started to develop, and the government attempted to delay it through a strategy that they called “national dialogue.” However, people did not accept this - they needed more solutions and less conversation. Finally, we made it to the end of the year, and then we entered into this health crisis emergency, which is erasing any other priority now.

A: It is true, and this is happening globally. We see that there are governments that are taking advantage of the situation to implement repressive measures and to regulate social life. Do you think that the Colombian government has also taken advantage of this situation in order to regulate the 21N movement and social protest?

J: Let's just say that the pandemic plays right into the hands of the government because this is the perfect excuse to sideline any other discussion. Since we have a health emergency so big that we are not prepared to face it, the government can avoid addressing all its other shortcomings.

Courtesy of Cartel Urbano

A: Juan, amid all of this, Cartel Urbano’s offices were raided in November. It was a very bad incident and clearly a message against cultural organizations and people who carry out critical artistic activity. What can you tell us about this event?

J: Yes, it was a very scary and unfortunate event. The context is that after the peace process [in 2016], a far-right government that doesn’t agree with the peace process took power. Additionally, his government put up a facade that it is promoting a so-called “orange economy,” which is supposed to support the cultural and creative sector. However, this policy is actually a strategy to control and dominate culture.

So, this government was bothered by our counter-cultural journalism and the fact that we are opposing this “orange economy” policy of cultural commodification. We have been working with cultural activist organizations that also oppose this policy, and we support forms of artistic expression that show identities and realities outside of those imposed by the culture of spectacle and entertainment.

What happened [prior to the raid] is that we published several publications that this government did not like. So they decided to intimidate us by raiding our facilities. What they were trying to do was to connect us with terrorist groups. This attack clearly highlights the transformative power that culture has. The discourses and discussions that art generates allow us to confront the profound problems of our reality, and this is what the government wants to avoid. They also raided some groups and organizations that we had been collaborating with. They raided a group called “La Otra Danza,” which takes action through their performances, and a group called “Puro Veneno,” which carries out artistic interventions addressing the murders carried out by military forces.

A: I find what you said about the “orange policy” or economy very interesting. Does this mean that the government presents themselves as culture promoters, but in reality, they are repressing freedom of expression?

J: Exactly. They say they want to promote cultural development, but in reality, they are limiting freedom of expression. You cannot promote creativity by limiting the possibilities of expressing yourself. Culture is not only about entertainment and diversion. It is also from the margins of this culture of entertainment that we can understand social problems and realities; it is there that people push against power. The government does not understand that truly promoting cultural development means supporting all cultural creators. 

Courtesy of Cartel Urbano

A: After this attack, was there a solidarity movement with the affected organizations? How did you take care of each other and respond?

J: We received immense support and solidarity from two sectors. Firstly, from independent creators. Cartel Urbano has always been the home of those creators, amplifying their projects and artistic voices. Secondly, we also received a lot of support from the press. In Colombia, the issue of freedom of expression has always been oriented only towards the press – in terms of press freedom. But freedom of expression also encompasses freedom of artistic expression. However, it is still not well understood here, and there is still a way to go for people to understand the importance of freedom of artistic expression in this authoritarian context.

A: And of course, in the context of this pandemic, independent organizations and creators who do not rely on a stable wage are greatly affected. In many countries, there is a process of articulation for these cultural organizations, a process of reflection on a situation of precariousness that might become extended and repeated.

J: It is a natural response from a sector that has always been forgotten. Culture was never seen as a priority, and this health emergency shows that health, education, and culture all play a very important role in society. And I think that the articulation that is taking place right now between independent actors, who needed to get to know each other, begin a dialogue, and be represented, is very valuable and will bear fruit in the future.

A: How is Cartel Urbano working during the pandemic? How has your work changed, and are there any future projects that you would like to talk to us about?

J: Cultural workers, artist collectives, and independent creators are severely affected by this pandemic. The future is so uncertain, so we accelerated several projects that we were keeping saved. For example, we are working on our project "Creole Cretors," which is basically a platform that seeks to strengthen and expand income alternatives for creators. We also believe that independent artists need channels to spread and commercialize their work, so we started to generate different formats and contents. Before, cultural events were based on personal interaction. Now, we need to reinvent everything from remote spaces – and we must also support those spaces that are now having a hard time.

*Disclaimer: Our current CMS does not accommodate accents on the letter "i." We apologize for any associated typos as we rectify this font issue.

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