Down and out in L.A. and trying to break into the music scene in the late 1990s, Colombian rock star Juanes could have used a handout. Now, 11 million album sales later, he’s one of this country’s best-known philanthropists.
Like fellow Colombian singer Shakira, the 36-year-old lends his star power and cash to alleviate suffering in this war- and drug-ravaged nation, advocating for land mine and kidnapping victims, peace and reconciliation, and preschool education.
The Medellin native, whose full name is Juan Esteban Aristizabal, transcends Colombia. He has parlayed his socially conscious music, prestige from 17 Latin Grammy awards and apolitical stance to become a sort of regional peace ambassador -- part Bono, part Jimmy Carter.
Juanes said his social consciousness was shaped growing up in Medellin at the height of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s reign, when the city led the world in homicides. Like all Colombians, he has witnessed a seemingly unending civil war between the government and leftist rebels that has exacted a toll in the tens of thousands. Among the victims was a cousin, kidnapped and killed in 1990.
“Colombia has suffered so much that the only way to go forward is to imagine a better country,” Juanes said in an interview in an upscale neighborhood here in the Colombian capital. “Music has the power to bring people together, to change things. That’s my mission.”
In Washington last week, Juanes met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, White House officials and members of Congress partly to seek help in arranging a concert in Havana for Sept. 21 -- the U.N. International Day of Peace. The Obama administration, which wants to improve relations with Cuba, likes the idea, said his manager, Fernan Martinez.
(White House advisor Dan Restrepo, who met with Juanes, did not respond to requests for comment.)
Before heading to Washington, Juanes was in the steamy Pacific port town of Tumaco in southwest Colombia to meet people who had been injured by land mines. Colombia is thought to lead the world in the number of victims of mines. Tumaco’s surrounding state of Narino, a battleground for competing drug traffickers and rebel groups, is the most mined of any Colombian state.
Through his charitable Fundacion Mi Sangre, or My Blood Foundation, named after one of his top-selling records, Juanes doles out hundreds of thousands of dollars to victims here in Narino and in four other states.
Land mine victims and their families have become his foundation’s focus because of their poverty and because a severe injury also affects other family members who have to care for them. Moreover, it’s a cause that not many other charities are interested in, he said.
“It’s been difficult to raise funds because the theme is a complex one to which groups have not been willing to lend their image,” Juanes said. But things are improving with the participation of the Spanish and German governments and two dozen corporate sponsors, including Exxon Mobil, he said.
Juanes also came here in a gesture of support for the visit of the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort, which since 2005 has made periodic trips to the Caribbean and Central and South America to offer free medical care. The doctors, dentists and medical staff planned to treat 10,000 Colombians here during a two-week stay.
“It’s a marvel to me that a country as strong as the United States uses its strength for this kind of activity,” Juanes said.
From the point of view of the U.S. government, which is trying to counter the favorable publicity of Cuba’s “medical diplomacy” across Latin America, Juanes’ visit had the desired effect: The ship’s call at this Pacific port city and Juanes’ mini-concert for patients made the front page of several Colombian newspapers.
The charitable activities of Juanes and Shakira have had a positive effect in a culture where philanthropists traditionally have had little public presence, said Oscar Rojas, president of AlvarAlice Foundation, a Cali-based charity that helps organize donors around single philanthropic initiatives.
Colombia has no one even vaguely resembling Bill Gates, the Microsoft billionaire who in a very public way is giving away much of his fortune, Rojas said.
“Our nation has people who give, but they have kept a low profile for security reasons and because of the Christian ethic that they not seek recognition for what they do,” Rojas said. “But Juanes’ social commitment, his ability to put his art at the service of a humanitarian cause, has made some of these people come out of the closet. They see they can make strategic alliances once their activities are known.”
Relaxed and looking fit in a T-shirt and buzz haircut, Juanes spoke affectionately of his two years of privation in Los Angeles before getting the Universal Records deal that launched him. He says he especially misses the Venice and Santa Monica beaches and the Guitar Center on Sunset Boulevard, where he lusted after instruments he thought he could never afford.
Juanes said he sees irony in his fame and influence, considering that a decade ago he was living in a motel on Wilshire Boulevard, surviving on one Subway sandwich a day and brushing up on English at a Westwood bookstore, scanning instructional books he couldn’t afford.
Now that he’s made it, Juanes has no intention of leaving his social conscience behind. He is in the songwriting phase of his fifth album, due for release early next year, and one of the songs will be about Segovia, where dozens of leftist politicians and sympathizers were killed in a massacre in 1988.
But he said he has no illusions about the gravity of the social problems Colombia faces, and whether his charity can have a lasting effect. “For those of us of my generation who have never known peace, it’s frustrating that Colombia can’t go on to the next stage,” Juanes said. “But that frustration and anxiety has also generated a lot of creativity among people who want to leave a better country for their children.”
Kraul is a special correspondent.