Venezuela’s crisis is a tragedy – but comedy gold for satire, cartoons and memes

Thirty-nine journalists have been detained in Venezuela this year, far more than in any other Latin American country, according to the Caracas-based Institute for Press and Society.

Their arrests are part of the government’s crackdown on journalists who report on the country’s escalating instability as President Nicolás Maduro fights to retain power against the opposition’s internationally backed effort to oust him.

Local reporters have seen early morning raids of their homes, arrests, rushed and legally questionable trials for charges of “inciting violence. They’ve been given verdicts ranging from self-censorship to jail time. Several foreign reporters – including Univision TV anchor and U.S. citizen Jorge Ramos – have been deported from Venezuela.

In this repressive environment, journalists are finding ways to avoid censorship and still cover the country’s crisis.

Digital news sites and social media platforms, in particular, have become key platforms for informing the public. Using humorous memes and political satire, they publicize government abuses, protest daily humiliations like water shortages and blackouts and resist Maduro’s autocratic regime.

Laugh so you don’t cry

Government pressure on the Venezuelan media dates back to the late President Hugo Chávez, who took office in 1999. Over three administrations, Chávez used his power and immense popularity to chip away at the separation of powers and undermine press freedom.

Maduro has continued this tradition since succeeding Chávez, his political mentor, in 2013. He has also overseen Venezuela’s slide into humanitarian crisis, economic collapse and political chaos. To quash protests, his government has turned increasingly authoritarian, violently repressing dissent and silencing journalists.

Under such circumstances, Venezuela’s turn toward satirical news recalls an old saying that’s grown popular in these difficult days: “Me río para no llorar” – laugh so you don’t cry.

Several power outages in Venezuela have disabled electric water pumps, forcing people to fill up buckets of river water. AP Photo/Fernando Llano
A satirical website called “El chigüire bipolar” – the bipolar capybara, a name that references a giant South American rodent – recently won an international prize for “creative dissidence.”

Its animated series, “La isla presidencial,” “The Presidential Island,” which began in 2010, has Venezuela’s leftist strongman leader – first Hugo Chávez, now Nicolás Maduro – stranded on a desert island with other presidents of Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Nicaragua, Colombia and with the king of Spain.

[embedded content] The English language trailer for the Venezuelan web series ‘Presidential Island.’
“The Presidential Island” portrays Maduro as illiterate and overweight, a blundering simpleton who is overly proud of his mustache and incessantly invokes the late Hugo Chávez.

In one episode from the current season, Maduro takes it upon himself to ration water during a drought. His poor handling of water distribution leads the other presidents to revolt. They find water sources of their own.

Maduro declares it a “coup d’etat” and insists that it’s all an “imperialist” plot – just as he has done during Venezuela’s repeated recent national blackouts.

Political cartoonists are another front of the Venezuelan media’s resistance to oppression by the Maduro regime.

Cartoonist and graphic artist Rayma Suprani was dismissed from the national newspaper El Universal in 2014 after a drawing that mocked Maduro’s authority. She portrayed Chávez’s signature as a flatline on a hospital heart-rate monitor, as if to say, “Venezuela’s Socialist revolution is dead.”

Being fired didn’t stop Suprani from drawing. Today, her satirical cartoons and drawings are widely circulated online, offering powerful visual depictions of the country’s always worsening news.

Juan Guaidó, meme hero

Venezuela has a long history of satire during times of political and economic crisis.