Venezuelan Comedians Face Crackdown, Prison Risk by Mocking President

Christian Veron/Reuters

The socialist government of Venezuela has made it increasingly dangerous for political satirists to practice their craft, removing any anti-government humor from airwaves and newspapers and prompting angry mobs to attack stand-up comics.

In an extensive profile in NPR, a number of anti-government comedians, who poke humor at the dearth of necessary goods at Venezuelan supermarkets and the constant stream of unfounded coup attempt claims from President Nicolás Maduro, testify to myriad canceled appearances, firings from local comedy jobs, and even being the object of the ire of angry mobs in some Chavista neighborhoods.

“We have [sic] to run to the car and go, like criminals, because these people have no sense of humor,” said comedian Alex Goncalves of an incident in which he and his crew were “chased out of town” by an angry mob in reaction to their comedy. “That’s very sad.” That show was something of a victory, Goncalves told NPR, because he managed to get a permit to perform in that town in the first place. Comedians need permits to perform, and the government has been very keen on denying them to anti-government performances.

Another comedian, Laureano Márquez, claimed three of his shows were recently canceled because the comedy clubs that booked him were shut down “for alleged tax evasion.”

The crackdown on comedians has endured for years, though free speech issues becoming paramount on the international stage have made the lack of political satire acutely felt in the Latin American nation. It is not lost on Venezuelan comedians that the satirist mocking President Maduro the most seems to be British comedian John Oliver, live from the beacon of free speech liberties.

Venezuelan comedians were also particularly vocal in defending French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, after terrorists stormed the magazine offices and killed a number of their highest-ranking editors. In the Diario Las Americas, Marta Sedes von Dehn wrote at the time:

In Venezuela, those who practice humor know well the rigors of intolerance from those in power. The shutdown of media, firings, harassment, penal processes seek to silence the voices of those who can only defend themselves with their pen. […]

Among the many manifestations of support to those hurt in the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, perhaps the best summary of the feelings of national humorists [in Venezuela] is the statement of the emblematic Pedro León Zapata… “Fanaticism is wasting its time: they can kill comedians, but comedy is immortal.”

The Diario Las Americas article notes that the aforementioned Márquez faced legal sanctions for his now-canceled weekly column in the newspaper Tal Cual, “Serious Comedy.”

Márquez is currently promoting his work in Montreal, where he gave a Spanish-language interview explaining the struggle of bringing humor to a dire situation the government would rather he stop talking about. He explained that the nation’s woeful economic and political situation has created a “stellar moment” for Venezuelan humor, “not because people want to laugh, but because people want to think, and humor is a stimulant to thought… Humor is the last refuge of freedom because it is the last to overcome the barriers of censorship with genius,” he concludes.

Particularly frustrating to Venezuelan comedians is that President Nicolás Maduro is a geyser of unintentional comedy. His attempts to speak Spanish in remarks meant for President Barack Obama prompted international confusion, as did an incident in which he was attacked by a flying mango.

Venezuelans may have put themselves at risk by mocking the mango incident, but mock it they did. Twitter users dubbed “mangocide,” a knock on the sixteen different times Maduro has claimed to be the object of an assassination plot he has not proven exists. Quick-thinking programmers released a cell phone app that allows users to throw mangos at a cartoon Maduro. They may be threatened, but Venezuela’s comedians continue to assert that they will not be silenced.