Though nearly twice the size of Europe, South America only has twelve sovereign states; and given their closely interrelated national lineages, all its constituents have had enough political drama in their relatively brief and tumultuous histories to make it feel like a really rowdy extended family. The crass image of your classic ‘Cold War military dictator’ is invariably Latin American, a Pinochet, Galtieri, or Castro; your ‘icons of the revolution’ primarily Che, Chávez, and maybe Eva Perón. There is plenty of intrigue on show for satirists, and an audience for it too: popular impatience with top-level corruption, for instance, goes all the way back to the ideas of Simón Bolívar, the guy who, like an incredibly prodigious management consultant, led half (literally half) of the modern-day countries of South America to independence from Spain. Since that time, many leaders on the continent have tried to invoke him as a rhetorical tool; unhappily, many of them do often turn out to be completely rhetorical, and a complete tool.
Hugo Chávez is the latest and best known peddler of Bolívar-inspired populism in our age, having even renamed the official title of his country to ‘The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela‘ in 1999 to this purpose. Sadly for Hugo, he is much too dead these days to keep his revolution alive. Which leads us right up the topic of the hour – for, since he left us in 2013, violence and unrest have been creeping inexorably upward, as the wobbly economic ship that Chávez ran has begun to buckle at the edges. Homicide rates reached 24,000 last year, with 90% of these deaths unaccounted for, making Venezuela one of the four most murderous countries in the world to live in. We may well thank goodness for laughter – and those who dare to.
Venezuela’s tradition of political cartooning carefully emerges in the first half of the twentieth century [link in Spanish], under the military rule of Juan Vicente Gómez, whose ban on cartoons about politics forced illustrators to be subtle when taking their potshots.
Fantoches, the first Venezuelan satirical weekly, created by journalist and cartoonist Leoncio Martínez in 1923. Martínez was a critic of the Gómez regime (which lasted until the leader’s death in 1935). Despite being a republic since the first half of the 19th century, Venezuela didn’t get its first democratically elected leader until 1948.
Today, Venezuela’s biggest newspapers are two broadsheets, El Universal (broadly conservative/pro-business) and El Nacional (broadly centrist/centre-left); and a tabloid, Últimas Noticias, the highest-selling of the three (broadly centre-left; thought to have been quite Chávez-friendly). For a fourteen-year period El Nacional published a popular satirical weekly called El Camaleón (The Chameleon), the brainchild of an accomplished Venezuelan cartoonist nicknamed ‘Graterolacho’, the late Manuel Santander. Other humorous now-museum-pieces include El Sádico Ilustrado (The Illustrated Sadist).
The three big titles all employ very good artists, casting their wry eyes over the post-Chávez Venezuela governed by hapless Nicolás Maduro, who is not proving quite the bombastic charisma extraordinaire his predecessor was. While the world’s diplomatic missions tied themselves into knots over Crimea, Ukraine and Russia, we’ve missed a whole lot of action on the warmer side of the world. Just in the past few weeks, three more people were killed amid protests that started in February over massive inflation, crime, and food shortages.
El Universal‘s Rayma Suprani is currently doing her April series of daily cartoons in the form of tarot cards. Today’s is ‘The Future’. The prognosis doesn’t look good.
Últimas Noticias has a rotating selection of illustrators, whose roster includes Carlos Fonseca [link in Spanish]. His newest offering is a comment on food ration ID cards the Venezuelan government have introduced to try and control the shortages. People are panic-buying and queueing for hours.
Pedro León Zapata is a veteran of Venezuelan visual commentary, and now does editorial cartoons for El Nacional. In today’s, he suspects the heavy hand of law and order might have exceeded itself.
‘Pérez Jiménez es subcampeón en represión, porque el campeón es otro’ = ‘Pérez Jiménez is the runner-up in repression, because the champion is another’. Jiménez was military ruler of Venezuela in the 1950s and is generally agreed to have been a pretty repressive guy. Zapata suggests he might have lost that dubious accolade to the current government.
If all that has whet your curiosity, El Nacional have a whole gallery on art that has come out of the recent protests.
To end with, we cannot forget to drop a mention of online Venezuelan satire, my favourite of which is the wonderfully named website El Chigüire Bipolar (The Bipolar Capybara). Latest articles include Maduro joining an international Dictators Club and the colourfully entitled ‘Jorge Rodríguez says there will be no land where they will build a fuck’:
Jorge Rodríguez was formerly a vice-president of Venezuela under Chávez. Now he is mayor of a district of the capital city, Caracas, called the Libertador Municipality. Here he is assuring citizens that of course they can ask for anything on this land – ‘shit will never ever be built here’, just like in the time of Mr Chávez, who spent much of his term ‘pointing at land where nothing was ever built’.
Can one do worse in terms of anti-government protest? For sure. You could’ve been putting together seditious newspaper puzzles. Crossword makers of the world, unite!
Update (8 April): Maduro has told The Guardian his political philosophy is all about ‘peace and love’, based on Long Sixties hippy music. That’s all good then.