CARACAS — Venezuela was once known for many great things, among them its unfiltered, satirical, irreverent, politically incorrect, and boundless humor.
There was a time when we could express ourselves freely through her, laughing at anything and everything, especially ourselves.
In my youth, it was very common to turn on the television and see comedians expressing the problems of this Venezuela through comic sketches. Although I’m not a comedian myself, I’ve done a fair share of memes on the internet, and this kind of nonsensical Venezuelan humor I was exposed to during my youth helped shape the way I approach adult comedy.
Thanks to humor, we were able to face up to the shortcomings of our small country long before the coming to power of Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution. As such, Venezuelan comedy has always been intrinsically linked to national politics. Unfortunately, the once-celebrated socialist revolution deprived us of comedy through censorship laws and now, while humor remains an inalienable coping mechanism to the tragedies we have experienced, it has been neutralized and we, as a country, we can no longer freely produce comedy of the caliber we used to.
Like telenovelas and other audiovisual dramas, there was an abundance of comedy programming on our national television and radio stations, some riskier than others. Snippets of the Venezuelan comedy of yore can still be found preserved on social media and YouTube, but a large majority of it has now been lost.
Certainly the most iconic Venezuelan comedy show of all time has been Radio Rochela (which loosely translates to Radio Bustle).
The easiest way to describe what Radio Rochela was that it was kind of a Saturday Night Live type show – at the time it was funny, or so I was told – but the Rochela was even less filtered, and no politician of the time was immune to satire and ridicule.
Many locals tuned in to the now-defunct Radio Caracas (RCTV) TV channel punctually every Monday evening. Rather stereotypical Portuguese migrants who run grocery stores in the country, to a mockery of Hispanics male chauvinismthe Rochela provided entertainment and laughter for five decades – until Hugo Chavez forcibly shut down RCTV in 2007.
The show, alongside RCTV, tried to survive by broadcasting outside of Venezuela and via the internet, but its efforts ended in 2010.
Venevision, the country’s other major national TV channel, featured two iconic comedy sketches: Welcome (“Welcome”) and Cheverismo (“Very cool”).
Welcome was also a sketch show that satirized aspects of Venezuelan culture, but it tended to be the group’s more risque show, often featuring scantily clad, two-way women and a “flashing” persona.
On the other hand, Cheverismo looked more like Radio Rochela in terms of content and tone. One of the most iconic sketches of Cheverísimo’s the repertoire was that of comedian Jorge Tuero Rico Mac Rico (Rich McRich). Rico Mac Rico involved a poor man who lived the fantasy of being rich and opulent, serving as a reflection and critique of 1990s Venezuela and the lives of the poor versus the more opulent. All his sketches ended with the phrase “governments pass, but hunger remains”.
Another of Tuero’s iconic characters, The Terror of the Llano (“The Terror of the Plains”), was a satire of the macho culture of Venezuelans in the plains region of the country.
Many other notable skits and characters have brought countless hours of entertainment to Venezuelans each week. All seemed well in terms of comedy until Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999. Venezuela’s irreverent comedy inevitably clashed with the plans of the Bolivarian Revolution, and slowly but surely comedy began to come under attack. and censored.
In 2000, the Bolivarian Revolution had just rewritten our constitution and the country was preparing for a “mega” general election. At that time, Venezuelan comedians had banded together to satirize the whole process via a play known as The Restorative (“La Reconstituante”), a pun on the entire constituent process which had just “relaunched” the country with a new constitution.
As this is a play released at a time when smartphones didn’t exist, it’s difficult, if not downright impossible, to get a full copy of it, although poor quality recordings of one before -first aired on TV still exist on YouTube.
In the play, actors played the roles of Hugo Chávez, former President Rafael Caldera, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and other Venezuelan politicians, satirizing each of them to the point of ridicule. La Reconstituante was meant to be a theatrical trilogy, but criticism of the Bolivarian Revolution prevented the planned second and third parts from materializing.
In 2004, the Revolution had introduced a fierce media gag law known as the Radio, Television and Electronic Media Social Responsibility Act (RESORTE). While the law claimed to be intended to “respect freedom of expression and information without censorship,” it is still used by the socialist regime to censor media in Venezuela to this day.
RESORTE has also been used to censor and neutralize comedies critical of the revolution, as the law prohibits content that could “incite or promote hatred”, “inflame citizens’ anxiety or alter public order”. , “to disrespect the authorities”, “to encourage assassinations” or “constitute war propaganda”.
Since the law was passed – and especially after the forced closure of RCTV by Hugo Chávez in May 2007 – the country’s remaining television and radio stations have begun to self-censor in order to survive. It didn’t stopped the socialist regime for continuing to shut down the media, with 100 radio stations being shut down by the Maduro regime in 2022 alone.
In 2005, Venezuelan comedian Laureano Márquez published an open letter addressed to one of Hugo Chávez’s daughters, Rosines, through the Venezuelan newspaper Tal Cual. The letter, while informal but respectful in tone, playfully asked Chávez’s daughter to intervene to, among other things, prevent her father from falsely labeling anyone who opposed him as “fascist”.
The letter immediately drew Chávez’s ire, and the Bolivarian Revolution fined the newspaper 38 million bolivars ($17.6 million at the time, currently $3.3 billion).
Some Venezuelan comedians had attempted to continue practicing political comedy in new ways, such as lending their voices to the short-lived web cartoon series Presidential Island (“Presidential Island”) made outside of Venezuela that “softened” the repercussions of criticism of Chávez (later Maduro) by also satirizing the region’s presidents, whether left-wing or right-wing .
By the time Maduro took the reins of the socialist revolution in 2013, all the iconic Venezuelan comedies many grew up with were long gone. With no way to practice comedy through television or radio, Venezuelan comedians found in theaters their new main means of expression, especially when it came to political comedy. But in 2016, the Maduro regime, which controls all public theaters in the country, began to to forbid comedians he disapproved of using theaters in any capacity, leaving only a handful of private theaters at their disposal.
The final blow to Venezuelan comedy and satire was the ‘anti-hate speech’ law past by the Maduro regime in 2017 – ambiguous legislation that can result in up to 20 years in prison for anyone living in this country for posting or expressing content that the regime considers “hate speech”, which it be it text, radio, television or social media. multimedia content.
The Maduro regime has used the law to arrest citizens in the past who dared to satirize the regime in the same vein as comedy shows freely did in the past, 72-year-old Venezuelan Olga Mata being the most recent notable . Case.
In April, Mata posted a viral video on Chinese platform TikTok that used food-related puns and dark humor to satirize members of the Maduro regime. The elderly woman appeared in the filming of the video arepas, a traditional Venezuelan corn cake claiming to sell varieties named after various Maduro regime henchmen. A die arepasfor example, was named the “Diosdado Cabello”, after the drug kingpin leader of Maduro’s political party, and Mata joked that he was high on cocaine. She also joked arepa named after the first ‘fighter’ Cilia Flores, Maduro’s wife, was nicknamed ‘the widow’, apparently wishing the dictator dead.
The regime quickly retaliated and stopped the elderly woman and her son charged with “incitement to hatred”. Mata was forced to register a public apology to the socialist regime in exchange for her freedom.
Currently, many comedians who brought joy to Venezuelans through television sketches before the arrival of the Bolivarian Revolution have died or left the country. Two of them were recently reward by the United States Congress for their contributions to the Hispanic community in the United States.
It’s no secret that we are now one of the most unfortunate countries of the world, and for good reason. Laughing at the state of affairs and at socialism as a whole has not solved the problems of our country and certainly has not stopped the socialist regime from doing all that it has done in the country so far.
Socialism is certainly no joke but, as Venezuelan comedian Laureano Márquez said at the BBC in 2014, “the only tool we have left is humor”, and I include myself among those who still tackle the absurdity of Venezuela through humor and satire – although I, for my own sake and that of my brother (who is in my care), I have to hold back more often than I care to admit while inside Venezuelan borders.
Christian K. Caruzo is a Venezuelan writer and documents life under socialism. You can follow him on Twitter here.