Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez disappears on Valentine’s Day and the leaders of Bolivia, Ecuador and Mexico organize a search party. They don’t find him, but they do stumble on Cuban Revolutionary figure Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara who is living inside a volcano getting rich off merchandising royalties.
Welcome to Isla Presidencial, or Presidential Island, an online animated show that savages Latin American politicos and has become must-see TV in rumor-rampant Venezuela.
In its second season, Isla Presidencial has drawn more than a million viewers to its first three episodes and has attracted serious Hollywood backing. But it’s also struggling to adapt to the prospect of losing its star and a limitless source of gags: Chávez, who in real life disappeared from public view almost three months ago as he battles cancer.
The show’s premise is a ridiculous mix of Gilligan’s Island and Lost and follows the travails of about a dozen, mostly, Latin American leaders shipwrecked on a deserted island.
The idea for the program had been stewing for years, said Juan Ravell, 31, one of its creators, but the rise of increasingly colorful presidents in the region was simply too good to pass up.
“We had to make the most of this marvelous cast of characters that Latin America’s voters had handed us,” Ravell said from his office in Caracas.
The show is a grab-bag of unflattering stereotypes: Chávez is portrayed as a windbag who sees imperialist plots behind falling coconuts; Bolivia’s Evo Morales makes mixed drinks with coca leaves and is so enamored with Venezuela’s ‘Huguito’ that he has his picture tattooed on his chest; Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is a vain sexpot.
The show doesn’t pull punches and has drawn its fair share of criticism. The host of La Hojilla, a pro-government talk show on Venezuela’s state-run television, has accused the producers of being “daddy’s boys” and drug addicts.
But Chávez himself seems to be a fan. In 2011, after rambling for more than an hour and a half on live TV alongside Bolivia’s Morales, Chávez admitted he was sounding like his cartoon character.
“Have you ever seen the show, Evo?” Chávez asked before launching into a detailed description of one scene. “You have to show Evo the program,” Chávez ordered his staff.
But Isla may be coming to a crossroads of sorts. On Dec. 10, Chávez boarded a plane to Cuba to undergo a fourth-round of cancer surgery and, aside from a few snapshots, hasn’t been seen or heard from since. The government insists he’s in Caracas’ Military Hospital undergoing chemotherapy and still in charge, but it has been unable to squelch the persistent rumors that Chávez is either dead, paralyzed, in a coma or in hospice on a private island.
It’s all fodder for Isla. In the latest episode, which aired Feb. 14, the islanders awake to find that the garrulous Comandante Chávez has disappeared. After their fruitless search, the show ends with the message: “To be continued when we have more information.”
A few days later, producers uploaded a short clip of the presidents doing a racy version of the Harlem Shake Internet meme. This time Chávez sprouts angel wings as he marches on his hospital bed.
Ravell said the team of about 20 writers and cartoonists have been discussing how they will handle the news if and when Chávez’s death is announced.
“We have an idea of what we’ll do, but no one is sure exactly how it will happen, so it doesn’t make much sense to prepare,” he said. “The best we can do is keep making jokes and writing our satire on a daily basis.”
In Venezuela, Isla has found fertile ground online because most private television channels quit making political humor programs for fear of government reprisals, said Laureano Márquez, 49, a well-known Venezuelan standup comedian and writer, who was sued by the administration for a column he wrote in the Tal Cual newspaper.
“This is a sense of humor that makes us reflect and think about our situation,” he said of Isla. “It’s humor that is helping us overcome the tragedy that is this government.”
Emilio Lovera is the standup comedian who does all the voices for the program. While the show is edgy and often puerile (Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto tries to bribe the producers to have an affair with Argentina’s Kirchner, for example) the team always tries to find a balance.
“We have our limits,” he said. “Often we ask ourselves ‘Are we trying to make the audience laugh or simply trying to make a point?’ If we can’t make a point without making you laugh, then it’s out.”
Lovera said Chávez’s absence during last month’s episode made other characters stand out. There’s the lovesick Morales, Juan Carlos I, the king of Spain, who spouts racial slurs, and the pornographic and senseless ramblings of Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.
“We thought we would miss him,” Lovera said of the Chávez character. “But now we realize he’s not the only one.”