If stand-up comedian Ricardo Del Bufalo were granted one magic wish in Venezuela, he told an audience recently, he knows exactly what it would be: a single day without chavismo, the left-wing political ideology of former President Hugo Chávez.
In this fantasy, he tells the crowd at a cultural center in Caracas’ La Castellana district, he enjoys a day of fully restored electricity. He has running water, food abundance and safe streets. He attends a Bruno Mars concert at night, taking selfies with the new smart phone he purchased with local currency exchanged for all of his dollars.
At the stroke of midnight, when the dream ends, Del Bufalo, 26, is thrust back into current President Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela of hunger, darkness and crime. “And I sold all my dollars!” he yells in a whining voice of self-pity, calling himself the “Cinderella of chavismo.”
The audience loves it, bursting out in laughter. In his stand-up act, Del Bufalo often aims his sarcasm at the current social conditions of Venezuela. He doesn’t shy away from making fun of Maduro, either, and he’s gotten away with it so far.
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But as many comedians in today’s Venezuela admit, political satire is an increasingly risky business. Maduro’s government sees anti-establishment jokes as criticism. It labels satire as disrespectful behavior punishable by censorship, cancellation of performances or even jail, the humorists say.
“All the time, it is more difficult to do comedy,” Del Bufalo said after one of his Caracas performances. “There is a lot of censorship in radio and just recently they arrested two firefighters for mocking President Maduro, comparing him to a donkey. I have begun to worry about which joke I can make and which one not.”
Del Bufalo is talking about two firefighters from the state of Merida. Back in September, they posted a video on YouTube of a donkey walking through their fire station, calling the animal President Maduro. They were arrested soon after.
Another comedian, Oscar Martínez, 30, takes a measured approach to politically charged humor and adjusts his act depending on the audience. “I could end up in prison, for sure,” he said, without hesitation. “In a club, I can be more unleashed because people come expecting me to make political jokes. Not so much during my radio show. There, I really have no idea who is listening.”
One way to “safely” deliver hard-biting political satire is to use coded humor. Instead of stating something plainly, comedians conceal their comic messages in a series of allegories, cultural references or in ironic praise of the government and current social conditions.
“You have to work around it. One way is to praise the government excessively [so] that it is obvious you are skewering the powerful,” said comedian Juan Andrés Ravell, 37, who now works and lives in Miami. Ravell left Venezuela two years ago because he felt he could not work freely.
Martínez, the comic with the radio show, offered an example. In one joke, he said, he talks about being able to pay for a chocolate bar with two credit cards — which initially would give an audience the impression that he is a well-off person. However, the punch line tells the opposite story. “We are so poor that to pay for the chocolate, we have to split the bill on two credit cards,” he said, laughing.
One famous comedian, Claudio Nazoa, 67, who has just wrapped up a national tour, admits that during his shows, he applies a dose of self-censorship. “You need to be prudent and get the government with smart, respectful humor. They might sense that you are mocking them but they have no real proof,” he said, one of his eyebrows lifting in a tiny arc, giving his round face an impish expression.
Nazoa started his career in the late 1970s, before the “Bolivarian revolution” launched Chávez almost 20 years ago. Nazoa used to mock contemporary Venezuelan presidents in sold-out state theaters, university lecture halls and other public spaces. But in recent years, he has watched as comedy has come under attack from the current governing elite. These days, he cannot rent any government-owned buildings for his shows. Hotels sometimes deny him a room. He believes officials are using these tactics to stop him from performing.
“But we always find a private theater to perform in, and people follow us,” he said.
Mocking the social crisis in Venezuela remains prime material for many Venezuelan comics. Martínez said he often throws in a joke about “lost embarrassment in the times of communism.”
He launches into the bit: “A girl you are about to go out with says that you could meet her at 7:30. Then she calls telling you she will show up at 9 — because the water in her building is running now and she can finally take a shower.”
Venezuelan audiences relate to dry faucets in their apartments and the lack of food, dollars, medicine and opportunities. Ideally, the humorists said, their acts also create a space where people can, for a while, forget about their precarious living conditions.
“Venezuelans look for a sanctuary in humor just like people in other repressive systems. Humor liberates us from suppressed tensions. It helps us to defeat the fear and it creates a distance from pain because when we laugh, we assume a positive and resilient attitude,” Del Bufalo said.
Ravell, in Miami, said he believes that unlike in 2008, when he began his career as a satirist, the majority of Venezuelans now oppose the government and are squarely on the “comedian’s side,” making them more receptive to anti-Maduro jokes.
But that doesn’t mean opposition figures are off limits. For instance, Del Bufalo often transforms himself into Henry Ramos Allup, the leader of the opposition Action Democratic party.
At one point during the interview, Del Bufalo launches into Allup’s distinctive, nasal voice saying: “These miserable comedians go after me because I talk like I have a trumpet in my throat.”
“One day the opposition will be in power screwing our lives and we will mock them, too,” Nazoa said laughing, adding in a more serious tone that humor should challenge any authority.
Ravell fears that, in the meantime, comedians in Venezuela could be forced underground as criticism becomes riskier, especially if the audience is large via live performances or the internet. Still, he said, comedy can thrive under repression.
“Doing satire in a restricted society requires boldness, and that’s when the best, funniest, [most] incisive work comes out. Censorship ends up in pushing creative boundaries. In our culture, satire always evolves, shifts and resists the attempts to extinguish it. It has survived other dictatorships, and it will survive this one, too,” Ravell contended.
Martínez also looked toward the future. In a mocking tone, he predicted that his age group will turn into a generation of furious, bitter grandfathers and grandmothers.
“We are doomed to be the worst grandparents in the history of Venezuela. Our grandchild will come to us one day asking for $100 to have some fun. We will grumble reminding them that there was a time where it was impossible to make such money and unheard of to spend it in one night,” Martínez said.
He added: “One day, we will look back at these revolutionary years and think of them as one big joke.”