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Venezuelan comedian focuses satire on Chavez

Venezuelan Laureano Marquez speaks during an interview with the Associated Press at his office in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday Dec. 14, 2010. Branded as an enemy of the state, the journalist's satirical commentary has made him the scourge of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez and other officials. Venezuelan Laureano Marquez speaks during an interview with the Associated Press at his office in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday Dec. 14, 2010. Branded as an enemy of the state, the journalist's satirical commentary has made him the scourge of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez and other officials. (AP Photo/Cecilia Serrano)
By Christopher Toothaker
Associated Press / December 15, 2010

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CARACAS, Venezuela—Comedian Laureano Marquez often gets Venezuelans laughing with his standup routines, and he gets even more of them rolling with his satirical newspaper columns -- much to the dismay of President Hugo Chavez.

The bespectacled, quick-witted Marquez has won a loyal following by focusing his newspaper barbs at Chavez, and that has landed his newspaper in trouble and has prompted government officials to accuse him of trying to foment a coup.

The punster's dissections of Chavez's leftist Bolivarian Revolution movement have also earned him recognition from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which last month presented him with an International Press Freedom Award as one of Latin America's most courageous newspaper columnists.

"I think they chose me because the situation in Venezuela is awakening more and more concern around the world due to the issue of limitations on freedom of speech, and the committee wanted to call attention to the situation," Marquez said Tuesday during an interview with The Associated Press.

Though he offered some tongue-in-cheek remarks, Marquez also was soft-spoken and serious as he talked about several laws that pro-Chavez lawmakers plan to take up soon, including a measure that would impose broadcast-type regulations on the Internet and one that could endanger the anti-Chavez television channel Globovision.

"I think this government is looking to have total control of communication, and that's why they are discussing all the laws aimed at limiting freedom of speech right now," Marquez said, sipping a cup of tea in his Caracas office, where the walls are covered with posters of his standup comedy shows and those of other Venezuelan comics.

The 47-year-old holds a degree in political science and began his career in comedy years ago on the popular television show "Radio Rochela." It was a staple on the channel RCTV but disappeared in 2007 when the station was forced off the airwaves by Chavez's government.

His columns now are published once a week on the front page of the anti-Chavez newspaper Tal Cual.

In one of them, "Letter to the CIA," he mocked Chavez's frequent allegations that the U.S. government is behind many of Venezuela's domestic problems. "It's no secret to us that trucks leave the U.S. Embassy at dawn, spreading trash all over the city," Marquez wrote.

Last January, Marquez wrote a column envisioning a Venezuela freed from the oppression and mismanagement of a ruler named "Esteban," a veiled reference to Chavez.

Describing Venezuela's first day without "Esteban" in the presidential palace, the column said: "The people really cannot believe it and they begin to live in a state of confusion. Pro-government groups destroy what's left of the country (fortunately, it wasn't much)."

After six months without "Esteban" in power, Marquez went on, "pro-Chavez congressmen begin to note that the laws they previously approved are quite antidemocratic because now they are subject to them."

The fictitious leader "Esteban," meanwhile, has fled to Cuba -- Venezuela's closest ally under Chavez -- and he "gets by singing in the Tropicana," the acclaimed cabaret in Havana.

The column drew a vehement response from then-Information Minister Blanca Eekhout, who urged state prosecutors to bring criminal charges against Marquez.

"This is an invitation for a coup-plotting, genocidal and terrorist plan, which is disguised through humor," the Information Ministry said in a statement. Charges, however, were never brought against Marquez.

Carlos Lauria of the Committee to Protect Journalists said the government's reaction demonstrated its intolerance.

"The fact that a person who writes columns using irony and humor, combined with a profound knowledge of Venezuelan political history, is called a terrorist and coup-plotter is a very clear sign of just how far Chavez's government has gone to muzzle critics," Lauria said in a telephone interview from New York.

"Governments characterized by authoritarianism don't have a sense of humor and they are bothered by humor that's done in an intelligent, creative and audacious manner," he said.

Marquez said it may seem to some -- particularly "Chavistas" -- that he and other humorists unfairly single Chavez out, but stressed they've always mocked those in power.

Smiling, Marquez noted he poked fun at Teodoro Petkoff, Tal Cual's director, when he was planning minister during the late 1990s under President Rafael Caldera.

"I was constantly cracking jokes about the man who is now my boss," Marquez said. "Humor is almost always a reaction of the weak against the powerful."

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