'To make humor from anger': Satirical news reveals the absurd in Venezuelan politics

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  • August 9, 2017

By Lillian Michel

It’s hard to find any humor in Venezuela’s political crisis  — but not impossible.

The Venezuelan government is known to apply pressure against private media that are critical of President Nicolás Maduro and his administration. However, there are two very popular, often critical outlets that have largely avoided its grasp: Reporte Semanal and El Chigüire Bipolar.

By their creators’ own descriptions, they are satirical news outlets that take themselves seriously. El Chigüire Bipolar posts absurdly fake stories that resemble actual news. El Reporte Semanal is real news delivered in exaggerated ways by the charismatic Profesor Briceño. Americans can think of them as Venezuela’s versions of The Onion and The Daily Show, respectively.

The projects are the brainchilds of the minds at Plop Contenido, a media collective founded by Oswaldo Graziani and Juan Andrés Ravell.

Graziani, Ravell and Elio Casale first met working for a television channel in Caracas. Sharing an interest in political humor and writing comedy in their spare time, the three founded El Chigüire Bipolar in 2008.

Later they teamed up with VivoPlay —  a subscription-based television platform — to start Reporte Semanal, with the idea of creating a show like Last Week Tonight or The Colbert Report, but written for a Venezuelan audience. They approached José Rafael Briceño, a friend and well-known comic, to host the show.

The show began in 2014, one year after the death of former president Hugo Chávez and at the start of Venezuela’s economic crisis. Today, the country is embroiled in a grave socioeconomic emergency. Parts of the country see daily demonstrations during which protesters and members of the news media covering demonstrations are repeatedly targeted by state security forces, colectivos and others. Both national and international individuals and entities fear for the democratic future of the country.

“This is a country with a government, let’s say, that isn’t known for its sense of humor,” Briceño told the Knight Center.

But the work of Plop Contenido definitely resonates with the Venezuelan public. El Chigüire has almost two million followers on Twitter, and its most popular stories — always related to politics — see hundreds of retweets. Briceño has over 300 thousand Twitter followers — more than the show’s subscribers on YouTube, followers on Twitter and likes on Facebook combined.

“[Maybe the public] turns more to comedians than the news media because political agendas have become so evident in the media,” Briceño explained. “Because comedians depend on truth, because in the truth lies the joke, there’s a better chance they’ll absorb information through humor.”

Paul Alonso, an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology who studies satire in Latin America, previously told the Knight Center, “Since ancient Greece, the role of satire has been to say what otherwise could not be said, to speak truth to power.” He added that satirical outlets can sometimes be more effective than traditional media outlets because they challenge mainstream narratives, functioning as a “watchdog of the watchdogs.”

“Humor allows us to be more daring and, in some cases, more effective,” Graziani told the Knight Center. “We respect and admire serious journalism. We feel it’s absolutely necessary. But we also see that sometimes so much seriousness can be a barrier to reaching regular people.”

Briceño and Graziani both say they recognize that presenting their content as humor grants them more freedom, but they don’t lose sight of the serious events in which their jokes are rooted.

Reporte Semanal

Profesor Briceño, as he is known to fans and the greater Venezuelan public, has been a theater professor, a stage actor and a stand-up comedian. Today, he is the host of the weekly “infotainment” program El Reporte Semanal.

Reporte Semanal rounds up the week’s biggest news during an opening newscast, followed by interviews and sketches. Half-hour episodes air once a week on VivoPlay and then popular segments are uploaded to YouTube, where they rack up tens of thousands of views.

Briceño emphasized that the program is honest and delivers real news, not a fake newscast.

“Real humor, good humor, what is funny is funny because it’s true,” Briceno said. “And that somehow has to be implicit there. It has to be in what you are doing. It is more comical if it is true than if it is fake news.”

The newscast follows a simple formula: headline and punchline. The show isn’t purely comedy and its host isn’t solely a comedian. Briceño graduated with a degree in journalism from the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, where he stayed for years as a rhetoric lecturer (hence the “professor” in his stage name) and professional actor with the university’s theater group.

“I feel obligated to inform, because I’m trained as a journalist, but the objective of the program is to entertain, and I have to remind myself of that all the time,” Briceño said.

Episodes end with an editorial, where Briceño steps out of character to deliver his opinion on the state of the country. As the months have passed, there has been less for the audience to chuckle at during this segment.

“Increasingly, the editorial is more serious, it’s a moment where we remind the audience that we are aware of the country we live in,” Briceño said. Ahead of the controversial vote to elect a constituent assembly that could potentially secure unlimited power for Maduro, Briceño ended his show with an impassioned monologue praising demonstrators and denouncing government repression.

“Those who oppose have given themselves the duty to resist civilly in every way imaginable for more than 100 days. We’re talking about demonstrations, protests, women’s marches, elderly marches, student marches,” Briceño proclaimed. “And the result is a government that has shown its face to the people. They’ve seen it tearing down their communities, shooting at their buildings, abusing the use of force and there is no way — from Caricuao to Timotes, from Barquisimeto to Guayana — that people will forget that face.”

El Chigüire Bipolar

Briceño might extract humor from the truth, but El Chigüire Bipolar’s popularity comes from stories that are absurdly untrue.

The name is Spanish for The Bipolar Capybara, the world’s largest rodent. “I remember we were inspired by the names of other satirical Venezuelan newspapers: El Morrocoy Azul (The Blue Tortoise), El Cojo Ilustrado (The Illustrated Cripple), El Camaleón (The Chameleon). We played around with different combinations and we finally settled on El Chigüire Bipolar,” Graziani told the Knight Center. “Really, it had nothing to do with Chávez.”

“Basically what we do is fake news, seriously,” Juan Andrés Ravell told CNN en Español. “The fake news that is very fashionable at the moment, we approach it as serious work in the sense that we say what is happening and we comment on the news through satire and through humor.”

“Chigüire” is a uniquely Venezuelan term. The jokes are intended to be understood, most of all, by Venezuelans. The founders of El Chiguire Bipolar left Venezuela to pursue job opportunities, but the editor and writers of the site still live in Caracas. The site takes on everyone: Maduro, high-ranking Venezuelan officials, the Bolivarian National Police, chavistas, the opposition and the media.

“If our job is to point out the absurd, then we have to assume absurdity can be found on both ends of the political spectrum,” Graziani explained.

For example, in a story about the Bolivarian National Guard detaining a Canon 5D Mark II camera “for allegedly recording the actions of the security forces,” the writers seemingly point to the high number of arbitrary detentions carried out by state security forces in recent months. By one estimate, more than 4,072 people have been detained during daily protests that began on April 1. According to IPYS Venezuela, there were 29 cases of arbitrary detentions against the press from March to June.

In the post “Conatel forces Netflix to stream Maduro’s presidential statements,” the writers take aim at the government agency in charge of regulating telecommunications in the country. Former president Chávez frequently forced radio and television stations to broadcast his public statements, a practice continued by Maduro.

El Chigüire Bipolar was one of the winners of the 2017 Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent in May. The award is presented by the Human Rights Foundation to celebrate “those who, with bravery and ingenuity, unmask the lie of dictatorship by living in truth,” according to the HRF website.

“It’s a bittersweet moment,” Ravell told CNN en Español ahead of being awarded the prize. “It’s an honor to have this prize but at the same time it’s strange to celebrate anything right now because what is happening in Venezuela is not normal.”

Humor from anger

The Venezuelan opposition is entering its fifth month of protests against President Maduro, during which, by some estimates, more than 100 people have been killed. Projects like Chigüire Bipolar and Reporte Semanal find themselves having to satirize increasingly grim realities. They take care to direct the jokes at the appropriate people: those in power.

“We [comedians] laugh at power in every form and obviously that requires exaggeration,” Briceño said. “Exaggeration is a tool of comedy we can use, but less and less often, because it’s very hard to exaggerate what this government is doing.”

On the other hand, there is the fear that too much exaggeration will minimize the gravity of the government’s transgressions.

“Everyone that does any kind of political comedy in our country fears that by making light of things, you’re doing a favor to the government. You can feel this fear because perhaps your postponing a much stronger reaction,” Briceño reflected. “And I think that’s why, what we have tried to with what we do is to make humor from the anger...But here, we must also take into account that this has its limits.”

Graziani maintained that their principle goal is always to make people laugh. He said during the past few months their focus hasn’t changed, but they’re more careful with their material.

The political crisis reached a sort of climax on July 30, when nationwide elections were held to form a constituent assembly, a 545-member body that would have the power to overhaul Venezuela’s constitution. The official government turnout was proclaimed to be over 8 million voters, but one independent count showed less than half that many participated. El Chigüire Bipolar responded in its style: “National Constitutional Assembly vote could become first election ever to have more candidates than voters.”

“Generally, Venezuela is a country that lends itself to humor … because the people love to laugh,” Graziani told CNN in May. “But there are certain moments, like what is happening right now, where we aren’t going to stop what we do because we feel it’s necessary and our objective remains the same, but we take more seriously the real conversation behind the joke.”

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.