It's No Joke: Venezuela Cracks Down On Comedians : Parallels Venezuela's economic woes provide plenty of fodder for comedians. But the government doesn't seem to have a sense of humor: Comics say they are being targeted and prevented from performing.
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It's No Joke: Venezuela Cracks Down On Comedians

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It's No Joke: Venezuela Cracks Down On Comedians

It's No Joke: Venezuela Cracks Down On Comedians

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Imagine NBC canceling "Saturday Night Live" over a skit about Obamacare or a nightclub blacklisting Chris Rock for a rant about the NSA spy scandal. Well, something similar is happening in Venezuela. That's where government corruption, rising crime and food shortages are providing satirists a gold mine of material. John Otis reports on the crackdown that's followed.

LAUREANO MARQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Laureano Marquez is performing a benefit in his old high school in the Venezuelan city of Maracay. The comedian dwells on the absurdities of life in this oil-rich nation where gas is cheaper than water, but it's hard to find milk and toilet paper.

MARQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

(LAUGHTER)

OTIS: In the supermarket, Marquez says, desperate customers will steal scarce items right out of your shopping cart. In Venezuela, you get robbed of stuff that isn't even yours yet, he says.

MARQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Turning serious, Marquez tells the crowd that the socialist revolution launched 16 years ago by the late Hugo Chavez is collapsing under the weight of bad policies and corrupt public officials. That message doesn't sit well with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Besides jailing opposition leaders and cracking down on protesters, the Maduro government is now going after comics.

MARQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Marquez tells me that three of his recent shows were canceled after all three clubs that booked him were suddenly closed down for alleged tax evasion. He's also been shut out of government-run theaters and hotels. Another headache is securing city permits to perform. Requests from controversial comics are often rejected by mayors loyal to Maduro.

ALEX GONCALVES: They say no. If you have jokes about the revolution, you can't present.

OTIS: You can't.

GONCALVES: No. They think that because we did jokes about Chavez or Maduro, we're going to bring down the government.

OTIS: That's comedian Alex Goncalves. Even when he's allowed to perform, there can be trouble. After one show, Goncalves was chased out of town by pro-government thugs.

GONCALVES: We have to run to the car and go, like criminals, because these people (laughter) have no sense of humor.

OTIS: No sense of humor.

GONCALVES: Oh, no, and it's very sad.

OTIS: Political satire in all forms is getting harder to find in Venezuela. Last year, the editorial cartoonist for the country's largest newspaper was fired for depicting the national health care system in ruins.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHATAING TV")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Spanish).

OTIS: Also gone is "Chataing TV," a popular fake news show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHATAING TV")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

(APPLAUSE)

OTIS: Last year, the show's host, Luis Chataing, made fun of the government's frequent claims of coup plotting by the opposition. In a skit, Chataing portrayed a government bureaucrat fabricating evidence of a conspiracy with papers, scissors and glue, as if part of a kindergarten art class. The crowd loved it, but the show was canceled the next day. Chataing said the government pressured the station's owner to take him off the air, a claim President Maduro brushed aside.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "What do I have to do with your program?" Maduro said in the speech. "Enough with these evil rumors; I'm busy doing my own job." For their part, comedians are scrambling to stay employed. Nowadays, they often perform at corporate events or at private theaters in Caracas and other cities run by opposition mayors. Amid the creeping restrictions on free expression, Laureano Marquez says comedy is vital.

MARQUEZ: Humor is the last place of liberty. When you lost freedom in other place, freedom can be alive in humor.

(Speaking Spanish).

(APPLAUSE)

OTIS: Still, his humor is no escape valve. At the end of his show, Marquez urges people to get angry, take action and build a new Venezuela. For NPR News, I'm John Otis, Maracay, Venezuela.

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