A Satirical Site Skewers Chávez and Politics
CARACAS, Venezuela — This may be a perilous time to operate a Web site focused on politics here, given President Hugo Chávez’s recent push for new controls of Internet content. But one plucky Venezuelan satirical site is emerging as a runaway success in Latin America as it repeatedly skewers Mr. Chávez and a host of other leaders.
Named in honor of the capybara, the Labrador retriever-sized rodent that Venezuelans are fond of hunting and eating, the 2-year-old Web site, El Chigüire Bipolar, or Bipolar Capybara, is rivaling or surpassing in page views leading Venezuelan newspapers like the Caracas daily El Nacional.
The rise of Chigüire Bipolar, which has already drawn the wrath of state-controlled media here, and a handful of other popular Venezuelan sites focused on politics is taking place within a journalistic atmosphere here that international press groups say is marked increasingly by fear, intimidation and self-censorship.
Before threatening to impose unspecified Internet controls this month, Mr. Chávez pushed RCTV, a critical television network, off the airwaves andrevoked the licenses of 34 radio stations across the country. Mr. Chávez has also forced broadcasters to transmit live his speeches and televised appearances, which last hours.
“Chávez is a master communicator and a natural-born comedian, but one who doesn’t realize he’s at the center of the joke,” said Juan Andrés Ravell, 28, a part-time television scriptwriter who is one of the three founders of Chigüire (Tchee-GWEE-reh).
Mr. Ravell ascribes much of their success to the use of social media like Twitter and Facebook to lure readers to the site. Once there, they are treated to satirical videos and photo montages lambasting Mr. Chavez and other Venezuelan figures, sometimes even from the anti-Chavez camp.
Other Latin American leaders are frequent targets, too. For instance, Chigüire mocks the feel-good diplomacy of Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, portraying him as a bong-smoking bon vivant with a taste for Twinkies. Another montage derides frequent visits here by Iran’s president,Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, contending that he and Mr. Chávez have grown so close that they have glued their hands together.
Chigüire Bipolar’s biggest success so far arrived in February in the form of a 5-minute video inspired by the American television series “Lost,” in which Latin American leaders of various ideologicals stripes find themselves shipwrecked on a deserted tropical island, forced to fend for themselves.
The video, called “Presidential Island” and viewed more than 450,000 times on YouTube, depicts Mr. Chávez and Bolivia’s leftist president, Evo Morales, as star-crossed lovers who dine on American bald eagle. Colombia’s right-wing president, Álvaro Uribe, comes across as a prude, and Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, as a temptress who entrances Brazil’s Mr. da Silva. King Juan Carlos of Spain makes an appearance in which his dentures fall into the sea.
Oswaldo Graziani, 30, another of the site’s founders, said they drew inspiration from American television shows like “The Colbert Report” and Web sites like The Onion and also from a rich tradition here of political satire, including defunct humor magazines named after Venezuelan fauna like Morrocoy Azul (The Blue Tortoise) and Camaleón (Chameleon).
Mr. Graziani said going after Mr. Chávez’s critics, in addition to the president himself, and critiquing certain aspects of Venezuelan society were also priorities. For instance, Chigüire Bipolar has lampooned the student movement here by showing students more interested in swilling beer on the beach than in protests.
Another frequent target of ridicule is Mr. Ravell’s own father, Alberto Federico Ravell, a strident critic of Mr. Chávez and a prominent media executive here who said he was fired this year by the television network Globovisión as part of an effort to alleviate pressure exerted on the organization by Mr. Chávez’s government.
“We make it a principle that no one is immune, not even ourselves,” said Mr. Graziani, noting that their motto is “Partial, unfounded news from a rodent with psychological issues.”
“It’s difficult for anyone to battle against the supremacy of humor,” he said.
Some here try to wage that fight, however.
Mario Silva, the host of “La Hojilla,” or “The Razorblade,” a somber nightly talk show on state television that Mr. Chávez’s government uses to attack its critics, has condemned Chigüire Bipolar, describing its founders in February as partisan anti-Chávez drug-addicts. “We appreciated the publicity,” Mr. Ravell said in response to the state-television tirade against them.
In a separate episode this year, Mr. Chávez’s information minister, Blanca Eekhout, demanded that Laureano Márquez, a humorist who writes for the newspaper Tal Cual, be prosecuted after writing a short column imagining Venezuela free from the grasp of a ruler named “Esteban,” a code name for Mr. Chávez.
“Chávez’s government unfortunately doesn’t have much of a sense of humor about itself, which is why Bipolar Capybara has become an essential fixture in the national debate,” said Andrés Cañizález, a researcher on media freedom here for the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders.
Others fixtures persist in criticizing Mr. Chávez, especially print media like Tal Cual, El Universal and El Nacional. And the surging use of Twitterhere to transmit antigovernment missives has prompted a sharp reaction from Mr. Chávez, who recently warned Venezuelans against using social networks.
Pressure is building now for political Web sites to bend to the government’s will. Noticias24, a leading news site here, barred visitors from commenting on articles this month after Mr. Chávez threatened to introduce Internet controls.
Mr. Chávez issued his threat after another site, Noticiero Digital, published in its comments section a false claim that at least one of his ministers had been assassinated.
The government has not announced any official measures, and so far Noticiero Digital is the only site under investigation. However, several pro-Chávez officials have said that site administrators should follow the law applied to broadcasters and be held responsible for comments.
Mr. Ravell and Mr. Graziani, who earn a living as freelance television producers and scriptwriters, finance Chigüire Bipolar out of their own pockets and with a meager revenue stream from advertising and sale of T-shirts printed with their logo.
They produce the site with a third Venezuelan partner based in Miami, Elio Casale, in a chaotic flurry of e-mail, instant-messaging and BlackBerry text messages.
“We don’t actually talk to each other that much,” Mr. Ravell said.
In an interview, Mr. Ravell said he remained hopeful that Chigüire Bipolar was opening the way for more multifaceted debate in Venezuela instead of representing a final burst of expressive ebullience online in a scenario in which Mr. Chávez might succeed in exerting control over a medium that until now has largely escaped his sway.

“Satire,” he said, “always evolves to resist the attempts to extinguish it.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/21/world/americas/21venezuela.html
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