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Venezuelan Muralists, Cartoonist, Paint Different Pictures of President Chavez

  • Michael Bowman

Cartoonist Eduardo Sanabria and one of his creations

Cartoonist Eduardo Sanabria and one of his creations

Government-sponsored political imagery abounds in the Venezuelan capital, where President Hugo Chavez constantly seeks to link his socialist program to ideals espoused by liberators, revolutionaries, and leftist icons from South America and beyond. The omnipresent messaging on walls and billboards - meant to inspire ideological fervor, political loyalty, and reverence - stands in sharp contrast to the work of humorists who poke fun at Mr. Chavez.

Walk the streets of Caracas, and you will find yourself under the watchful gaze of South American revolutionary hero Simon Bolivar, Argentine-born communist Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and, of course, Venezuela's own Hugo Chavez.

Marketing the president's leftist ideals takes many forms and relies on numerous actors, including bands of muralists contracted by the government. Meet 22-year-old Nelson:

"Art serves to communicate, to deliver a message," he said. "I love painting and using color to get people's attention, to help them understand the message."

Overseeing the project is David Tarazona, who rejects any suggestion that he is a Chavez propaganda tool.

"We do not want a country full of Chavez-followers," he said. "We want a country full of socialists."

Tarazona admits the seeming contradiction of his group's independent contracting work - a capitalist construct - in support of a socialist government.

What do the murals accomplish? Political analyst Luis Vicente Leon says the evocative visual messages breathe emotional life into the relationship President Chavez maintains with his backers.

"He is applauded because he distributes oil wealth, because he spends money," said Luis Vicente Leon. "There comes a point where that model is unmanageable even if you have all the money in the world, when votes can no longer be bought. And so Chavez has to find a new connection with the people, one based on emotion and ideology. He needs people to say, 'I don't care if I am hungry, I stand with Chavez!'"

If muralists seek to inflate the president's persona and ideals, Eduardo Sanabria wields a pen to deflate them. The political cartoonist for Caracas' "El Mundo" newspaper delights in poking fun.

"Humor has to question power. It absolutely does," he said. "We are living in tense times. We are very polarized. And humorists are tasked with alleviating that tension, opening people's eyes and making them think. But also making them laugh."

And does President Chaves have a sense of humor?

"Few people acknowledge it, but Chavez is very much like most Venezuelans," said Sanabria. "Chavez is the typical Venezuelan jokester, and that is one of the reasons people identify with him."

By conveying his thoughts through cartoons rather than verbalizing direct critiques of the president, Sanabria has yet to be a target of government wrath. Even so …

"Humor reveals the seams in the fabric of power," he said. "Rulers do not like it."

Across town, muralists put the finishing touches on their work.

"It is fantastic. I am content, truly," said Nelson.

The message: Venezuela will never be a colony of any nation or force.

"Venezuela who does it belong to? Us or somebody else? It belongs to us," he said.

In politically-polarized Venezuela, two forms of communication with diametrically-opposed goals but the same primary subject matter: President Chavez and his socialist revolution.