Photo: Noticias Barquisimeto, retrieved.

When I was little, I often heard a peculiar joke: Hugo Chávez was like a vagina. He had bad hair, thick lips and enormous powers of persuasion.

Although I was too innocent to understand this gag, something was certain: this golpista soldier could convince the masses, within our borders and abroad, of his dictatorial project, sustained for the most part by ignorance, deep pockets… and his sense of humor.

I’m surprised at how people still say Chávez “was cool” and Nicolás Maduro is a cruel dictator, but I guess it was a several-year-long effort: while he expanded his allegedly inclusive policies, the Barinas strongman spent hours on the screen singing, taking pictures with children, telling funny stories from his childhood and even joking about that time he got diarrhea on a mandatory broadcast.

This is why many still remember him as a relatively positive figure, just a bit “crazy” and “funny,” even though he had political prisoners, shut down TV stations, expropriated and bankrupted dozens of national companies, enriched a large number of relatives and friends with State money, armed and trained loyal civilians, and created an unsustainable economic system that has brought utter misery to the nation with the largest oil reserves in the world.

“That’s why he was different,” a chavista neighbor told me once. “Because he was like us, one of the people.”

Maduro jokes during delicate moments in ways that come off as sadistic.

According to Elio Casale, founder and writer of El Chigüire Bipolar, “every strongman fancies himself important and unpredictable, that’s why they don’t take mockery kindly. Because they know that laughter pulls them off their pedestal. Nothing like a good laugh to remind them of their humanity.”

Maduro, a guy with no charisma whatsoever, has tried to play the same cards, but comes across more like a psychopath mocking you while you’re down.

His latest joke, commented on national and international media, had to do with Colombian President Iván Duque. According to Maduro, his counterpart has “the face of an angel,” and he’s “tempted to pinch those chubby cheeks.”

But if it were just that, it’d be fine; Maduro jokes during delicate moments in ways that come off as sadistic. In 2016, when hunger and malnutrition in Venezuela started to reach unprecedented levels, he claimed that the “Maduro diet” gets you “hard” without using “viagra,” a commentary that tells us quite a bit of how his inner machinery works if that’s what he finds funny. During the protests of 2017, he made a rape joke after a protester decided to march naked: “It’s good he didn’t drop the soap!

And, because the guy has a one-track mind, he’s been repeatedly homophobic against the opposition, referring to Henrique Capriles as “la Capriloca,” because chavismo is all for inclusion as long as it isn’t real and all the queers remember their place.

This is politics as a circus, a style championed by Chávez and continued by the rest of his posse.

This is politics as a circus, a style championed by Chávez and continued by the rest of his posse. It’s less and less effective every day because hyperinflation and the collapse of public services in the country has stripped the Revolution’s humor from any charm it could sustain, even in its supporters.

But of course, the circus is only fun when they’re setting it up.

Over these 20 years, the dictatorship’s attacks against humor have been countless. From sanctioning newspapers for publishing satirical covers to ordering TV shows off the air, as in the case of Misión Emilio and Chataing TV in 2014, the revolution takes itself as seriously as only autocracies can. In 1967, the Venezuelan communist poet Alí Lameda, who was working as a translator in North Korea, made an ironic comment regarding Kim Il Sung that costed him seven years in prison, torture and terror. Recently, we had the two firefighters from Mérida who posted a video in which they compared Maduro to a donkey, the kind of stuff that you find outrageously offensive in grade school, yet that almost sent the men to prison for 20 years. Maduro can call himself “Maburro” on TV, but if you dare to do so, you’ll see who gets the last laugh.

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