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Drawing fans and foes alike, a satirical site skewers Chavez


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POSTED: Sunday, March 21, 2010

CARACAS, Venezuela—This may be a perilous time to operate a Web site focused on politics here, given President Hugo Chavez'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 Chavez 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 Chiguire Bipolar, or Bipolar Capybara, is rivaling or surpassing in page views leading Venezuelan newspapers like the Caracas daily El Nacional.

The rise of Chiguire 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, Chavez pushed RCTV, a critical television network, off the airwaves and revoked the licenses of 34 radio stations across the country. Chavez has also forced broadcasters to transmit live his hours-long speeches and televised appearances.

"Chavez 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 Andres Ravell, 28, a part-time television scriptwriter who is one of the three founders of Chiguire (Tchee-GWEE-reh).

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 Chavez and other Venezuelan figures, sometimes even from the anti-Chavez camp.

Other Latin American leaders are frequent targets, too. For instance, Chiguire mocks the feel-good diplomacy of Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio 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 Chavez have grown so close that they have glued their hands together.

Chiguire 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 ideological 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 Chavez and Bolivia's leftist president, Evo Morales, as star-crossed lovers who dine on American bald eagle. Colombia's right-wing president, Alvaro Uribe, comes across as a prude, and Argentina's president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, as a temptress who entrances Brazil's 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 Camaleon (Chameleon).

Graziani said going after Chavez's critics, in addition to the president himself, and critiquing certain aspects of Venezuelan society were also priorities. For instance, Chiguire 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 Ravell's own father, Alberto Federico Ravell, a strident critic of Chavez and a prominent media executive here who said he was fired this year by the television network Globovision as part of an effort to alleviate pressure exerted on the organization by Chavez's government.

"We make it a principle that no one is immune, not even ourselves," said 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 Chavez's government uses to attack its critics, has condemned Chiguire Bipolar, describing its founders in February as partisan anti-Chavez drug-addicts. "We appreciated the publicity," Ravell said in response to the state-television tirade against them.

In a separate episode this year, Chavez's information minister, Blanca Eekhout, demanded that Laureano Marquez, 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 Chavez.

"Chavez'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 Andres Canizalez, a researcher on media freedom here for the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders.

Others fixtures persist in criticizing Chavez, especially print media like Tal Cual, El Universal and El Nacional. And the surging use of Twitter here to transmit antigovernment missives has prompted a sharp reaction from Chavez, 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 Chavez threatened to introduce Internet controls.

Chavez 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-Chavez officials have said that site administrators should follow the law applied to broadcasters and be held responsible for comments.

Ravell and Graziani, who earn a living as freelance television producers and scriptwriters, finance Chiguire 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," Ravell said.

In an interview, Ravell said he remained hopeful that Chiguire 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 Chavez 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."