* Jokes proliferate about shortages and food queues
* Comedian says socialist government becoming thin-skinned
* Surreal reality often hard to distinguish from satire
By Peter Murphy
CARACAS, July 30 A genie appears from a lamp in
the hands of an astonished Venezuelan boy to declare: "You can
ask for anything - except toilet paper!"
The world's highest inflation and shortages of basics from
milk to toilet roll are really no laughing matter for
Venezuelans, but they find solace in a thriving comedy scene
lampooning the governance behind the economic strife.
Through cartoons like the genie, stand-up comedy, and online
satire, humor has become a prominent and poignant form of
criticism as mainstream media exercise more self-censorship.
"Despite oil at $100 a barrel, Venezuela is living through
the worst economic crisis of its history ... It's the Midas
touch in reverse," stand-up comic Laureano Marquez told Reuters
before entertaining a 600-strong audience at a Caracas theater.
His 90-minute routine delivered a witty critique of problems
from food queues and medicine shortages, to government
corruption and skewed courts. The stand-up branded his show a
"sit down" because of the serious themes at which it pokes fun.
"Humor may be mankind's most serious attitude because we use
it to say some very painful things," said Marquez, 50, who
warmed up his audience with jokes about the trials of the weekly
grocery shop, and the queues and squabbles caused by shortages.
One audience member afterwards called it "therapy."
The 1998 election of ex-army commander Hugo Chavez swept in
a socialist "revolution" that won plaudits for dedicating more
of Venezuela's oil wealth to helping its poor. But 15 years on
and a year after his death, price increases and crime are
plaguing Venezuelans while under-investment is constricting oil
HARD TIMES SPAWN MORE HUMOR
The economic crisis has been bad for business - but a boon
for humor. "Ironically, the worse the country gets, the better
the humor gets," said press cartoonist Eduardo Sanabria or Edo,
who has sketched for El Mundo daily for the last seven years.
One cartoon in July showed Chavez dancing with six plump
cows representing the oil sector bonanza, then successor Nicolas
Maduro later gazing in horror at a list of bills to be paid as
the now-emaciated cows loll around drunk or crying in despair.
Edo feared he would be left struggling for ideas after
Chavez's death in March 2013 from cancer, but he says material
has abounded under successor Maduro who has so far held
steadfast to most Chavez-era polices.
One close-to-the-bone cartoon strip by satirical website
"The Bipolar Chiguire" showed Maduro, who in real life said
Chavez was "inoculated" with cancer by his foes, seeking ideas
from advisers about how to explain Chavez's illness.
"It was Israel," says one. "It was the CIA", pipes up
another. "Tell the truth," suggests a third aide, who is
promptly thrown out of the window.
Edo depicted the government's much-vaunted war on corruption
as a net reaching into the sea, picking out small fish while
huge ones nearby grin and clutch suitcases bulging with dollars.
Though most prominent comedians appear pro-opposition, the
anti-government parties do not escape the derision.
Divisions within the Democratic Unity coalition, for
example, were mocked in one cartoon as a jumble of signs with
their various objectives all pointed in different directions.
SATIRE OR REALITY?
The imposing skyscrapers of Caracas are a testament to
decades of oil wealth, adding to the sense of bewilderment now
at barren shelves and near-worthless bundles of cash.
On the street, Venezuelans constantly josh with each other
about the situation. "Careful you don't get robbed! Hide it!"
people shout at shoppers seen with flour, oil or sugar.
"Welcome to Havana!" passersby sometimes taunt the queues.
The increasing surrealism means genuine news stories
sometimes rival satire for absurdity, say Juan Andres Ravell and
Oswaldo Graziani Lemoine, creators of El Chiguire Bipolar.
Their stories often fool readers who stumble upon outlandish
stories on social media without realizing they are fake.
"The government has done so many crazy things in the past
you can believe anything," said Graziani.
Maduro's recent assertion that airlines' cutting of flights
to Venezuela was due to reassignments for the World Cup, and not
a $4 billion debt, might not have looked amiss as a satire.
Ditto a genuine announcement that passengers at Caracas'
international airport would have to pay a new ozone tax.
Headlines from El Chiguire this week included a dig at the
ruling Socialist Party's deification of Chavez - "Party congress
debates whether Chavez was galactic or celestial."
The site comically sidestepped the latest national
controversy over a former intelligence head jailed in Aruba due
to U.S. drug-trafficking charges: "We're not going to write an
article about the detained general because we want to live!"
Shortages of ferry tickets were lampooned with a spoof new
"dolphin" service, while the Byzantine three-tier currency
system spawned this headline: "New currency scheme contemplates
the exchange of tears for dollars."
Comedians say controls over free speech have tightened under
Maduro, especially since anti-government protests this year
sparked violence killing more than 40 people.
"You can feel that this government is more sensitive to
criticism," said cartoonist Edo. "Chavez could live with
humorous criticism because he had his charisma."
The Chiguire Bipolar's website has been hacked and content
substituted with pro-government messages, and stand-ups say they
can no longer book government-controlled theaters as venues.
Comedian Luis Chataing's TV show was ended in June by
private broadcaster Televen after his mockery of the
government's display of emails as evidence of coup allegations.
In the skit, Chataing showed viewers how to falsify evidence
using paper, scissors and glue - an apparent jab at the amateur
appearance of the e-mails shown on TV with annotations and
arrows pointing to the allegedly incriminating sections.
"All you need is paper, photos of those incriminated, red
arrows that you can find anywhere left over from a prior
production of false evidence ... an email you've written
yourself ... and of course a lot of bad faith."
(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Andrew
Cawthorne and Lisa Shumaker)