No Joke: A Comic Runs for Venezuelan President
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
It's hard to upstage Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The media spotlight follows the outspoken leader around the world, from Fidel Castro's bedside to Russia and Iran. And at home, his message is everywhere. His Sunday talk show sets the country's news agenda. But a new face is stealing some of the limelight in Venezuela.
NPR's Julie McCarthy traveled to the island of Margarita and introduces us to a presidential candidate who's drawing crowds and leaving them laughing.
JULIE McCARTHY reporting:
An amusement park spoofing Jurassic Park was all the prop that comedian Benjamin Rausseo needed to launch his campaign on the sun-baked island of his birth.
(Soundbite of music)
McCARTHY: He threw his hat into the ring, saying he had a lot in common with President Chavez. I'm ugly, he's ugly, he says. I was poor, he was poor. I talk, he talks. The difference, Rausseo says, is that I live here in Venezuela.
Chavez just completed a long world tour that had him ordering weapons in Russia, commiserating with Iran and touting Vietnam's anti-imperialism. Rausseo says what Venezuela needs is tourism, not communism.
The 45-year-old stand-up comic is one of the most beloved entertainers in Venezuela. A former shoeshine boy, he amassed an empire of businesses, including this theme park, making people laugh. His irreverent slapstick humor is as difficult to translate as it is to broadcast - and keep the FCC license -but this comedian with a rubber face says his bid for the presidency is no joke.
(Soundbite of cheering)
McCARTHY: But fans who gathered at the park weren't quite aware of his serious intent. Their refrain as the candidate laid out his platform was beer, beer. As they scream for free alcohol, Rausseo talks of a dignified Venezuela. A billboard at the entrance to this screwball world known as the Fantasy Kingdom of Musipan shows Rausseo as the reigning monarch, the Count of Guacharo.
Mr. BENJAMIN RAUSSEO (Presidential Candidate, Venezuela): (Speaking foreign language)
McCARTHY: The count mugs for the crowd in his kingdom, and tells them smile and we'll change Venezuela. Bodyguards swarm, bearing rubber swords and clearing his path.
(Soundbite of crowd)
McCARTHY: Supporters chant Piedra, the name of his party, meaning stone in Spanish, but the phrase vota Piedra sounds similar to a slightly crude Venezuelan expression meaning to get very angry. We're not center-left, we're not center-right, Rausseo declares. We're the center of the filet mignon.
When the candidate turns from absurd humor to serious themes, again his message is drowned out by the ruckus.
(Soundbite of crowd)
McCARTHY: Help me to change guns for books, tanks for schools and planes for hospitals, he says, competing with the din. In a reference to the spending that President Chavez has lavished on friends abroad, Rausseo says the handouts are over. First the Venezuelans. Everyone else, stand in line. Teacher Emmy Lovee(ph) says she just might have found her candidate.
Ms. EMMY LOVEE (Venezuelan Teacher): Maybe. He's an honest man, no? And at this moment, we need that.
McCARTHY: There's only anecdotal evidence of Rausseo's popularity, but the comedian says he's taken his cues from Dick Morris, the American political consultant, who says anyone who hopes to compete against Chavez should be outside the political mainstream and not be linked to the past or the state.
Venezuelan pollster Luis Vicente Leon says no current opposition figure has those qualities.
Mr. LUIS VICENTE LEON (Venezuelan Pollster): None of them were able to create this kind of, you know, shock in the country, everybody talking about a comedian. Every newspaper put him in the front page. Every important journalist, you know, crazy to interview him. It's incredible.
McCARTHY: Leon says the clamor over Rausseo's campaign attests to the weakness of Venezuela's opposition. Yet there is speculation over who might be behind the candidate who has caught the public eye. One theory holds that the Chavez camp is financing the comedian, only to have him drop out at the last minute, a claim that Rausseo laughs off.
Mr. RAUSSEO: (Speaking foreign language)
McCARTHY: I'm not going to drop out of the race, he says, and I hope that Chavez doesn't drop out because I need him to certify my win on December 3. More likely, Chavez will have the last laugh. Polls show him commanding 55 percent support, and Leon says the incumbent will be more than happy to have a comedian in the race.
Mr. LEON: It's going to say that our opposition in Venezuela is a joke, and he has the perfect proof about it.
McCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Caracas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.