Cartoon and Crisis in Venezuela

June 18, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez, stands at the center of a political upheaval. He returned triumphantly to power after a 48-hour coup in April, but his opponents remain determined to get rid of him, and the country is almost evenly divided between the two sides.

It’s all providing rich material for the pen of Pedro Leon Zapata. His cartoons have appeared six days a week for almost 40 years in the country’s most popular newspaper, El Nacional. I asked Zapata how he would explain to Americans this moment in Venezuela’s history.

PEDRO LEON ZAPATA, Cartoonist (Translated): How can you explain what is happening in Venezuela if even we Venezuelans can’t understand it? What is happening in Venezuela doesn’t have a logical explanation.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Who is Hugo Chavez? Where did he come from in Venezuela?

PEDRO LEON ZAPATA (Translated): In astronomical terms, El Comandante Chavez is a black hole.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The answers are vintage Zapata, a man with a strong appreciation for black humor and the absurd. And because Zapata finds Hugo Chavez and his opponents almost equally absurd, the cartoonist is having a field day now.

PEDRO LEON ZAPATA (Translated): Since my thinking is pessimistic, which is true of a lot of humorists, I feel happy that all the bad things I think of are becoming reality. I consider myself, because of my pessimism, to be a kind of oracle.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Zapata’s worldview was formed partly during his early years as a painter, when dadaism and surrealism, especially their exaltation of the strange and absurd, influenced his work. He studied painting in Mexico, where he knew the Mexican greats Diego Rivera and Frieda Khalo. And Zapata still paints and sells his work in galleries around the world. But he said this isn’t the time for painting in Venezuela.

PEDRO LEON ZAPATA (Translated): In this moment that we’re living in Venezuela, to be a painter– and I say this as a painter– doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense to be a painter in this moment. And it makes much less sense when you can draw cartoons. And for me, cartoons are the perfect form for expressing fully all that happens to me inside as a consequence of what is going on outside.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: On the morning we visited his studio, Zapata was drawing a cartoon with a person wearing the beret of a Chavez supporter saying, “death to the cupulas,” the elites. Chavez calls his opponents “cupulas podridas” — rotten elites.

PEDRO LEON ZAPATA (Translated): And here I put, “long live the crapulas”– drunks or dissolutes– and that’s something rotten too. It’s a play on words. Now we don’t have cupulas, we have crapulas. Crapula is a concept worse than cupula, so the idea is– to say it as simply as possible– nothing has changed.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Zapata has touched people in more ways than through his editorial page cartoons. He has worked in radio, television, universities, and the theater as political commentator, art historian, actor, and even as a musician. On this day, he was a guest on a radio program talking about the use of images of the bullfight in music and painting. Over the years, Zapata has been a man of the left. He was sympathetic to the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, for example, and critical of U.S. involvement there and elsewhere in Latin America. President Chavez also considers himself a man of the left, but that hasn’t impressed a skeptical Zapata.

PEDRO LEON ZAPATA (Translated): Here they want to make a peaceful revolution, a revolution without violence. If to make a revolution with violence you have to be a genius, what would you have to be to do it without violence? Much more than a genius. They don’t have the slightest idea how to do it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And so Zapata has documented what he sees as the failures of the Chavez revolution. In this cartoon, Karl Marx, supposedly a key influence on the President, is complaining, “when I said society was divided into classes, I didn’t mean those with me and those against me,” pointing up what Zapata sees as Chavez’s tendency to divide the world into those for and against him. It all delights the pessimist Zapata.

PEDRO LEON ZAPATA (Translated): No one is more happy or optimistic than a pessimist when what he believes is going to happen, happens. More happiness than this is impossible to conceive. (Laughter)

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: A high point for Zapata came two years ago, when one of his cartoons was the subject of President Chavez’s weekly television program. In the drawing, Zapata suggested that Chavez, a military man– hence the sword– likes civil society only when it will follow orders. “Civil society” is a term the president’s opponents use to describe themselves.

PEDRO LEON ZAPATA (Translated): I’d like Zapata to clarify this before the country. I ask you, Zapata. Do you believe this, or did they tell you do it for publishing in El Nacional? Did you take money, Zapata, or do you believe this? I await your answer. I’m obliged, as head of state and commander in chief of the national armed forces, to ask you this, because this here doesn’t correspond to reality.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: People reacted to the president’s remarks by running out to buy the newspaper, and then in a public meeting that wasn’t videotaped, Zapata responded in typical fashion, asking Chavez how much he had been paid to give the cartoonist so much publicity. Zapata said that at times like that, he’s glad he became a cartoonist, though it wasn’t his first choice.

PEDRO LEON ZAPATA (Translated): I think one doesn’t choose cartooning, which is a form of humor, but that it chooses you. If it were otherwise– for example, in a different field– it would be like asking a beauty queen, “why did you choose beauty?” I’d like to have chosen painting. Maybe painting didn’t want me, but cartooning did.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In recent years, Zapata has used the style of his cartoons in very large projects, like this mural alongside a highway in the capital city, Caracas, which is Zapata’s home. He said he found the project daunting– the mural is about one-eighth of a mile long– until he realized he could do it as if it were a large cartoon.

PEDRO LEON ZAPATA (Translated): It’s the same artistic language I’ve been using to express myself for years in my cartoons, which everybody in this country knows.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He also realized he should make use of the fact the mural was by a highway.

PEDRO LEON ZAPATA (Translated): This gave me the idea of entitling the mural “Conductores de Venezuela,” “Drivers of Venezuela,” and it refers not only to the drivers who pass daily in all directions by the mural, which is 160 meters long, but it also refers to the great men and women who have produced and driven our country, led of, course, by the most important conductor, the liberator Simon Bolivar, who appears driving a truck in the central part of the mural.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Zapata said he believes that Venezuela’s current problems can be explained partly by a lack of good leaders of the sort portrayed in the mural. And he said it’s hard to know where Venezuela is being led now.

PEDRO LEON ZAPATA (Translated): We don’t know for sure, as a people, where we’re being taken, and the suspicion exists that those who are taking us also don’t know where they’re going. So how can we explain what’s happening in Venezuela?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s a question that gives Pedro Leon Zapata a reason to go happily to his drawing table each day.