National Security & Defense

A Lady in Venezuela

Rayma Suprani is a Venezuelan cartoonist — a journalist and cartoonist. That’s what her business card says: “journalist & cartoonist.” It takes guts to do what she does in Venezuela. She has guts. But she is also thinking of leaving the country, as anyone in her shoes would. I mean, we would all at least think about leaving the country.

‐For 19 years, Rayma worked for El Universal, a major newspaper. Then, in July of last year, the paper was bought by the government, through a shell company.

El Universal had long been critical of the government. No more, of course.

‐Rayma, like everyone else, was pressured to drop her criticism of the government. She wouldn’t. The last straw came in September, when she drew a cartoon about her country’s condition.

On top was an EKG graph — one of those squiggly lines — indicating “Health.” On the bottom was Hugo Chávez’s signature, flatlining. That was “Health in Venezuela.” In other words, the country was dead or dying.

Why use the late Chávez’s signature? Because that image, the signature, has become a totem for chavistas. They have it tattooed on their bodies, for example.

To see Rayma’s cartoon, go here. Again, it was the last straw for her: After she drew it, they fired her.

‐An opposition politician paid tribute to Rayma: “You have masses of talent and the admiration of thousands — just what those in power lack.”

‐Rayma Suprani still lives in Caracas. She is still working, after a fashion. She publishes on the Web — “the only place in Venezuela where one finds freedom now,” she says.

‐She grew up in Caracas. She has an Italian name, like many South Americans: Her grandparents immigrated after the war.

‐When a girl, she was not interested in politics. She was interested in drawing, though. She was compelled to draw, apparently by nature. “I translated the way I saw the world into drawings. There’s a saying I like a lot: ‘If I cannot draw it, it’s because I cannot understand it.’”

‐Her career was launched well before Chávez attained power (in 1999). “I was born in a democracy. That’s why I’m a democrat. I don’t understand what’s going on in my country, because it was always free.”

Before Chávez, officials of the government didn’t necessarily like the cartoons that Rayma (and others) drew. But they had to live with it. They had to swallow it. They were a civilian, democratic government.

The chavista government is something else. A military government, “more brutal, less tolerant,” as Rayma says, understatedly.

‐I have a question for Rayma. By the way, have I mentioned that I’ve met her at the Oslo Freedom Forum, the human-rights conference in the Norwegian capital? Well, I have. That’s where we talk.

I say, “Does the government take greater offense to you because you’re a woman? Or is that unknowable?”

She says that they do take greater offense because she’s a woman. She knows that because of what they say: “You need a husband to put you in your place.” They say worse, much worse.

‐They have denounced her on state television. They have these hate sessions, to demonize their opponents. They show your picture, and put Nazi symbols around it, or draw horns on your head. They demonize, denounce, and degrade you. They’ve said that Rayma is a traitor, a terrorist, and so on.

“When you’re a public person, you’re afraid of that,” says Rayma, “because you’re out on the streets, and they have shown your picture on television. That is a threat to your personal security. And, as you know, Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in the world.”

Presently, the country is No. 2, behind Honduras.

‐Rayma is saddened and alarmed at what state television does: They propagandize and indoctrinate people, all day long. They pour hatred out onto liberals or anyone else who wants to dissent.

‐“Is Venezuela still a democracy?” I ask. “No,” says Rayma.

‐“Do you receive death threats?” I ask. Yes, she does: through anonymous phone calls and through their equivalent on social media.

‐To say it again, she has thought about leaving, but this is fairly complicated: There are bureaucratic hoops to jump through, before you can leave the country for good. Before you can leave it neatly.

‐Rayma appreciates coming to conferences such as the Oslo Freedom Forum. “You meet people who understand your situation. You have the opportunity to tell your story. You feel that you are not alone.”

‐Surely she has support within Venezuela, right? “There are people who want to say something now, in support of me, but are afraid to do it.”

When she was at the airport in Caracas, about to fly to Norway, the immigration official took a long time with her. He was asking where she was going, why she was going there, when she was coming back, etc. Rayma was a little scared.

Finally, the man said, “So, you’re Rayma, the cartoonist?” “Yes,” said Rayma. “Congratulations,” the man said. “I cannot say anything else, as you know. But congratulations.”

“Why was he congratulating you?” I ask. “Because you had the opportunity to leave the country, if only for a conference, or because of your work?” Because of her work, is the answer.

‐“Why did they let you out for the conference?” I ask. “Will they let you back in?” “In a dictatorship, you never know,” answers Rayma. “They like it that way. That’s the way they control you — they make you live in uncertainty.”

‐She has family in Caracas — siblings and others. “I’m always fearing that, if there’s any reprisal, they’ll go for my family first, in order to pressure me.”

‐I say to Rayma, “Are you famous in Venezuela? I have to ask you, because I don’t know Venezuelan society.” Yes, she’s “known,” she says. And this works both against her and for her.

All the bad actors know who she is. That’s bad. She’s a target. At the same time, her celebrity may give her a layer — a thin layer — of protection. Or maybe it won’t.

‐The important thing, she says, is to publicize threats whenever they occur. You’ve got to get the word out, on social media, or however else you can. You’ve got to scream about it. You should not stay silent. You’ve got to say, “Hey, they’re threatening me.”

After Rayma received death threats, Amnesty International swung into action, sending letters to the Venezuelan government, demanding that steps be taken to protect Rayma’s physical integrity — her very life.

Are letters to Caracas “action”? It is better than nothing. It says, “We’re watching, and we give a damn.”

‐I ask Rayma, “Are there any independent media left in Venezuela?” Almost none, she says. The government has been shutting down all outlets, or taking them over.

‐“Is repression worse today than when Chávez was alive?” Worse under his successor Nicolás Maduro? Yes, says Rayma, “much, much worse.”

She says, “It’s hard to believe, but Chávez kept some kind of order, some kind of balance. He had a big mouth, and a volatile personality, but there was less repression than now. Much, much less.” The new leaders “are truly dangerous — much more dangerous than Chávez.”

“Why is that so?” I ask. Rayma answers essentially this way: “You know the expression ‘to be more Catholic than the pope’? These guys have to prove they’re more chavista than Chávez.”

‐I ask the usual, end-of-interview question: “Is there anything else you’d like people to know?” Rayma says, “It’s really hard to understand what’s going on in Venezuela. If you read One Hundred Years of Solitude, that explains what Latin America is.”

‐That famous novel is by the late Gabriel García Márquez — a Colombian who loved, loved Fidel Castro. García Márquez was just about his best pal. And he (the novelist) did much to cover up for, and perfume, the Cuban dictatorship.

“Why do you think García Márquez so loved Fidel Castro and the Communist dictatorship?” I ask Rayma. “In Latin America,” she says, “there’s a feeling of anti-imperialism.” The United States is the colossus. “People try to separate themselves from the Right, and they get into a space that they think represents the Left, and they wind up with people who are nothing but dictators and murderers.”

‐I remark to Rayma, “It must be a strange experience to grow up in a free country, live in a free country, and then see it become unfree. That’s an experience that not many people have.” She says, “People speak of exile. But there’s a kind of in-country exile, when you realize that your country is disappearing around you, and you see how the faces of the people change with fear.”

‐Rayma Suprani is apprehensive — it’s obvious. Anybody would be. She is also brilliant — you can see this in her cartooning — and, of course, brave. It is touching to meet her. Everyone of goodwill should be rooting for her, and anyone else who sticks his neck out in favor of freedom.

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