Christopher Toothaker / AP
The Boston Globe
February 14, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela --Comedian Laureano Marquez has poked fun at politicians for decades without getting into trouble with the law, so he didn't think twice about writing a tongue-in-cheek newspaper editorial based on a dialogue between President Hugo Chavez and his 9-year-old daughter.
But Marquez and a publishing company that printed the column in the Tal Cual newspaper are now facing fines imposed by a local court for "violating the honor, reputation and private life" of Rosines Chavez Rodriguez, Chavez's youngest daughter.
Marquez -- one of Venezuela's leading humorists -- denies any wrongdoing and argues the $18,600 fine imposed on the Mosca Analfabeta publisher is part of a government initiative in which pro-Chavez prosecutors and judges are being used to silence critics. Marquez must separately pay a fine of a yet-to-be-determined amount.
"I think this government has a concept of society in terms of friends and enemies," Marquez said in a telephone interview. "Governments that see society like that are very sensitive to criticism, and they don't tolerate it."
Chavez, a former paratrooper who accuses Venezuela's privately-owned media of conspiring to topple his government, denies restricting press freedoms.
Marquez insists he meant no harm when he used 9-year-old Rosines as a medium for mocking her father's decision in 2005 to remake Venezuela's coat of arms so that a white horse would appear galloping left, not right -- an evident metaphor for Chavez's revolutionary politics.
During a broadcast of his radio and television show, "Hello President," Chavez told listeners that Rosines said the horse looked strange running to the right while craning its neck in the opposite direction.
Within weeks, pro-Chavez lawmakers pushed through a reform changing the coat of arms.
"He considered changing the coat-of-arms due to a suggestion from his daughter," Marquez said. "I simply wrote her a letter asking her to request another series of changes."
In the editorial, he suggested she ask her father to trade the horse on the new coat of arms for a devoted house pet, such as a Golden Retriever or tortoise -- "a good symbol of our sluggishness in everything."
"Also tell him not to talk about things beyond 2021," Marquez wrote. "He shouldn't do it because those of us who don't agree with him (don't worry, there are fewer of us every day, according to the official statistics) get desperate, which isn't good."
Chavez has repeatedly said he wants to continue governing Venezuela until 2021 or longer.
Representatives of the National Council for the Protection of Children and Adolescents urged prosecutors to file charges against Marquez and the publisher, Mosca Analfabeta, justifying the measures as necessary to shield a child from politics-related slander. The council did not ask that Marquez also be prosecuted on criminal charges.
"They saw there was a violation of the girl's rights, so they took measures," said Antonio Ramos, who heads the council in central Lara state, where Rosines resides.
Press freedom watchdogs and rights groups have accused Chavez of using the judiciary and new legislation restricting broadcast content to silence critics. The Venezuelan leader also has faced sharp criticism from the Organization of American States for his decision not to renew the broadcast license of an opposition-aligned TV station -- Radio Caracas Television.
Chavez, who is divorced and has four children from two former marriages, objected to Marquez's editorial but also acknowledged that he shared some of the blame for bringing his 9-year-old daughter into the public spotlight.
"I'm also to blame because I name her, but of course I name her for other reasons," he said.