Español“These cartoonists have been able to mock power.” This is how Héctor Schamis, Georgetown University professor and El País columnist, introduced Venezuela’s Rayma Suprani and Ecuador’s Xavier Bonilla both of whom have been targeted by their respective governments.
Bonilla and Suprani were featured speakers at the “Cartoons in Times of Authoritarianism” conference hosted by human-rights advocacy NGO Freedom House on March 18 in Washington, DC.
Both artists have firsthand experience of the crackdown by Latin-American governments on freedom of expression.
In February, the Ecuadorian authorities began investigating Bonilla, known by his pen name Bonil, on charges of “socioeconomic discrimination” for one his cartoons poking fun at a government minister.
Suprani, who goes by her first name as a cartoonist, was meanwhile fired in September 2014 after 19 years at Venezuelan daily El Universal over a drawing critical of the administration of President Nicolás Maduro.
Schamis’s opening remarks explored why governments envy cartoonists for their power. “While you can express the same idea in a 1,000-word article, a cartoon makes one’s point very clear, and merges politics with humor.”
For Bonilla, “humor has been a philosophy, a mental exercise in being alive and active,” he said, adding that being a cartoonist is about “taking very seriously the role of not taking anything seriously.”
The satirist with Ecuador’s El Universo reaffirmed his commitment to “permanent skepticism without dogmas or sacred statues, a bit like birds that surround monuments and take the shiny polish off them.”
Defending the Right to Offend
Both speakers drew on the brutal attack against the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo in January to explore how the right to “blaspheme” against sacred cows is also in danger in Latin-American countries. They also emphasized that they directed criticism at all those in power, regardless of political tendency: irreverence is their guiding principle.
Suprani, who visited Washington amid tense relations between the US government and the Maduro administration over new sanctions for Venezuelan officials, explained that “for a cartoonist, the most important thing is not to believe in ideologies, because in the end it’s the people, not the government, who end up suffering when left and right fight each other.”
Bonilla and Suprani agreed on the need for a strong media to act as counterbalance to government and dispel the notion of one official truth. That’s why, the Ecuadorian cartoonist said, he called upon the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on March 17 to take an active stance on promoting human rights and free speech in Ecuador.
Bonilla needs such support more than ever. Upon his return to Ecuador, he promptly received the news that Ecuador’s attorney general had opened preliminary criminal investigations against him. If found guilty of discrimination charges, he could face up to three years in prison — all for one cartoon.
Adam Dubove contributed to this article.
Translated by Daniel Duarte. Edited by Laurie Blair.