By: Sascha Hannig and Rafael Rincón
And, in the end, the inescapable day arrived. The new editor of the historic and once prestigious Venezuelan newspaper El Universal called her to his office. He was going to tell her that which, somehow, she already saw coming: that she was fired. After 19 years of drawing, as she says so herself; “the destruction of the country,” Rayma Suprani had overdone it with irritating the regime with her vignette. And it is just that El Universal was no longer the same it was before. With the control of the newspaper transferred to a consortium common to Chavismo, the government had extra power to quickly remove any inconvenience from their desks. The intellectual and artistic irreverence of the cartoonist was one of them, and since the change of hands of the newspaper, her days were counted. In fact, she had been warned already.
A bold graphic complaint on September 18, 2014 was the final straw. Using the iconic — and at that time sacred — signature of the late Comandante Chavez, Rayma pointed with her acute pencil who was to blame for the catastrophic national health crisis. She was aware of what she would surely have to face in a system that strangles independence and freedom of expression, but not at all willing to give in to self-censorship. She knew that exercising the right to criticism was – and still is in Chavista Venezuela – like playing Russian roulette. It could pull the trigger at first… or at any other attempt.
A descendant of Italians who came to Venezuela fleeing fascism, Rayma was born and raised in democracy, and in that which they now call the “Saudi Venezuela”, ironically a cartoonish term used until today to refer to that country that raised so many Venezuelans in the oil boom, in that era of abundance that is remembered with the nostalgia of a “we were happy and we didn’t know it.”
Rayma’s story is that of many Venezuelans of her generation, and represents several sides at the same time, that of the dissident, that of the emigrant… that of the twice emigrant. That of a talent that has no way of breathing in a suffocating and hostile environment. That of the first massive diaspora in Republican history that today amounts to millions of fellow citizens scattered throughout the world.
Hopeful and eager to sketch the reconstruction of her country, Rayma has an impact that goes beyond drawing. This is her story.
1. Translating life into drawings
When and how did you start drawing?
I have been drawing since childhood. Actually, my primary form of expression has always been drawing and graphic expression, much more than being able to speak or say something verbally or through writing.
What does your family think of your artistic career?
I think they are proud of the work that has been done, but they have felt great tension because of the political persecution and the anguish of the time when I was hounded by the DA’s office, by the death threats, the anonymous insults. All this generates a lot of family anguish. Containment is important at that time, from friends, from publishers as well. All those things that the international and family support network entail is what makes you be able to cope with the totalitarian attack of a government.
The events of Charlie Hebdo marked a pattern in religious confrontation, in totalitarian confrontation against reason.
How is the Venezuela that you remember from the 70s and 80s, the one where you grew up?
At present there is a very terrible situation of deterioration. Of horror and war. Of hunger and basic needs that are not covered. I was born in democracy. I was born in a country with many liberties, with many options, with possibilities. An oil country that went from a rural life to a modern life very swiftly.
My generation, and others during the 40 years that democracy lasted, had the opportunity to study, graduate from university, think and be able to contribute to the country.
Being born in freedom, in democracy, made me have a very free mind, which I think that people born in dictatorship find it more difficult to attain. That is what I have found out with some fellow cartoonist who were born in Cuba or in other regimes with more freedom limitations.
I worked for 19 years in a newspaper, since the time when Chavez government began, and there I began to publish, let’s say, formally, my daily editorial in El Universal. It was 19 years drawing the destruction of Venezuela, the destruction of legality, the change of the constitution, processes that occurred to my sadness and pain… because I had to represent in drawing all this closure, this dismantling of a nation, of a republic, to the point where it has gotten today, which is in and of itself something definitely Dantesque.
You are a journalist by profession… how did you become a cartoonist for El Universal? And if you can tell the people who are going to read this interview, and maybe don’t know you, why did you end up leaving El Universal?
I always had the need to draw. I grew up translating life into drawings. I felt the need to study mass communication to take my writing to a higher level. Then I started working in a newspaper, while I was still studying at the university, called “Economy Today”. There I was able to make the connection between the two things that I was most passionate about: journalism and drawing. By mixing these two passions I could work with ideas, think about the country’s political and economic possibilities, play with graphic codes, or create my own universe with my own characters.
I worked for Diario de Caracas, which was very representative to Venezuela. In 1999 I changed to El Universal. At first it was a very classic newspaper, very orthodox, and at that time it began to renovate itself, to change its pages and include younger people in its team.
It coincides precisely with the arrival of Chavez in that year…
Precisely. That year I was baptized with the landslide that happened in the Vargas state , a natural tragedy caused by an excess of rains where lots lost their lives.
Since that event, tragedy has been a constant on the Venezuelan political scene, because that same date the elections were held and there was no aid to assist the people who were in need. The interest was focused on winning the election.
Author: The atmosphere of the late 80s and early 90s in Venezuela was marked by economic problems, corruption scandals, social unrest and democratic destabilization. In February 1989 there were the great and violent demonstrations that today are remembered as El Caracazo,
These began in the city of Guarenas and quickly reached Caracas, the capital of the country, located a few kilometers away. In 1992 there were two attempted coups against the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez. The best known and most important one was that of February 4th, which launched Hugo Chávez to the public scene. The then lieutenant colonel, along with other companions of the coup, ended up in jail and was released in March 1994. In December 1998, as a “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”, Chavez came to power as president-elect.
2. Journalists are not Kamikazes
Where are those difficult boundaries between what is mockery, freedom of expression and political correctness?
I think it is a great responsibility. The events of Charlie Hebdo marked a pattern in religious confrontation, in totalitarian confrontation against reason. Well, cartoons work with reasoning and religion works with dogma, and when these two possibilities are confronted, things such as the murder of these cartoonists in France is what happens.
I think that situation has generated a huge discussion about the limits of freedom of expression. For me there are none. We cannot have a sensor to say how far to go. This is about each person being able to have their own style, with the responsibilities that having an opinion entail. Cartoonists are not Kamikazes drawing bombs in newspapers. Everything has to be tied to what we want to denounce.
Do you remember any time where you have self-censored, where you said “this is as far as I’ll go”?
The commitment that one makes in front of the blank sheet of paper is to try to get rid of one’s own taboos. I was educated as a Catholic, but I have been a fierce critic of child abuse in the Catholic Church. I believe that this divide is part of the responsibility. That’s what freedom is about.
It seems difficult to use a cartoon to draw drama and tragedy, and even vileness. How is that achieved without risking banalizing it?
You have to try to choose well what the real point you want to make is. I believe that in my political work, with a totalitarian regime like that of Venezuela, laughter has rather transformed into a painful grimace. I suffer a lot sketching the cartoons of the destruction of my country and sometimes what I represent is my own pain or the pain that I can see that others suffer.
You left El Universal newspaper after 19 years and you had been drawing and being critical for a long time. What is so special about the moment you left?
A few months before my departure, the newspaper was sold to a consortium in Spain, a ghost consortium operated by the Venezuelan government. The newspaper still existed, but its critical editorial line did not. It became a propaganda newspaper. They began to publish old cartoons and the new ones that I sent for the day were not shown. I denounced it on social networks because it was the only weapon I had.
At a certain point I was called to a meeting with the new editor and I told him that I wanted to know two things: First, who paid my salary, and second, what would the new editorial line of the newspaper be, so I would know if I wanted to stay or go. Neither answer was given to me and I was simply told to try to lower the level of criticism. I already knew that this was going to cost me the job.
I continued publishing my usual line of though and the day came when a cartoon about health in Venezuela was published, where I used Chavez’s signature as an electrocardiogram. That signature of Chavez had become an icon in Venezuela. Touching that sacred image and deconstructing it was what paved my way out of the newspaper. That was when the editor called me and the next day, he told me I was out.
How did Chavez’s death impact your cartoons, your drawings, the way to represent what you were doing?
At that time Chávez had enormous support in Venezuela. When news of his death came, I found myself responsible of drawing a cartoon.
Mocking or celebrating the death of a human being is not an act of courage. I thought… there were many people who wept that death. Half of the country wept and the other half celebrated. When you have such a polarized country, you have to try to communicate, but without feeding things that are not convenient for society.
My editor waited for me until eight o’clock that night because I was spinning my head and wasting paper, until I got the idea and it was the one that was published: A fallen red chess king. That was the cartoon that was left for history and I was very happy to have done it at a time as important as that.
3. Life outside of Venezuela
At a time, you mentioned that social networks helped you get the word out, especially when you had problems in the newspaper. How do you deal with them today?
When I was in Venezuela, they were very important because they were what helped you know what was happening in the country with the other people you were connected with. There are newspapers no more, there is no longer a way to find out about reality itself, because there are many versions of reality or false news, which also exist on social networks, but they are an important tool.
Now that I am out, I no longer publish in any newspaper, but I am my own editor. I have my accounts in several networks and my followers moved there with me.
That has also given me a freeway to continue doing my work from anywhere in the world, and also to get immediate response from readers.
Social networks have been fundamental in what we Venezuelans have lived. I was afraid to learn. I went to school when there was none of this, so I had to relearn to keep up to date.
Has your cartoon style changed? Is it still focused on Venezuela, or has being abroad globalized it?
Since I’ve been away, I feel much more useful because my last years in Venezuela were very suffocating. Once I left, I could express my opinion from these platforms without feeling fear. If I had stayed in Venezuela, I would be in jail or I would not have been able to continue doing my job.
How did you make the decision to leave Venezuela?
Over there you live with fear, in a country that persecutes you, where you have no job, where you depend economically on the totalitarian state. I did not want to feel that lack of economic or political freedom. And given the moment, I was able to apply for a talent visa in the United States.
How does it feel to live in a country where, as an immigrant and foreigner, you can criticize the president and the society that ended up welcoming you?
The year I arrived in the United States was the election campaign year. My first exhibition in Miami was about Donald Trump and it was called “Love in Trump’s time.” It was an absolute criticism of this form of government.
I have touched upon the issue of Bachelet regarding her position towards Venezuela, her visit. Of the Pope himslef… personalities that have been important and relevant. One tries to poke around and express what the real meaning of the work they do is, and if they really do it. All that has a huge weight.
Coming from an immigrant, it can sometimes be a bit risky, but the exposure was very successful. I felt very good. Lately, I have been working on the topic of immigration. Everything that the personal immigration process has represented: making the decision to leave, the fear of change, the attachment, how that new culture is translated. I was doing research on the psychological impact of immigration. That is where this work that I was able to present here in Miami came from, and in Houston, and now I’m trying to take it to Spain.
In many ways this is a country where there are lots of freedoms, but there are also many rules and regulations. There is a fairly rigid system to which you have to adapt. I see that freedoms have been curtailed for cartoons, because what happened in the New York Times is very serious news. However, this is happening worldwide with freedom of expression.
I imagine that there are people who are against your art, who criticize you. Have they ever threatened you to the point of making you feel fear?
Every time I make a cartoon about the Catholic Church, I receive emails saying that I’m going to hell. I’ve been through all kinds of hells. I know that the religious topic has become a kind of untouchable Muhammad and I think that there is much discomfort in social networks. There is a totalitarian wave that moves through social networks in anonymity, in insult, and that often makes one not want to look out there because it is unpleasant and toxic. But the important thing here is the treatment behind all this.
In recent months social networks have become very extreme, much more polarized. There is no argumentation. Room for discussion has been reduced. The fact that we can disagree but that we do not have to insult each other is not understood.
4. The campaign outside the paper
Tell us about your work beyond cartoons. You have a foundation…
It is a foundation called «Más is more». When you emigrate and you see from a distance that your country continues to be destroyed, there is pain because it is the State that is denying the aid, and the State it is very hard to replace.
I thought: «I have almost a million followers on Twitter. I have many readers. I have people who follow me… what is my humanitarian contribution, beyond my drawing, to the society that I am watching as it is being destroyed? »
Then something occurred to me: «I’m going to ask people on social networks that those who can buy milk on Amazon or any online store — infant formulas for children of any price and any brand — send them to a particular address and I would see a way to contact here some shipping companies for Venezuela ».
Thus, the idea was born and that week almost the entire Milky Way arrived in my house. It was incredible! Milk arrived from many parts of the world. Then and there, I saw the importance of taking action, of not expecting a great day or a great project, but to do it small, at home. Using the available tools to feel useful, connected with the pain of others.
If a society does not have a food support plan, if it does not have how to preserve the lives of its children, it is a broken and dead society. That is what is happening in Venezuela. In time, I was able to formalize the foundation. It is still a fairly homemade company. Sometimes there are friends, sometimes there are people from the church who gather and bring milk, and that allows us to send monthly supplies to cooperate with many children. Some have not made it, others we have been able to help recover. It has been a life experience.
Rayma, from your perspective, where do you think Latin America is headed with all these latest changes that have appeared and new characters in history? We have Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duke in Colombia, others in Peru. In Chile too. The landscape from years past has changed…
I think there is chaos today and that can take us to extremes. It is leading us to that.
Populism has been the acute disease of Latin America. That great deception that was sold to us all has hurt us a lot. It has masked us… in politics, in leaders.
For example, in the case of Venezuela, the Chavez campaign was one of the leftist campaigns projected to help the poorest people, but it was a great hoax and it ended up being a militaristic government.
Democracy can also be of questionable value. Why is it sometimes said that democracy is only voting? Dictators already know that they can win elections. To be left or right, is all the same… if you are a murderer, what does it matter.
We are questioning everything, which is something positive, and the cartoonist’s work will always go beyond.
We have to reconnect with those values that make us work for a more just society, and that is something we are all learning, of course
What are your upcoming projects? Do you have something you are working on, something you can tell us about?
Regarding my projects, there is the exhibition I want to take to Spain. I think it will be very particular, because it’s like a reconquest. We were conquered by the Spaniards and now we Venezuelans go back to Spain to do a return job. Humor will be present in this psychological process of life. It is just as if Christopher Columbus could go back to search for his ancestors, and I think there are many Venezuelans who are living this process now. There is a common language that will help me develop many scenes with which I think people will feel very identified.
Have you ever sketched hope? How would you like to draw Venezuela?
It had to draw 20 years of the destruction of Venezuela. I want to draw 20 years of building a country, once the situation changes. And yes, there will be wounds left. They will also need to be sketched.
I have a lot of hope. I once drew hope on a tarot card that I published for 60 days. It was a wooden chair from which a small tree branch sprouted, to show that anything can be transformed into something good.
We have to reconnect with those values that make us work for a more just society, and that is something we are all learning, of course.
The opinions and statements expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the Dissidents.org team, Fundacion para el Progreso, or the organizations that cooperate with this project. The same is valid for the opinions, statements and actions of the interviewees in other moments and contexts, both in the past and in the future.