CARACAS, Venezuela — He’s a pot-smoking toddler who fantasizes about killing his mother and he’s the latest American figure to rile the Venezuelan government.
Stewie Griffin, the animated character from the hit cartoon "Family Guy," has caused offense here in Venezuela by singing a ditty lauding marijuana’s restorative properties.
The Venezuelan government highlighted the clip as an example of how the U.S. government promotes pot smoking and the legalization of drugs. Venezuela resented a recent U.S. Congress report that said a fourfold increase in cocaine smuggling through Venezuela has been aided by police corruption and a refusal to work with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
“There’s no subliminal messages here,” said Interior and Justice Minister Tarek El Assaimi, who warned that the government would fine any TV station that continues to broadcast the show. “It’s an animated cartoon where you can observe perfectly how they promote consumption and moreover sponsor the consumption of marijuana.”
El Aissami blamed U.S. drug consumption for fueling Venezuela's narco-trafficking market and suggested that "adult" cartoons such as "Family Guy" were mouthpieces for the U.S. government’s tolerant attitude toward drugs. "Family Guy" is not the first cartoon to receive short shrift from authorities in Venezuela. Last year, "The Simpsons" was banned from terrestrial television after it was ruled “unsuitable” for children. It was replaced with "Baywatch," the 1990s series featuring scantily-clad lifeguards in California.
And offensive American cartoons are not the only shows to have felt the sting of government censure. President Hugo Chavez’s government has been shutting down radio and TV stations across the country, accusing them of violating licensing laws. In 2007, the government revoked the terrestrial license of Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), arguing the station had played a large part in orchestrating a coup attempt against Chavez in 2002.
“Increasingly what we are seeing is the state assuming a role in which it says what you can and can’t watch,” said Andres Canizalez, an investigator at the Center for Communication at the Andres Bello Catholic University.
Many protested what they claimed was a clamp on freedom of expression, but others were more annoyed about losing the station that broadcast the majority of the beloved telenovelas, or soap operas.
And those staples of Venezuelan viewing habits haven't escaped fierce criticsm from Chavez.
“Careful with those capitalist telenovelas — they poison,” he said last year. “It’s all a design, an ideological design — to destroy the potential of a girl or a boy, of a youth — to induct them into that plastic life and many times to violence, to prostitution, to the loss of values, to smoke cigarettes, to drink rum and I don’t know what else ... to drugs.”
So far they've survived but not without having to practice self-censorship, said Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, a professor at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia and author of “Venezuela es una telenovela” (“Venezuela is a telenovela”).
She points to telenovelas such as "Cosita Rica," which aired in 2003-2004 when Venezuela was at its most polarized following a coup attempt and a two-month national oil strike that tried to bring Chavez’s government down.
"Cosita Rita," like other telenovelas at that time, did not shy away from political content. “It had characters who were allegoric of the political scene, including a character that was a metaphor of President Chavez,” said Acosta-Alzuru.
But since 2007 when RCTV had its license revoked, most stations have toned down the subjects they tackle, even on entertainment shows, fearing similar reprisals.
The government put out its own telenovela on the state channel Venezolana de Television (VTV) in 2004. "Amores del Barrio Adentro," which told the story of love and life inside a poor neighborhood, was an attempt to present an alternative reality to what the private channels showed, but was panned by critics as government propaganda. It stopped airing soon after its launch, although the government claimed this was because VTV moved toward a news-centered agenda.
Yet despite Chavez’s strong aversion to telenovelas, one of them actually helped him in his rise to power, said Acosta-Alzuru.
"Por Estas Calles" mirrored the reality under the government that preceded Chavez's. The show, set in the barrios, became famous for addressing the corruption that was rife in Venezuelan politics at the time and often used plotlines grabbed from newspaper headlines.
“To me it's always ironic when he mentions telenovelas," she said, "because actually he should be thankful.”