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Earlier this week in Caracas, we were about to go to an interview when it had to be rescheduled. The man we were going to speak with was unavoidably detained — kidnapped, to be precise.
It took awhile after that for Laureano Marquez to free up his schedule and meet us in a coffee shop.
"I'm so sorry," he said when he finally arrived, as if it was his fault for being thrown into a car and driven off to the far reaches of town.
We'd been planning to talk with Marquez about Venezuela's presidential election this weekend, an election that opens a door on a changing Latin America. As it turned out, our talk with Marquez opened that door wider. It was an example of what it means to be a citizen in a dangerous place.
Marquez's open and expressive face is famous in Caracas. He's a writer and political satirist, and when we walked out on the street, a young man and woman stopped him, handed me their camera, and asked me to take their photograph. Of course Marquez agreed to pose.
"Suerte," he told them. Good luck, and he gave the woman a kiss on the cheek.
As we walked, Marquez held up his new national identity card, which he'd spent much of the past two days trying to obtain — after the kidnappers took his old one. He needs it to vote on Sunday, which he's determined to do.
"That's my identity and my nationality," he said. He looks grim in the photo; he says people being photographed for the card are instructed not to smile.
Joking Around, Even In Serious Times
It was amusing to see him this way, because Marquez makes other people smile a lot. Working from his Caracas office, where we continued our discussion, he writes political satire in newspapers and for the stage. He taught us a common Venezuelan expression. "Bochinche," he said. "Bochinche, bochinche."
Bochinche is a ruckus, and in Venezuela it suggests joking around, joy, even in serious times.
Marquez has continued writing even after the government fined him for his newspaper columns and blocked him from performing in a state-owned hotel.
He has taken a position against that government in the presidential election. He appeared on a televised program in support of Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate, who is trying to unseat the late President Hugo Chavez's chosen successor.
The satirist says he has always opposed the government in power.
"Yesterday, I told Capriles, 'Next Sunday you will be my enemy,' " he said. "Humorists have to show the contradiction of the society. The mission of humor is to show the people that things can be better."
In that television appearance, Marquez walked on stage wearing 19th-century clothes and a powdered wig. He was playing a leading figure from Venezuela's fight for independence. Another actor appeared on stage asking Marquez about the race and class of different figures from history, including the opposition candidate Capriles.
"Better just call him Venezuelan," replied Marquez with perfect timing. The audience roared.
Nobody missed the implied call for unity. After 14 years under President Chavez, this oil-rich republic is divided by race and class. The country is facing rapid inflation, not to mention an explosion of kidnappings and homicides.
A Political Dialogue, With Kidnappers
Marquez knows his country's troubles well. A few days after his TV appearance, he was near his home when two armed men confronted him. They grabbed him as well as his fiancee.
The kidnappers shoved the pair onto the floor of a car, "and they ran all over the city saying to us that we have to pay." Eventually they released the fiancee and sent her off to find money to gain freedom for Marquez.
While waiting for money, the men drove Marquez to a remote spot and made him lie face down — but even that didn't stop him from a little bochinche.
"I talked with them, about the job they do," he said. "I made jokes because they were very stressed, and if I can tell you a joke, you can maybe lower stress."
"It's good that you were there to help them," I noted.
"Yes. It's good for them and for me," he answered.
Marquez said the kidnappers started talking about how hard it was to make a living in Venezuela, where even well-educated people can be underpaid.
A country that does not pay its professors well, one of the kidnappers asked, how can that country progress?
Soon the kidnappers were talking with Marquez about this weekend's emotional and polarizing election.
"Between them there were different opinions," Marquez said. One of them is for [Nicolas] Maduro, Chavez's chosen successor. The other was for Capriles.
"Both of them had guns, and I said, 'Wow, what happened?' Each never killed the other," he said. "If they can do that, all society can do the same."
Marquez says his kidnappers set aside their differences to follow their true north: a life of crime.
He urges citizens to set aside differences to follow his true north: a better society.