SuperMoustache! Sounds like a job for Venezuela’s socialist superhero

·3 min read

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No – it’s a Venezuelan propaganda campaign designed to burnish Nicolás Maduro’s strongman credentials with the help of a caped crusader called SuperBigote – or SuperMoustache.

The musclebound cartoon superhero – who bears an unmistakable resemblance to Venezuela’s authoritarian president – has been met with acclaim or derision, depending on which side of the country’s bitter political schism viewers stand.

Pro-Maduro politicians have eulogized the “indestructible” beefcake, who appears on state television using his superpower – an iron left fist – to protect their socialist homeland from a Donald Trump-like villain.

“It’s fantastic! Don’t miss it!” the deputy commerce minister Luis Villegas Ramírez tweeted after the latest instalment, in which SuperMoustache tried to send Cuban, Russian and Chinese Covid vaccines to Venezuelan citizens – only for the US to block delivery with the help of Maduro’s domestic enemies.

“We’ll destroy them at last! They’ll suffer! They’ll weep! They’ll be the global epicentre of the pandemic!” the dastardly imperialist brags in heavily accented Spanish before SuperMoustache saves the day. “Nobody messes with SuperBigote,” state television channel VTV boasted on Twitter.

Maduro’s foes have savaged the series, with pundits decrying what some called an attempt to build a cult of personality – or even a Goebbels-style attempt at mind control.

Others wondered why the supposedly omnipotent SuperMoustache had failed to shield his country from humanitarian catastrophe.

Julio Borges, a prominent opposition leader, suggested “Super Destroyer of Venezuela” would be a more appropriate name. “Maduro means misery and corruption,” Borges tweeted alongside photographs of Venezuelans scavenging for food.

Guillermo Zubillaga, a Venezuela specialist at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, said there was logic to the seemingly frivolous cartoon.

He believed spin doctors hoped SuperMoustache would emphasize the invincibility of a politician who, against all odds, overcame a relentless US-backed campaign to topple him.

“His superpower is staying in power,” said Zubillaga, pointing to critical support from China and Russia, whose deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, last week refused to rule out sending troops to Venezuela if tensions with the US continued to rise.

“The message they are trying to convey is that they are in total control.”

Maduro is not the first authoritarian to be cast as a comic book hero.

In 2016 Chinese propagandists produced a cartoon version of their leader, Xi Jinping, in which the Communist party boss played Whac-a-Mole with corrupt officials.

A year later, Moscow hosted an art exhibition called Super Putin, featuring sculptures and paintings celebrating Vladimir Putin’s superhero side. One showed Putin in a skin-tight Superman costume with the initials SP written on his chest.

Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, received a posthumous cartoon tribute in which Latin America revolutionaries such as Che Guevara and José Felix Ribas welcomed him to heaven.

Zubillaga suspected propaganda officials saw SuperMoustache as a distraction from the far less amusing topic of Venezuela’s collapse. “It’s so ludicrous it gets people talking. It distracts you from the real reality of the 6 million people abroad, the malnutrition numbers, the fact that there are 250 political prisoners.

“I think it’s effective. I wouldn’t dismiss it,” he added. “You repeat it so much … that people start to believe it.”

Frank Dikötter, the author of a book about 20th-century cults of personality, was less sure. “The dictator’s dilemma is that he must show himself to be close to the people but, on the other hand, far above the fray – and particularly above his entourage, since anyone could stab him in the back at any one point in time. A cartoon seems to slightly undermine that sense of distance,” said the University of Hong Kong professor.

Dikötter said art had long been used to signal the extraordinary and even supernatural qualities of such leaders: “But nothing as flippant as this. It’s not quite dignified is it?”