Hugo Chavez's Comic Relief

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Just when laughter seemed in short supply in the political opposition's dreary struggle to unseat Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, along came Benjamin Rausseo, Venezuela's best-known stand-up comedian.

Rausseo, who plays a rube with a particularly raunchy sense of humor on television, also happens to be a self-made millionaire at the helm of a business empire including theme parks, hotels and recording studios. Now he is a contender in presidential elections scheduled for December.

He has an impoverished past that many Venezuelans can identify with, having worked as a shoeshine boy, waiter and taxi driver before he turned 20. When he began his campaign last month, he declared himself the ideal outsider with the potential to defeat Chavez, 52, a popular but polarizing figure with similarly humble rural origins.

Though initially greeted with chuckles and skepticism about his chances, Rausseo vows that he is deadly serious about running Venezuela.

"Every Venezuelan in his heart wants to be president, and I'm no different," Rausseo, 45, said in an interview over pasta at Villa d'Este, a restaurant he owns that is decorated with oil paintings depicting him as the Mona Lisa (grinning) and as Francisco de Miranda (in deep thought), a Venezuelan revolutionary and contemporary of Simon Bolivar. "I'd like Venezuela to smile again."

Rausseo, who has five children, said an epiphany thrust him into politics when he survived the crash of his private plane last year and realized that there was more to life than comedy and business. So, along with studying for a law degree, he decided to run for president.

Through the formation of his own party, Piedra, or Rock, he said, his priority if elected would be redirecting Venezuela's oil wealth to domestic spending instead of "lavishing it on overseas alliances." Other than a persistent emphasis on projecting a sunny image, his campaign objectives remain vague, masked in a nonstop string of largely apolitical jokes and puns.

Of his ability to take on Chavez, Rausseo, dressed in a tailored white shirt, repeated what has become his campaign mantra: "We're both ugly, we both have bad hair and we share the same origins," referring to mixed ancestry that might make some people, not used to the frank treatment of this issue in Venezuela, cringe.

"We differ," he said, "in that, I'd like to exchange guns for books and represent a rupture from this idea that Venezuela, a peaceful country, has to go around confronting the world."

Political analysts are struggling to understand how Rausseo's entry into the race may affect Chavez, if at all, since the opposition is already hobbled by years of missteps, infighting and disarray. Rausseo is universally known in Venezuela as Er Conde del Guacharo, or the Count of Guacharo, a foul-mouthed character whose stage name is an almost untranslatable play on words and misspellings that alludes to someone from rural eastern Venezuela.

Outsiders are nothing new in Venezuelan politics. In 1998, Chavez, a former military officer who spent two years in prison for an attempted coup, easily defeated Irene Saez, a former Miss Universe, for the presidency. Strengthening his grip on power since then with clear mandates from voters, Chavez has reached outside the Europeanized elite for his cabinet and close advisers.

Rausseo's entry into the race has set off speculation in political columns and blogs on who may be behind his candidacy. Among those suspected are industrialists advised by Dick Morris, the American political consultant, and Chavez's administration itself. Rausseo laughed at each suggestion, asking any supporter to deposit funds in his campaign's account.

Rausseo said he drew comic inspiration from John Leguizamo and Richard Pryor, a "master we could all learn from," and in politics from Romulo Gallegos, a Venezuelan novelist who was briefly president in 1948.

As Rausseo's campaign gears up, the country's main opposition parties canceled primary elections this week and rallied around a single candidate, Manuel Rosales, 53, governor of the oil-rich state of Zulia. Rausseo said he was waiting for polls to show how he would match up against Rosales and Chavez, who consistently has approval ratings of more than 50 percent.

When asked about the election scheduled for the end of this year, Rausseo grinned and said, "Life isn't over in December," he said.