The monthlong absence of ailing President Hugo Chavez has elicited prayers, an emotional street rally and heated political debate. Amid the tense wait for news from Chavez's hospital in Cuba, Venezuelans are also turning to one of their most prized national attributes: a biting, irreverent sense of humor.
A flurry of jokes and political cartoons have taken aim at the government's postponement of Chavez's inauguration. When the president's followers took to the streets to symbolically take the oath in Chavez's place, some critics said the outlandishness hit a new, surreal high.
"What's happening is so absurd that people don't know whether to laugh or cry," said Claudio Nazoa, a Venezuelan comedian.
One cartoon by Rayma Suprani in the newspaper El Universal turned its gallows humor to the Supreme Court, which approved putting off Chavez's swearing-in. It showed a woman who appeared to be a judge using a guillotine to slice up the constitution.
The popular satirical website "El Chiguire Bipolar," named after a giant rodent that is common on the plains of Venezuela, took aim at the government's slogan "We're all Chavez," with a particularly caustic spoof article.
The site alluded to Venezuela's high murder rate, saying in the headline: "21,000 Chavezes who died at the hands of criminals can't attend the inauguration."
"Jokes play a role of social catharsis, and that's why there is acid wit and irony," said Tulio Hernandez, a sociology professor at Central University of Venezuela. "It's a way of letting off steam."
Dark humor about Chavez's condition and Venezuela's unsettled situation has popped up in various parts of Latin America.
One cartoon by Brazilian political cartoonist Sinfronio de Sousa Lima Neto circulated widely online. It depicted the grim reaper entering a hospital room where Fidel Castro was with Chavez. The grim reaper asks "Who is Fidel?" and Fidel points to Chavez saying: "He's the one right here."
Another Brazilian humorist, Jose Simao, cracked jokes on Twitter and in his newspaper column.
"I think Chavez isn't on the island of Cuba. He's on the island of Lost," Simao said on Twitter, referring to the popular television series.
While political cartoons in some other countries toyed with the concept of Chavez possibly being at death's door, in Venezuela the cartoonists mainly seemed to steer clear of Chavez's condition.
Hernandez said Venezuelans may be avoiding jokes that directly focus on Chavez or his cancer due to fears of retribution from the government or Chavez's supporters. He noted that the government has slapped fines and other penalties on some critical broadcasters.
Last weekend, intelligence agents also raided a home in Carabobo state in a case that Venezuelan media reported was part of an investigation into messages on Twitter about Chavez's health.
In the past, many Venezuelan humorists have targeted the socialist president. The Venezuelan cartoonist Pedro Leon Zapata has depicted the president previously as a toad or at times a military boot, in reference to his years as an army paratroop commander.
Cartoonist Roberto Weil focused a recent cartoon on what critics call a blatant violation of the constitution in putting off the inauguration, depicting a hyena tearing up the charter in its teeth.
Nazoa said in a telephone interview that he found the alternative street inauguration for Chavez especially bizarre.
"It's a sort of Roman circus in which the spectators who applaud are going to soon be eaten by the lions and they don't know it," he said. He said the oddities don't stop there, and he compared the situation to Lewis Carroll's "Alice In Wonderland."
"Look at the absurdity: Those of us against Chavez, who were desperate to get rid of him, now we're desperate for him to appear," Nazoa added.
Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this report.