Maduro-like Christmas toys spark controversy in Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s socialist government distributes thousands of Christmas presents to the country’s poorest children each year, including bicycles, Barbie dolls and plastic trucks imported from China.

This holiday, officials added a new item to their list: an action figure in a red bodysuit, blue cape and beard battling the American “empire” impersonating President Nicolás Maduro.

The character was dubbed “Super Paranoid” due to his bushy black beard. For about a year, it aired an animated series on Venezuelan state television in which it fought a Donald Trump-like villain trying to sow chaos from his base in a distant mansion resembling the White House.

In the run-up to Christmas, officials in various parts of Venezuela shared videos of them handing out Super Bigote toys to children at holiday parties. Community groups linked to Maduro’s government also said they had distributed dozens of politically charged action figures.

The Christmas giveaway has angered academics and opposition leaders, who have described it as a tasteless effort to indoctrinate children as Venezuela struggles to recover from years of recession, food shortages and hyperinflation under Maduro. These difficulties have forced the migration of millions of people.

But many government supporters were delighted to receive the toy. In its animated series, Super Bigote also battles villains similar to Venezuela’s opposition leaders, whom the government blames for U.S. sanctions that have also affected the country’s economy.

“I like this initiative,” said Yasmin Herrera, a nurse who works on a government-funded community board in the town of Kalayaka, about a 90-minute drive from Caracas. Herrera said she received 22 Super Bigote toys from local government offices last week, as well as two action figures of “Cilita,” a character that looks like Venezuela’s first lady, Cilia Flores.

Members of the Herrera Community Council wrapped up the toys and gave them to children in a public housing project where there is no running water and residents rely on water trucks.

“Some parents didn’t like the gifts, and the older kids weren’t too interested,” she recalls. “But the little ones are playing with them. We put a smile on their faces.”

Rosa Rodriguez, who helped Herrera pack the toys, said she was pleased with the action figures because they helped young children “appreciate” Venezuela’s socialist revolution. Three years ago, she said, she received a free apartment from the government in a remote housing complex where the toys were distributed.

But others were less kind to the new gift. Belkis Bolivar, leader of the nation’s largest teachers’ union, described the toys as a dangerous waste of money.

“These toys are full of ideology, they try to impose a cult of personality,” she said. “Kids who play with these toys may start to worship Maduro in the same way they worship Superman or Spider-Man.”

Instead of spending money on “ideologically charged” toys, the government should fix schools without electricity and pay new teachers less than $20 a month, she said.

Venezuelan Vice President Delcio Rodriguez said Sunday that the government bought 13 million gifts for children across Venezuela, a country with a population of 25 million. It’s unclear how many of the gifts were action figures from Super Bigote or its partner, Cilita.

After the gifts were distributed, some Venezuelans also posted photos on social media of the super diehards and Silita posing awkwardly, mocking the toy.

“The makers of Super Bigote warn that the toy is not suitable for children,” wrote journalist and political commentator Pedro Pablo Peñaloza on Twitter. “It leads to hyperinflation, devaluation, mass migration and food shortages.”

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Manuel Rueda reported from Bogota, Colombia.

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