MIAMI -- It's an hour before showtime, and Gustavo Rios is transforming himself into Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
A makeup artist paints his skin a dark olive tone. A plastic mole is glued strategically on the upper right corner of his forehead. Large, latex ears and a short, black wig cover his head as he squints and purses his lips in front of a mirror.
He mimics Chavez with comical, exaggerated precision, his voice billowing in a triumphant tone and his hands prancing in the air. It's a mockery that came with a price in Venezuela, where the boisterous, domineering president has carefully cultivated his image as a widely supported savior: Rios was taunted, threatened, robbed, even had his car set ablaze.
Rios fled Venezuela, and now his act is featured in a Spanish-language show broadcast on U.S. airwaves. Meanwhile, the real Chavez lies ill in a Cuban hospital recovering or suffering - no one seems to know exactly - from complications following cancer surgery in December.
He dresses in the president's iconic red and pokes fun at being in the hospital. On a recent show, he stood chained to an IV but danced to the 1980 hit "Celebration" as he played Nintendo Wii. What he doesn't do: mention the word "cancer." Rios knows what cancer is like. His own father has it.
"Cancer is a very grueling illness," he says, his voice solemn.
Rios first did his Chavez impression on a radio show called "Con Las Pilas Puestas" - "With the Batteries On" - in Maracaibo, a city along the western coast of Venezuela that is his family's hometown. He pretended to talk with the presidents of Cuba, Russia and Iran and Osama bin Laden about conquering the world. On one episode, he schemed to kidnap the president of the United States and torture him with hours of Mexican norteno music, a folk genre that features the accordion and has roots in polka.
Not everyone thought it was funny. Supporters of Chavez, who for years has condemned U.S. capitalism and pushed a socialist platform, called him names: Weakling. Imperialist. Oligarch. On four occasions, his car was robbed. Then it was set on fire outside the studio in midday. There were threatening messages, notes that promised death.
Eventually, he took his wife and 3-year-old son and filed for political asylum in Miami, home to the largest Venezuelan population outside the South American country - most of them fiercely anti-Chavez.
"It was terrible," he says. "Leaving my family was the worst."
He had no contacts, no real way of making a name for himself in radio again. So the now 40-year-old comedian did what most immigrants do: He washed dishes. Delivered pizzas. Painted buildings. Meanwhile, Rios also put together a demo tape of his impressions - he does more than 80 public personalities - and dropped it off at studios. A Cuban actor who had worked in Venezuela and was on the radio in Miami heard it and called him for an interview.
"He was one of the first people I listened to imitating Chavez," said the actor, Omar Moynelo. "For me, it was a great find."
More and more Venezuelans were leaving their country and settling in Miami. There were comedians in the city imitating Fidel Castro, but no one impersonating Chavez.
Four years ago, Rios landed a job on MegaTV. Around the same time, his father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Rios was still waiting for his U.S. citizenship and could not go back to Venezuela to be with him. As his father went through chemotherapy and radiation, Rios tried to console him on the phone, send money and make him laugh with clips of his impressions.
Then, nearly two years ago, Chavez was diagnosed with the same disease. Officials have never confirmed what type of cancer he has, but Chavez has now undergone repeated surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation. He has not been seen in public since Dec. 11.
At first, Rios thought it was another temporary setback or even a ploy; Chavez would go to Cuba and emerge victoriously once again. But then came the day of his inauguration. Chavez was still absent. Rios and the writers at MegaTV were careful to strike a balance: Funny but not cruel. And if it is confirmed Chavez is in his final days, Rios says he'll stop the act altogether.
"A sickness like that, no one should make fun of," he says.
So Rios skirts around it. Felipe Viel, the host of "Esta Noche Tu Night," tells the audience they are getting a live transmission from Chavez's hospital room. Rios then appears in a red pajama and green military jacket. Sometimes, he is in a wheelchair, ill but startlingly robust. He acts childish and throws pills on the floor.
On Thursday's episode, he was up and swaying his hips to a Nintendo dance game. A nurse in a low-cut white uniform entered the room. He flirts, and she flirts back. He resists her romantic proposition.
"The paparazzi will take our photos!" he exclaims.
"Speaking of that," the nurse with curly, blond hair says, "did you see the photo in El Pais?"
Earlier Thursday, the Spanish newspaper had withdrawn a photo from its website and print editions that alleged to show Chavez with tubes in his mouth after discovering it was fake.
The phone rings. It's the secretary of the Organization of American States. She's coming to visit. The fake Chavez quickly hides all evidence of his Nintendo games.
Rios says he wants to make those jokes in Venezuela the way U.S. comedians imitate and make fun of presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
"I want the Chavistas to laugh with us," he says. "You have to know how to laugh at yourself."
And he wants to be in Venezuela with his father, who is still undergoing chemotherapy. But he knows his imitations aren't welcome there and worries about what might happen if he returns. It won't be safe to mock Chavez there until he's gone, and by then, Rios will have to find a new act.
In Miami, his Chavez and other impersonations have earned him recognition. People notice and thank him on the streets for making them laugh. At the studio, an audience of about 20 people sit in metal folding chairs, chuckling at his charades. It's a momentary relief, for them and Rios.
"It helps me get rid of all that energy," he says, "all those things one carries inside."
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