As Stephanie González carefully arranged her cuatro, mandolin, maraca, bass, and electric guitar around her living room in Caracas, she wondered whether she would pull off the performance she had planned. Nearly 100 other people were waiting for her to join the Zoom call, but the ghosts of past power outages haunted her; she prayed for the lights to stay on during her cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”
In a country with some of the slowest internet speeds in the world, pessimism comes easily. So, just before she was set to play, the then-18-year-old bought 200,000 bolivars (about $1) of mobile data. Then she logged onto Zoom and joined the latest episode of a virtual talent show created by the Venezuelan comedy podcast Escuela de Nada (EDN).
González has been performing since she was 13, but playing before a virtual crowd, whose reactions were not easily discernible, was a challenge. The internet didn’t cut out entirely, but the streaming quality wasn’t great either, rendering her as a blurry, humanlike shape with patches of red (the color of her hair) and green (the color of her dress).
“It’s hard for me to take in your talents because I couldn’t see or hear you very well,” one of the hosts said afterward, “but I loved the maraca.”
That’s a pretty standard episode of “EDN’s Got Talent,” a competitive talent show hosted by three Venezuelan comedians living in Mexico City. In each episode, performers showcase quirky skills, ranging from stand-up comedy to contortion, in front of an online audience that tunes in weekly to watch the show on Zoom. “EDN’s Got Talent” is as much an antidote for boredom as it is for loneliness — both for participants in Venezuela, who struggle to get online to watch it, and for those living outside the country, yearning for pieces of home.
An estimated four million Venezuelans currently live abroad, many having fled the violence, political persecution, censorship, and food insecurities running rampant their home country. The U.N. has seen an 8,000% increase in the number of Venezuelan asylum seekers since 2014.
For many immigrants, attempts to stay connected amid the isolation of Covid-19 have paralleled the experience of adjusting to a new country. Conversations once held around the family dinner table have been replaced by choppy video calls; weddings, which used to last all day long, are now live-streamed; and online games have become the connective tissue keeping friendships from falling apart.
Chris Andrade, one of the creators and hosts of EDN, told Rest of World that about 60% of the show’s audience lives outside of Venezuela. It’s a life he knows well: the 32-year-old left his hometown of Caracas in 2015 and settled in Argentina to study publicity. He now lives in Mexico City and said that integrating Venezuelan immigrants who are away from their families and feel lonely was one of the central purposes of the podcast, which he and his co-creators, comedians Leo Rojas and Nacho Redondo, launched in 2018. The talent show was announced in April as a way to stay in touch with fans after the pandemic forced them to end live shows and meet and greets across Europe and Latin America.
“‘EDN’s Got Talent’ was born out of the idea that we at Escuela de Nada try to make the community as close as possible, close to sick levels,” he said. “So part of translating that to digital was to make a Zoom where we could connect with people.”
The podcast unpacks topics like living abroad, struggling with feelings of failure, and navigating grief — all with a heavy dose of dark humor, just the way Venezuelans like it. Currently, EDN has over 99,000 followers on YouTube (where episodes of the podcast and talent show are posted after they air live), in addition to 123,000 followers on Instagram and a bustling group chat of 2,800 people on Discord.
For fans of “EDN’s Got Talent” living in Venezuela, connecting to the show isn’t easy. Alejandra Stolk, director of Venezuela’s Internet Society, told Rest of World that the nation’s economic crisis is a major factor in its decaying telecommunications infrastructure. She added that the exchange control, which prevents companies from adjusting to Venezuela’s high inflation rates; the lack of technological equipment; and ongoing economic challenges have restricted many internet companies’ ability to provide quality service.
On top of that, the country’s thermoelectric system, which was designed to be an additional energy source, has deteriorated on account of neglect and corruption, resulting in constant national blackouts. Making a simple phone call can be a matter of luck these days — streaming an hourlong show online is a whole different matter.
It’s no surprise, then, that Venezuela’s average fixed broadband speed ranks last out of 174 countries, according to a Speedtest Global Index study conducted last month.
“Venezuelans have become experts in working asynchronously, after-hours, to try to have a better connection speed in lower-traffic hours,” Stolk said. The Covid-19 quarantine, and the increased demand for internet connection, has only exacerbated the aforementioned issues.
But still, people tune in to “EDN’s Got Talent,” sometimes by any means necessary.
“I managed to install a satellite internet, and that has made things easier,” Andres Salamanca, a dedicated audience member, told Rest of World. Salamanca watches from Maracaibo, which, despite being the second-largest city in the country, after the capital, is among the most affected by blackouts. Sometimes they last for 12 hours. Salamanca shares his screen with members of a group chat on Discord. (In some ways, the EDN Zoom call is a digitized version of a members-only club — the host caps attendance at 100, and not everyone gets in.)
González, the multi-instrumental musician, was a casual EDN fan before the pandemic. “But when quarantine started, I went crazy,” she said. “I watch around four episodes a day.” For her and many others in the EDN community, the show offers the same social stimulation she used to get in her regular life. “Although [the hosts] are in their 30s, I feel like I’m part of that conversation. It helps me remember my times at school, talking with friends, and it distracts me from everything that’s happening.”
Even if González returns to her regular routine, it’s hard to envision an adequate internet connection becoming part of it. In Venezuela, five years of recession and two of hyperinflation have normalized restrictive internet. By now, everyone is used to blackouts, whether caused by political tension, the nationalization of major telecommunications companies, or the struggle of private ones to be financially sustainable.
Online content offers information and entertainment that can’t be broadcast elsewhere because of Venezuela’s so-called Law on Social Responsibility of Radio, Television and Electronic Media, which permits government censorship of the mainstream media. The internet is the only place where shows like Escuela de Nada, or any shows produced in Venezuela, can have a home.
Though González ultimately did not qualify for the final round of the talent show, she did attract 200 more followers on Instagram and lots of compliments in her DMs. Then — mercifully, after her Zoom performance — the power went out.