Chavez joins the Twitter age

Direct reach: Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez speaks during his weekly broadcast “Alo Presidente” at Miraflores Palace in Caracas on Sunday. — PHOTO: Reuters

Direct reach: Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez speaks during his weekly broadcast “Alo Presidente” at Miraflores Palace in Caracas on Sunday. — PHOTO: Reuters  

It is known mainly for transmitting celebrity trivia and narcissism, but in the hands of Hugo Chavez Twitter has become something else: a tool of government.

Venezuela's President has harnessed the social networking and microblogging service for his socialist revolution by encouraging the population to tweet him its concerns.

Mr. Chavez's Twitter account, @chavezcandanga, has exceeded 720,000 followers after gaining a reputation as a way to bypass bureaucracy and appeal directly to President. It gains about 2,000 followers daily.

The leftist leader ordered the establishment of a 200-strong team to process and respond to the avalanche of messages complaining about government services and requesting help.

“This telephone is close to melting. Now I am aware of many things going on here,” said Mr. Chavez, brandishing his BlackBerry, during a recent televised meeting with police officials.

Sometimes Twitter bites back. Earlier this week Colombia's former President, Alvaro Uribe, a regular Chavez target, tweeted from @AlvaroUribeVel: “I ask President Hugo Chavez to stop being a coward hurling insults remotely.” Since signing on to the service in April, Venezuela's leader has routinely ordered Ministers to attend to specific tweets. Told of an apparent mugging and kidnapping, he tweeted: “I'm telling [Interior] Minister Tarek [El Aissami] to investigate!! Good luck friend.” Mr. Chavez said some pleas for medical help haunted him. “These things stay with you. Sometimes I can't sleep because I think ‘Oh my God!' and I start to reply and I call the Ministers: ‘Help me here. Locate this person'” The President said he has received more than 287,921 pleas for help, including 19,000 for a job, 17,000 for a house, 12,000 for credit and 7,000 for legal aid.

“It's another mechanism for contact with the public, to evaluate many things and to help many people,” he said. Mr. Chavez's Twitter bio identifies him as “President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Bolivarian soldier, socialist and anti-imperialist.” Supplicants still petition the old-fashioned way — proffering handwritten notes to Mr. Chavez at rallies — but cheap Internet cafes have put many of the poor online. BlackBerries are common even in impoverished barrios.

Analysts said Twitter was a new technological twist on a familiar Latin American phenomenon in which populist leaders bypassed state institutions to pose as champions of the poor and marginalised.

“Twitter has become a fundamental instrument for Chavez,” said Carlos Romero, a political analyst at the Central University of Venezuela. “It has tremendous propaganda value and is part of his charisma mechanism.”

With legislative elections due next month the President, in power for more than a decade, is trying to arrest a slump in ratings amid recession, runaway inflation and high crime.

Not so long ago the former Army officer decried Twitter, which has had explosive growth in Venezuela, as a tool of oligarchs and terrorists who used it to spread false information and conspire against his government.

A jailed judge and an opposition leader tweeted their plight from their cells. Students opposed to Mr. Chavez used the technology to co-ordinate protests. So politicised is Venezuela that half of the top 10 Twitter accounts are news or politics-related.

Authorities still view Twitter with suspicion — two people were recently detained for tweeting rumours about a bank failure — but Mr. Chavez's entry into the field has lifted the previous “capitalist” stigma.

He tweets about trips — “off to Brazil today” — and events such as the exhumation of the remains of Simon Bolivar, Venezuela's 19th-century independence hero and secular saint. Mr. Chavez follows seven accounts linked to a newspaper, his socialist party, Cabinet colleagues and his ally Fidel Castro.

“He has joined the game and has won, at least in public relations terms,” said Billy Vaisberg, the creator of the directory Twitter Venezuela. “But it's no way to run a country. You can't make decisions based on messages of 140 characters.”

— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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