Venezuelans can’t seem to get enough of their colourful president, Hugo Chávez. Or maybe they can, but they just don’t have a choice.
Not content with ending presidential term limits via a referendum in February 2009 so that he can now govern for ever and ever (and he says he’ll need at least another ten years for the socialist revolution to “take root”), Chávez also feels that it’s necessary to bombard his electorate with quality Hugo time through every medium available.
Venezuelans already have the option to say “Aló Presidente” every Sunday by watching his live chat show of the same name, which regularly tips over the seven-hour mark and once included a six-minute description of the time he had an attack of diarrhoea while giving a speech. And if that doesn’t satisfy their Hugo needs, then they also have the good fortune to wake up to Suddenly with Chávez, a radio venture of his which can take to the air at any hour, and which has previously included him warbling presidential songs, ad lib.
Now — presumably concerned that people would be daunted by all that free time — Chávez has taken to Twitter, the social networking site that operates every minute of the day. Lucky Venezuelans.
Chávez hasn’t always expressed affection for Western technology. In January, he attacked the Sony PlayStation as “poison”, arguing that violent computer games teach you to kill and are a powerful tool to promote weapons sales by capitalist countries.
However, given the popularity of Twitter in Venezuela, where growth exceeded 1,000 per cent in the last year, Chávez would have been foolish to ignore the opportunities it presents — especially with his lowest approval rating for seven years, at 45 per cent down from 70 per cent three years ago. So at the end of April he opened an account under the name of Chávezcandanga (candanga means daring or rebellious in Venezuelan Spanish). By the next morning he had 25,000 followers and at the time of writing he is the most-followed tweeter in Venezuela, with more than 300,000 followers. This is 21st-century revolutionary e-socialism at its finest. Lenin and Trotsky would have loved it: the proletariat just a BlackBerry screen and 140 characters away from being roused into breaking their capitalist chains.
But Chávez’s Twitter debut does make you wonder what we should expect from these influential internet services. The Venezuelan government has a dubious human rights record, has been known to curtail freedom of expression, leans heavily on the judiciary and intimidates political opponents. And yet, through Twitter, Chávez can flex his skills as a talented communicator to consolidate his own power, as he has through the television and radio.
But what would we expect of the corporation if someone with an even worse record, like Robert Mugabe, decided to join up? Unlikely as that may be, it does illustrate the uncomfortable position in which these businesses find themselves.
Maybe we should leave it up to the tweeters themselves, who have past form in blowing up storms about various injustices across the world — that is, if they can tear themselves away from electoral reform and Wayne Rooney’s groin injuries.