CARACAS (Reuters) - Faithful followers of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez commonly defend any failures of his more than a decade in power by saying he must have been unknowingly misled by ministers and sycophants.
By contrast, critics in the opposition say the former paratrooper has lost touch with reality and the problems of ordinary Venezuelans from his lofty perch as leader of South America’s biggest oil exporter.
And while Chavez may deny both theories, he does acknowledge having found an unexpected ally in Twitter — a way to hear first-hand the requests, demands, complaints and denunciations of citizens in their tens of thousands, albeit summarized in 140 characters via the micro-blogging site.
“This telephone is close to melting. Now I am aware of many things going on here,” Chavez said during a meeting with police officials, brandishing his Blackberry.
Spurred by an explosion in Twitter’s popularity in the Latin American country and annoyed by what he says was the opposition’s domination of its electronic media, the president signed up as @chavezcandanga in April.
In only about a month, his “followers” numbered more than 450,000 — making his account the most watched in Venezuela.
“Chavez turned himself into a user of the power of digital platforms, which I think is an interesting political movement,” said Andrea Hoare, digital trends professor at the Central University of Venezuela. “Rather than fight them, he joined.”
Since coming to power in 1999, Chavez has received thousands of letters appealing for help with medical expenses, finding a home or jobs for relatives. Now these requests are digital.
He has taken to micro-blogging with a passion himself — breaking the predawn news that a gas exploration rig had sunk last month, and calling on the public to ‘Tweet’ him with cases of people changing money illegally, among many other examples.
“Look at this message: @chavezcandanga, we are graduates of UNEF Zulia (university), 90 percent of us are unemployed. Please help commander,” he read out one entreaty during a televised cabinet meeting. “We are going to deal with this. We can’t ignore it. That would be very irresponsible. We have to listen, talk and find solutions.”
One local study of messages to Chavez’s account in between May 7-8 found that 43 percent were petitions and complaints, 31 percent were positive and 17.6 percent were negative.
The president says he has learned three important lessons from his new form of contact with the outside world: that Venezuela is still living in the “reign of injustice” that is capitalism, that socialism is far from achieving its goals and, most importantly, that people still believe in him.
“It is sad if people have no one to believe in, no one to write to, nowhere to go to criticize, to complain, to ask for help,” he said.
Chavez now reads out messages he has received at almost all public events. His reactions range from explosive laughter to outrage — and not anger at offensive texts, which he usually takes with good humor, but at Venezuelans’ appeals for help in the face of corruption or incompetence in the government.
After reading each petition, he earnestly orders his ministers to seek a solution, while nodding officials carrying clipboards list the names and problems he dictates.
“Look at this message: ‘My boss is suffering a terrible lung disease,’” he read out last week. “Do you realize? 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.’”
While Twitter has helped Chavez reach supporters, analysts warn it could be a double-edged sword for him at a time when the economy’s poor performance and a power crisis are denting his popularity ahead of legislative elections in September.
Chavez has received such a digital avalanche of requests for assistance that he recently said he had hired 200 people to help him respond to them all. But that may not be enough.
"To his supporters, it is clear that he is the one who resolves things and that the problem is the people around him," said Billy Vaisberg, director of Twitter Venezuela (twitter-venezuela.com). "How is he going to come out of it now that people believe they are sending their messages to the only one who can solve them?"
Editing by Daniel Wallis