April 25, 2012
CARACAS—Venezuela President Hugo Chávez, who is notorious for long-winded and rambling speeches, has taken his garrulous style online—and in short form.
During his latest stay in Cuba for cancer treatment, the leader has made Twitter his nearly exclusive means of public communication. It turns out Mr. Chávez on Twitter is much like Mr. Chávez in the flesh.
His tweets come in a torrent, with a striking irreverence for a head of state. Recently he posted a message celebrating his lunch of plantains, rice and “tremendous” fish soup. He casually delivers news of government policy shifts and project approvals. Virtually all his tweets are punctuated with exclamation points.
“Comrades you make me very happy!” he tweeted on Saturday. “Let’s keep fighting hard to defeat the bourgeoisie! It is pouring in Havana and I am with you!”
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez kissing a cross next to his daughter Rosa Virginia in Havana where he is being treated for cancer.
The social-networking site has taken on an added importance in recent days, as Mr. Chávez tries to counter rumors of failing health and keep a presence with Venezuelan voters, some of whom question his future in office ahead of elections this fall.
With Mr. Chávez in Cuba since April 14 completing radiation therapy for an undisclosed type of cancer, Venezuela’s unpredictable presidential contest has been fought in online volleys of 140 characters or less. The country’s opposition has accused the president of governing via Twitter—in tweets of its own.
“Chávez has been compulsive in seizing whatever means, like Twitter, to manage his own image,” said Xavier Rodríguez, a political scientist at Simón Bolívar University in Caracas.
Calls to Venezuela’s Minister of Information Andrés Izarra, who is widely seen as a main architect of the government’s social media use, especially Twitter, weren’t returned.
The media-savvy president has minimized public appearances during his stint in Cuba, where he has received most of his treatment in near secret. Mr. Chávez has shuttled between Caracas and Havana since June, when doctors in Cuba removed a malignant tumor from his pelvic region. Surgeons extracted a new growth two months ago.
The Venezuelan leader, who launched his Twitter account in 2010, has hired a staff to respond to tweets he receives. It is unclear whether he writes all his own missives, but they do sound just like Mr. Chávez speaking.
But he barrages his 2.8 million Twitter followers, which amount to about twice as many as Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, a less active tweeter.
Mr. Chávez directs cheerful messages to his ministers and re-election campaign aides to express approval for their efforts. He comments on the weather or sporting events and announces the passing of legislation. He often rallies his supporters to push forward his socialist “21st century Bolivarian Revolution.”
After not being seen or heard from for more than a week, apart from his tweets, Mr. Chávez’s flurry didn’t stop a rumor from spreading over the weekend that he had died. To quash the speculation, Mr. Chávez telephoned a state television station on Monday, and followed that Tuesday with a video showing the 57-year-old leader in a blue and white track suit, lawn bowling with his aides.
Mr. Chávez’s heavy reliance on Twitter has raised the status of social media for Venezuelans, who voraciously seek out information on the president’s health.
Internet researcher comScore Inc. estimates Venezuela has the world’s fourth-highest concentration of Twitter users. It was used by 29% of Venezuelans with Internet access in March. That number, which doesn’t include users who log on through smartphones, still puts Venezuela on the level of countries such as the U.S., U.K. and Canada, per capita.
While the medium has given Mr. Chávez the ability to directly address his followers, the openness of the social network has also left him vulnerable to easily spread rumors about his cancer, experts said.
“You can’t understand the impact of Twitter in Venezuela until you understand that the national sport is gossiping,” said Antonio Cova, a sociology professor at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. “And the dessert of the day is the health of the very president of the country.”
Opposition presidential candidate, Miranda state Gov. Henrique Capriles, who is seen as having the strongest chance of unseating Mr. Chávez after 13 years in office, chimed in with his own tweets Sunday.
Mr. Capriles, who has nearly 781,000 followers on Twitter, criticized Mr. Chávez for effectively running the government through Twitter.
During his telephone comments Monday, Mr. Chávez replied that accusing him of governing via Twitter was “absurd,” noting that such communications are “strategies to govern.”
Silvio Waisbord, an associate director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, said the Chávez administration is far ahead of other governments in Latin America in its embrace of social media.
Twitter “fits Chávez like a glove,” Mr. Waisbord said. “Twitter is a type of communication that people who want to avoid critical media really like. You don’t have anyone asking questions. You can make the argument that one should not govern by Twitter. But why would Chávez shut up on Twitter if he’s so aggressive on every other type of media?”
Still, “what cannot happen is that you only communicate through social networks,” said Guillermo Amador, director of local social media consultancy DosPuntoUno in Caracas. “In the end, there has to be some physical contact.”