Chatty Chavez’s ‘Alo, Presidente’ muted

Picture taken on May 29, 2009, inside the studio of the official TV channel VTV showing monitors displaying Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during the second day of four-day marathon of himself on television talking, singing, offering criticism and haranguing detractors (AFP Photo / Thomas Coex)
Venezuela’s flamboyant leader, Hugo Chavez, has his own TV show. For 10 years, locals have loved or hated him for up to eight hours a week. Now, mystery surrounds why an epic, anniversary program was silenced.

Hugo Chavez is a president who likes to have contact with his voting public. Through his television program ‘Alo, Presidente’ (Hello President), he has the perfect outlet for his garrulous personality.

Opinion about the live show divides the nation in the same way as its loquacious presenter. Pro-government ‘Chavista’ or detractor, it’s essential viewing for all Venezuelans: whether they like it or loathe it.

Usually on Sundays, the president addresses the public for as long as eight hours. The content is quintessential Chavez: a blend of stories, dancing, diatribe, songs, conversation, poetry and policy announcements—he once ordered troops to be sent to the Colombian border live on air.

The diverse show dominates the country’s agenda, and the government claims it is highly popular. The Ministry for Communication and Information (MINCI) claims Chavez received 25,000 letters in the first five years of the show. The state-owned television channel ABN claims he answered most of them live on air.

In its first four years alone, MINCI says Chavez covered 500 topics and made 800 announcements. According to ‘Alo, Presidente’ fan and former Cuba Head of State, Fidel Castro, Chavez has spent “the equivalent of 64 days” on air.

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery

The format is popular, at least among fellow leftist Latin American leaders. Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa have both been inspired to start their own shows to connect with their own publics.

ABN describes ‘Alo, Presidente’ as “pleasant, historical, funny, romantic and sometimes emotional.” It’s a successful combination for many Venezuelans, who relate to Chavez’s unpretentious style. His core voters enjoy moments such as when the natural entertainer called George W. Bush “a donkey”.

One of Chavez’s fellow state TV presenters, Vanessa Davies, describes him as “the greatest communicator of the revolution”.

“I love the way he tells stories and then sings,” said Maria Vasquez, a 47-year-old civil servant.

Chavez claims most Venezuelans love the show. Government-owned ABN cites statistics that 53% of Venezuelans rate it as very good. The channel also says that only 12% describe it as bad.

Social development tool or propaganda?

While Mexican left-wing intellectual, Fernando Buen Abad views “Alo, Presidente” as a communication tool for social development; others see it is as crude propaganda.

Some just don’t like it: “I can’t bear all the garbage he goes on about,” said Alonso Lucena, a 23-year-old shoe polisher.

Beginning life as a mere one-hour radio show in May 1999, the program has been running for 10 years. To celebrate the anniversary, the president planned a marathon four-day program to be aired across state media.

Pro-opposition Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional described the marathon show as “four days of circus”. During the 15 hours of the first two days—Thursday and Friday—the exuberant president sang, discussed sex education with teenagers, economic statistics, his own weight problems and chatted to Fidel Castro.

Cut short in its prime

Usually, Chavez is the sole protagonist on the show, so plans for a debate including opposition intellectuals on Saturday were unusual. However, the broadcast was never made and the final two days of the epic talk-a-thon were cancelled without a full explanation.

There had been arguments surrounding the nature of the debate with former presidential candidate Mario Vargas Llosa and other conservative figures.

To the bemused relief of Alonso Lucena, there was an unscheduled end to the unprecedented program. However ‘Alo, Presidente’ fans should only have to wait until 7th June for the next installment.

Jonathan Stibbs for RT