'Aló Presidente,' Are You Still Talking?

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 30, 2009

CARACAS, Venezuela, May 29 -- There's probably no president in the world as loquacious as Hugo Chávez, the self-styled revolutionary leader who frequently commandeers the Venezuelan airwaves to deliver monologues that can last hours.

Now, he is threatening to break his own record with a special four-day episode of "Aló Presidente," or "Hello President," to commemorate the 10th anniversary of a program that is part talk show, part bully pulpit and all Chávez.

"We never tape; we never script," Chávez said Friday afternoon. Shaking hands and hugging visitors, he said the program offers a lesson to all who tune in. "That is 'Aló Presidente,' a class -- a permanent class," he said, noting that this is the 331st episode.

As the marathon show began a day earlier, Chávez said he would take unspecified breaks, but it was clear that he planned to talk and talk. " 'Aló Presidente' starts today and finishes this Sunday; we do not know at what time," he said at an electrical plant in the state of Zulia.

The oil-rich western state is an opposition bastion, and Chávez criticized his foes there as elites who care little about the common man. Then he handed out land titles.

Judy Rosales, a beneficiary, thanked him and then criticized his opponents as "malignant" traitors. Chávez smiled approvingly and hugged her.

Venezuelans, fully accustomed to seeing their president on television, have reacted to the show with a mix of amusement and exasperation.

"This is an abuse of the state media," growled Juan Carlos Palencia, a state legislator opposed to Chávez. "This is a tedious program, a long program, and the only ones who watch it are people on his side."

It's true that the program usually goes on and on -- the record is eight hours straight -- but some say "Aló Presidente" is anything but tedious. In fact, no matter which way they lean politically, many Venezuelans watch "Aló Presidente" to learn what new social program officials have hatched or which companies the state plans to seize. Chávez's foes monitor it to see which one of them is in the government's sights.

"You have to hear him. You have to, if you believe in him or not," said Adolfo Puente, a teacher.

Chávez knows this all too well.

A former army paratrooper who led a failed coup against President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992, Chávez catapulted to fame when he addressed the nation on television shortly after he was detained. He acknowledged failure but pledged a comeback -- and a star was promptly born. Six years later, he won office in a landslide.

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