Venezuelan politics in 140 characters or less

"Hello Venezuela! I inform you that I approved 1.95 billion bolívars for state and local governments, coming from extraordinary income! Onward!" The above is a rough translation of a tweet written by Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez on April 17. As strange as it may seem, Twitter has now become ground zero in Venezuela’s public sphere. ...

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

"Hello Venezuela! I inform you that I approved 1.95 billion bolívars for state and local governments, coming from extraordinary income! Onward!"

"Hello Venezuela! I inform you that I approved 1.95 billion bolívars for state and local governments, coming from extraordinary income! Onward!"

The above is a rough translation of a tweet written by Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez on April 17. As strange as it may seem, Twitter has now become ground zero in Venezuela’s public sphere. Both the government and the opposition use the platform intensively to convey their messages, and even to talk to each another.

The ailing Chávez left Venezuela for Havanna amidst a flood of flowers on February 25. Since then, he has undergone a surgical procedure related to the cancer he is battling, as well as an undisclosed number of rounds of radiation therapy. He has traveled to Venezuela for brief visits only a handful of times, and has made few public appearances.

Long gone are the "cadenas," the endless TV broadcasts by the president that have to be aired by every TV and radio station in the nation. Calls to his favorite talk shows are few and far between. The president’s relative silence has only been broken by intermittent outbursts from his Twitter account.

In the last few days, the President has informed his 2.8 million followers of many of his actions, which mostly involve billions of bolívars in allocations:

"OK, I’m done with my calculations: 6.196 billion bolívars for the 30% rise in the minimum wage and 10.6 billion for the rise in pension payments! Yowza: approved" read another tweet. It’s not all business, though. He went out of his way yesterday to praise his lunch: fish soup, rice, and plantains.

When the president went to Havana, the opposition argued that he should transfer power to the vice president. The Venezuelan Constitution, they said, specifically states that the seat of the executive power is in Caracas. No head of state can sign laws or engage in acts of government from a foreign capital, even less so if he is under the medical care of foreign doctors.

Chávez and his followers think this is nonsense. The pro-Chávez National Assembly has rubber-stamped Chávez’s frequent, extended visits to the island, and has blocked any motions to discuss a transfer of power. There are even doubts that Chávez writes his Twitter account himself, which would make any acts of government announced via Twitter legally shaky, at best.

The opposition’s presence on Twitter is also massive. One of the more noteworthy accounts is ChavezOfficial, an anonymous, bitterly satirical Chávez impersonator. In one recent tweet, ChavezOfficial crowed to his 116 thousand followers "I’m actually bedridden (but the hatred is still the same, bourgeoisie)."

In fact, Twitter seems to be one of the few instances you can find where the opposition and the government actually talk to each other, even if it’s mostly used to hurl insults at the other side. In 2010, an anonymous Twitter user criticized Information Minister Andrés Izarra for being seen using one of the privately-owned hospitals the government frequently harasses. Izarra tweeted back insults to the person, calling her a "pig bitch." A Twitter account for the "pig bitch," an attractive bulldog dressed in a pig costume, promptly appeared. The "pig bitch" now has more than 51 thousand followers.

As The New York Times reporter William Neuman points out, Twitter has become the official information channel of the Revolution. Chávez’s tweets are read on TV, and ministers frequently tweet about their meetings with the president or other public activities. Press releases and other communication tools are long gone. Even the opposition seems to be catching on. Since they "talk" to one another via the platform, Twitter seems to be the closest Venezuelans will come to an actual debate between its two main candidates for President.

"Governing via Twitter, approving laws via Twitter without consulting anyone, is a joke on our people! The Constitution is clear!"

So wrote opposition candidate Henrique Capriles last Sunday to his 780 thousand followers on Twitter.

Juan Cristóbal Nagel is a professor of economics at the Universidadde los Andes in Santiago, Chile, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and co-author of the book Blogging the Revolution. Twitter: @juannagel

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