Hugo Chávez's Twitter habit proves a popular success
Venezuelan president passes 720,000 followers as Twitter account lets public bypass bureaucrats and go straight to the top
• Rory Carroll in Caracas
• guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 10 August 2010 17.35 BST
• Article history
It is known mainly for transmitting celebrity trivia and narcissism, but in the hands of Hugo Chávez Twitter has become something else: a tool of government.
Venezuela's president has harnessed the social networking and microblogging service for his socialist revolution by encouraging the population to tweet him its concerns.
Chávez's Twitter account, @chavezcandanga, has exceeded 720,000 followers after gaining a reputation as a way to bypass bureaucracy and appeal directly to the president. It gains about 2,000 followers daily.
The leftist leader ordered the establishment of a 200-strong team to process and respond to the avalanche of messages complaining about government services and requesting help.
"This telephone is close to melting. Now I am aware of many things going on here," said Chávez, brandishing his BlackBerry, during a recent televised meeting with police officials.
Sometimes Twitter bites back. Earlier this week Colombia's former president Alvaro Uribe, a regular Chávez target, tweeted from @AlvaroUribeVel: "I ask President Hugo Chávez to stop being a coward hurling insults remotely."
Since signing on to the service in April, Venezuela's leader has routinely ordered ministers to attend to specific tweets. Told of an apparent mugging and kidnapping, he tweeted: "I'm telling [interior] minister Tarek [El Aissami] to investigate!! Good luck friend."
Chávez said some pleas for medical help haunted him. "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.'"
The president said he has received more than 287,921 pleas for help, including 19,000 for a job, 17,000 for a house, 12,000 for credit and 7,000 for legal aid.
"It's another mechanism for contact with the public, to evaluate many things and to help many people," he said. Chávez's Twitter bio identifies him as "president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Bolivarian soldier, socialist and anti-imperialist."
Supplicants still petition the old-fashioned way – proffering handwritten notes to Chávez at rallies – but cheap internet cafes have put many of the poor online. BlackBerries are common even in impoverished barrios.
Analysts said Twitter was a new technological twist on a familiar Latin American phenomenon in which populist leaders bypassed state institutions to pose as champions of the poor and marginalised.
"Twitter has become a fundamental instrument for Chávez," said Carlos Romero, a political analyst at the Central University of Venezuela. "It has tremendous propaganda value and is part of his charisma mechanism."
With legislative elections due next month the president, in power for more than a decade, is trying to arrest a slump in ratings amid recession, runaway inflation and high crime.
Not so long ago the former army officer decried Twitter, which has had explosive growth in Venezuela, as a tool of oligarchs and terrorists who used it to spread false information and conspire against his government.
A jailed judge and an opposition leader tweeted their plight from their cells. Students opposed to Chávez used the technology to co-ordinate protests. So politicised is Venezuela that half of the top 10 Twitter accounts are news or politics-related.
Authorities still view Twitter with suspicion – two people were recently detained for tweeting rumours about a bank failure – but Chávez's entry into the field has lifted the previous "capitalist" stigma.
He tweets about trips – "off to Brazil today" – and events such as the exhumation of the remains of Simón Bolívar, Venezuela's 19th-century independence hero and secular saint. Chávez follows seven accounts linked to a newspaper, his socialist party, cabinet colleagues and his ally Fidel Castro.
"He has joined the game and has won, at least in public relations terms," said Billy Vaisberg, the creator of the directory Twitter Venezuela. "But it's no way to run a country. You can't make decisions based on messages of 140 characters."
Vaisberg doubted Chávez wrote all his own tweets and questioned whether there really was a 200-strong team in the presidential palace. "They're trying to give an impression of modernity but you have to wonder how much is behind it. Even if they respond to your message that doesn't mean they'll find you a job or solve your problem."
The information ministry did not respond to requests to tour the Twitter centre and interview members of the team. A tweeted interview request to @chavezcandanga also went unanswered.
Chávez's top tweets
1 "Hey how's it going? I appeared like I said I would: at midnight. I'm off to Brazil. And very happy to work for Venezuela. We will be victorious!!"
2 "What impressive moments we have lived tonight!! We have seen the remains of the Great Bolívar! Our father who is in the earth, the water and the air ... You awake every hundred years when the people awaken. I confess that we have cried, we have sworn allegiance."
3 "The kingdom of the heavens must be built here on Earth. With the help of God and the work of all: that is Socialism!"
4 "Brother and sisters of my fatherland, the best present you can give me is to continue strengthening the Bolivarian revolution and Socialism!!"
5 "Hello Tums... of course it is possible to also help out with medicines. That's where we are going!! That's socialism!!"