Venezuelan politics hot on the Internet

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez speaks during a press conference at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas on Nov. 13, 2007.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is worried about the value of his country's currency, the Bolivar. Inflation in Venezuela is increasing at its fastest pace in almost a decade. The black market in Caracas has Bolivars worth only about half of the government-controlled official exchange rate.

So yesterday, Chavez signed a tough new currency law. He announced police raids on illegal brokerages. And he told his supporters to send messages to his Twitter account if they want to turn currency speculators in. Yes, Hugo Chavez has a Twitter account, with more than 300,000 followers. This is just the latest round in Venezuela's Internet wars, one that Chavez and his opponents are spending millions of dollars to win.

Reese Erlich reports.


Reese Erlich: For many opponents of President Chavez, satire is the weapon of choice, and the Internet is the arena. El Chiguire Bipolar is one of hundreds of opposition websites that regularly rake Mr. Chavez over the coals.

El Chiguire Bipolar YouTube video:Uno de los principales funciones del poder...

The site has an actor doing a dead-on imitation of the president and explaining that one of the most important duties of executive power is writing letters to Hollywood celebrities. The mock-president asks Chavez supporter and actor Danny Glover to collaborate on a new film to be made in Venezuela.

El Chiguire Bipolar YouTube video: "Harry Potter y La Derrota de Capitalismo"!

It's called "Harry Potter and the Defeat of Capitalism." The Internet reaches about 30 percent of Venezuela's 27 million people. It has a significant influence on educated and upper-income people, just the sort with money to invest. But the young entrepreneurs who run this website have had trouble finding investors to expand their production company, according to one partner, Oswaldo Graziani.

Oswaldo Graziani: Here in Venezuela, the private businesses are very cautious about putting money in that, because they are afraid they can close the companies.

Fear of the government is a problem for more established opposition media as well.

Sound of Radio Caracas's headline news

Jaime Nestares is the general manager of Radio Caracas, an opposition radio station and website. The government refused to renew the company's television broadcasting license in 2007. Nestares says, the radio station's Internet operation continues to lose money, requiring subsidies from owners and investors.

Jaime Nestares: The Venezuelan market for Internet pages didn't increase in growth the way that we thought in order for it to become a profitable operation.

Nestares blames the bad financial climate on President Chavez, who he says wants to censor the Internet as he has other media.

Nestares: There's no transparency. Free(dom) of speech and media is very uncomfortable for them. A joke could put you in jail.

But Chavez supporters say he doesn't censor the media; the government allows access to all domestic and international websites. And it's set up more than 600 high-speed Internet access centers in poor neighborhoods.

Eva Golinger edits the government-owned newspaper Correo de Orinoco International. She says the government is now channeling more resources into the web with a presidential Twitter and blog. It's even tackling the government's lackluster websites.

Eva Golinger: The websites that are out there, also in Spanish and English, are not as high tech as others, just because resources haven't been allocated. And the opposition has had an advantage. Now, I think, the tables are beginning to turn.

Indeed, President Chavez's tweets have become an instant success. Even some members of the opposition have signed up.

In Caracas, I'm Reese Erlich for Marketplace.

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