Chavez sees red over TV tales of 'Little Hugo'

In more than a decade in the presidency of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez has brushed off criticism from across the world, and weathered escalating attacks from his opposition at home, but in the end it seems to have been a Colombian soap opera that successfully got under his skin.

The soap, Chepe Fortuna, was pulled from a private Venezuelan television channel after protests from the state regulator, so viewers will no longer be treated to the antics of two sisters, "Colombia" and "Venezuela", the latter of which is a gossipy secretary with a troublesome dog called Little Hugo.

"That soap is so horrible," Mr Chavez declared, in a long speech to the Venezuelan parliament. "What disrespect to Venezuela."

The regulators agreed and the show did not air on Friday. In recent episodes, the character Venezuela has been accused of arson, and become worried about her dog. When she asks: "What will become of Venezuela without Little Hugo?" another character replies: "Venezuela will be free. Lately Little Hugo was defecating everywhere."

Venezuela's telecommunications commission said in a statement: "After careful analysis, it was found that these contents promoted political and racial intolerance, xenophobia and incitement of crime."

Chepe Fortuna's upset writer, Miguel Angel Baquero, told Colombian radio that the programme was "a comedy of manners that is only trying to entertain people". He added: "It's as if Ugly Betty were censored because there are ugly women in the world."

The row over the soap is only the latest in a long line of spats between Colombia and Venezuela, which have ideologically opposed governments, and in the midst of gathering criticism of Mr Chavez, who is accused of exhibiting increasingly authoritarian tendencies.

The complaints have increased since he requested additional powers to rule by decree, through a so-called "Enabling Law" at the end of last year.

The president, in his speech on Saturday, appeared uncharacteristically troubled by the criticism. "There is a campaign to make me out to be a devil," he said. "How on earth can they say the Enabling Law means we are in a dictatorship?"

And he shifted ground, offering to give up the powers early. "I am capable of asking this National Assembly to overturn the Enabling Law. So if anyone feels restricted, then I'll send it back, I have no problem," he said. Mr Chavez pledged to push through decrees that he says are needed for reconstruction and relief after floods left nearly 140,000 homeless. "In four to five months we may be able to carry out all the laws to manage the emergency," he said, which would mean he could give up the powers a full year ahead of schedule.

Critics said his real intention has been to use decree power to undermine the incoming National Assembly, which has a greater number of opposition lawmakers following recent elections. During a speech that was into its sixth hour by early evening, the president ostentatiously welcomed the opposition politicians returning to parliament for the first time since boycotting elections in 2005.

"I am very happy to greet the opposition lawmakers. Really, no irony intended," he said.

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