Chavez treats viewers to four days of himself

Marathon broadcast marks 10th anniversary of Venezuelan President's show

If anyone in Venezuela is wondering what their leader is up to this weekend, they need only turn on their television sets. More than likely, it will be Hugo Chavez himself who will fill the screen, alternately expounding on the wonders of his socialist 'Bolivarian' revolution and excoriating his enemies and critics.

Normally this is a ritual reserved for Sundays, when Mr Chavez takes to the airwaves on state radio and TV to commune with the citizenry of his oil-exporting nation. His programme, Alo Presidente, has been known to last as long as eight hours. But to mark the 10th anniversary of the show, Mr Chavez has pushed the broadcast boat out further than ever. On Thursday morning, he began a four-day marathon edition, which will end late Sunday. There are breaks, but only the President himself knows when.

"We're starting in the sunshine. We'll probably have a programme in the rain," he said, opening the marathon edition from a new electricity plant. "We might have an episode at midnight, in the early morning. Keep an eye out." He then proceeded to speak for 30 minutes about sardine production, to offer sex education tips to an invited group of schoolchildren and bemoan his expanding girth.

Mr Chavez has been relentless in his use of television to bombard Venezuelans with his musings. Even in 1992 when he was an army colonel and was defeated in a failed coup, he agreed to give up only after being offered time on national TV to air his grievances.

It is a strategy that has been emulated by other Latin American leaders, including Bolivia's Evo Morales and Ecuador's Rafael Correa. Fidel Castro, the former President of Cuba, is a fan too. We know this because he said so in a column this week, which Mr Chavez read out to his viewers. "Never has a revolutionary idea made use of a medium of communication with such efficiency," Mr Castro offered.

The unprecedented four-day slog is, however, drawing attention to the continuing pressure exerted by Mr Chavez on channels that dare to criticise him. Two years ago, he refused to re-issue a broadcast licence to a private channel he said had helped foment a failed coup against him in 2002. More immediately, the President seems intent on closing down another critical non-state station, Globovision TV.

Indeed, he shared his irritation with Globovision with anyone who was watching his show on Thursday. "If what has to happen does not happen in the correct institutions then I will have to act like I have had to on previous occasions," he said darkly.

It is a long time since the first installment of Alo Presidente on 23 May 1999, when Mr Chavez had a fit when producers insisted on making up his face. "What would my people think? I thought. Makeup?" he recalled of that moment. But over these four days, Venezuelans are being treated to something, he himself says, the likes of which "has never been seen before". And history shows that when the unpredictable President tells them to stay tuned, they do in their millions. Because no one ever knows what he will do or say next.