Page last updated at 22:04 GMT, Sunday, 24 May 2009 23:04 UK

Chavez TV show marks anniversary

By Will Grant
BBC News, Venezuela

Hugo Chavez salutes during Alo Presidente
Hugo Chavez once ordered tanks to the Colombian border during his show

Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez's weekly television and radio programme "Alo Presidente" is marking its 10th anniversary.

What began as a regular radio broadcast by the newly-elected socialist leader in May 1999 has evolved into a several-hour long televised address.

It can involve live phone calls, ad hoc announcements on government policy and special guests.

The programme, transmitted on Sundays, has never been far from controversy.

For a decade, Mr Chavez has used Alo Presidente (Hello President) to unveil new policies, rebuff criticisms and receive questions from carefully-vetted viewers.

To the delight of his gathered supporters, all of whom are clad from head to toe in socialist red, he has poked fun at foreign leaders, at the Venezuelan opposition and at himself.

Required viewing

He has sung ballads, told jokes and issued threats - all of it live to the nation. There can be little doubt that Alo Presidente is a television programme like no other.

In the midst of the US-led conflict with Iraq, President Chavez reserved the brunt of his particular brand of international diplomacy for President George W Bush, calling him a madman and a drunk.

But he has also focused on opponents closer to home.

Hugo Chavez in an episode of Alo Presidente
Alo Presidente is required viewing for Mr Chavez's supporters and opponents

On one show, during a period of high tension between Colombia and Venezuela with the possibility of conflict in the air, he ordered the head of the military to send ten tank battalions to the border - an order, it should be noted, which was never carried out.

The programme has been presented from inside a cattle ranch, from a beach, from farms and military installations, and special guests have included football legend Diego Maradona, Hollywood actor Danny Glover, and a live phone call from Fidel Castro.

But Alo Presidente is much more than a travelling circus.

Over the years it has become required viewing for supporters and opponents of the president alike.

It is the forum from which he connects with his supporters and further alienates his detractors, and it is vital to his image as a man of the people.

It has also spawned similar programmes by leaders in other countries, most notably Bolivia and Ecuador.

Whether Venezuelans dismiss Alo Presidente as a crude propaganda tool or consider it the best thing on television, the programme looks set to remain on air for as long as Mr Chavez remains in office.

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