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Why Hugo Chavez finally gave in to the Twitter craze

Venezuela's loquacious leader has decided he can no longer cede the digital sphere his opponents.

The internet has remained largely out of Chavez’s sphere of influence — until now. Chavez has feared the open-ended nature of the web as it is something he cannot control, Jimenez said.

But as internet penetration has grown in Venezuela — it will have reached more than half of the population of 28 million by the presidential elections of 2012 — so has Chavez’s interest in it. In 2009, Venezuela had nearly 9 million users.

“It’s a government policy to get involved in these social networks because it’s going to be an arena where there will be a political debate and possibilities and opportunities to proselytize," Jimenez said. “They can’t abandon this space because otherwise they’ll be left on the outside.”

Chavez last month said the internet would have to be controlled after he learned a local website had allowed comments to be broadcast saying that one of his closest confidants, Diosdado Cabello, who runs the sate telecommunications agency, had been gunned down and killed.

Last year Cabello had aired the idea of running all of Venezuela’s internet lines through the state-run telephone company, a proposal that critics said would give the government control of cyberspace.

“The government sees this as occupying a territory — what’s behind this is military logic,” said Carlos Delgado, a professor specializing in digital communication at the Andres Bello Catholic University.

But that, said Delgado, may not be as easy as the government thinks given that the internet, with its various forms of participation, encourages a multiplicity of viewpoints and opinions.

Many believe the loquacious president, who is known for his rambling speeches that can last up to nine hours, would struggle to work within the restrictions of Twitter.

Others also believe that Chavez, who has become increasingly cocooned within a bubble of yes-men ministers, rented crowds and sycophantic media, might struggle to operate within a medium that thrives best on creating conversations.

“It will be interesting to see with Hugo Chavez’s account how much he engages with people, how much he actually talks to people or whether he just broadcasts,” said Bentwood.

Chavez said Wednesday he welcomed the many messages he had received from all over the world, including several insults, and that he believed the social networks are “a weapon that also needs to be used by the revolution.” predicts Chavez will pass 1 million followers within 36 days.

Jimenez said Chavez's presence on Twitter would likely increase the site's popularity in Venezuela and encourage his followers to join social networking sites. "There's going to be a greater balance than what we see at the moment on Twitter which is mainly opposition." 

In the meantime Chavez appeared to be enjoying the popularity of his posts and said he would be using Twitter to communicate with some old friends.

“I’m going to send one to Fidel. I’ll be writing to you soon, Fidel,” he said while clutching a Blackberry phone.