Hugo Chavez joins Twitter

Venezuelan leader attracts nearly 60,000 followers so far

CARACAS -- Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez opened a Twitter account Tuesday, launching himself into the digital fray to combat opponents who have seized on the micro-blogging site to criticize his socialist government.

Known for hours-long speeches, Chavez will now face the challenge of keeping his outpourings within the 140-character limit demanded by Twitter.

"Comrades, @chavezcandanga has been reserved, soon we will have messages there from our 'Comandante,'" said the head of Venezuela's communications watchdog, Diosdado Cabello, also a close aide of the president, via his own Twitter account.

In some countries, candanga translates as "devil," but in the Venezuelan lexicon it is used to mean someone who is strong-willed and rebellious, or a troublemaker.

By Wednesday, @chavezcandanga had nearly 60,000 followers, 12,500 of them coming to his page before his first tweet. But during a Cabinet meeting, he told followers to look out for his first pronouncements overnight.

"I recommend you follow that page after midnight, I'll be breaking loose there," he said, laughing. "Keep an eye out."

Twitter has seen an explosive rise in usage in Venezuela to more than 200,000 active accounts. With growth of more than 1,000% in 2009, Venezuela now has one of the highest rates per capita of users of the site in Latin America.

Frustrated by his tireless presence in traditional media, where he often applies a law that forces TV and radio stations to broadcast his lengthy speeches, opponents see networking sites as a means of outwitting the populist president.

They use them to circulate criticism or jokes about Chavez, and even organize rallies and other protest events.

Several times this year, Chavez has ordered his followers to use social networking sites and other Internet media to fight back against detractors.

"The Internet is a battle trench because it is bringing a current of conspiracy," Chavez said earlier in March.

Critics say the president intends to censor the Web, and that a plan to channel all Internet traffic through the state telecom company is a sign he plans to silence online dissent.

Chavez denies any intent to censor, despite having said previously that the Internet "cannot be free."

He points out that Internet use by Venezuelans has expanded dramatically during his 11 years in power, especially among poorer sectors of society.