Help Me, El Presidente

On Sunday mornings, phone lines jam at a Venezuela radio station where callers can speak to the country's hottest new talk show host: President Hugo Chavez.

Each week, the former coup leader pulls on a pair of headphones and launches the sho, the only weekly radio program in Latin America where citizens call in and talk to their president live on the air.

Frequently, itÂ's a favor the listeners are after. Chavez lights up with the requests and uses them as fodder for some of his trademark diatribes against a corrupt political establishment many blame for squandering the country's vast oil reserves and leaving most people impoverished.

Â"The world of Venezuelan unions is rotted!Â" he railed one Sunday. Â"It's a union dictatorship!Â"

By the time that two-hour program was over, Chavez had used his pulpit to blast free-market economic policies, read a section of the Bible, give a mother advice about a rebellious teen-ager, declare war against corruption, announce that he was the target of a possible assassination plot, and swear his love for the Venezuelan people.

He also made a man who entered the studio weep when he told him on the air that he will help pay for an operation for his seriously ill daughter.

Launched in May, Hello, President has become a hit and has prompted Chavez to start a similar weekly TV program on a state-run channel and his own government-funded newspaper, The President's Mail.

Some critics say Chavez's media ventures are overkill because the controversial, charismatic and loquacious president (who led a failed 1992 coup attempt and is trying to shake accusations that he's imposing dictatorial rule) already gets heavy coverage in the Venezuelan media.

But Chavez, who took office six months ago, insists public institutions are so chaotic that the president himself must be involved to get anything done. Â"In almost the entire country the republic doesn't exist,Â" he told radio listeners. Â"The institutions are destroyed.Â"

Last week, electoral officials temporarily barred Chavez from hosting the shows because they said he was using them illegally to promote candidates for next Sunday's vote for a constituent assembly.

Chavez at first said he would ignore the order, but then got around the prohibition by giving a nationally televised speech during the scheduled TV show and sending three aides to host Hello, President while he called in as a listener.

Hello, President attracts 90 percent of those listening to radios Sunday mornings and is transmitted by 60 stations including one in Miami, said Teresa Maniglia, the station's director.

The phones start ringing at 5 a.m. on Sundays (four hours before the show starts) and crowds carrying placards start gathering outside before dawn, hoping to tell Chavez about their problems.

The station also is flooded each week between shows with about 600 telephone alls, faxes, e-mails, letters, and telegrams. One woman who wrote wanted the president to scold her husband on the air because she suspected he was having an affair.

During the shows, Chavez's aides write down names and telephone numbers and later dispatch government workers to address the problems.

Chavez's TV show, Face to Face with the President, follows a similar format with three members of the audience chosen each week to ask the president a question.

At one point the president also takes a call from a viewer, picking up a special red telephone.

The President's Mail hit the streets in early July and its 32 pages also are filled with some of his typical blasts. Â"The Eternal Corruption of the Political Elites,Â" read one headline. Chavez is listed as editor-in-chief.

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