MATURIN, Venezuela -- Love him or hate him, Venezuelans are obsessed with their president. And never more so than on Sundays, when the voluble leftist-populist holds forth in a live, unscripted television marathon that's part folk sermon, part revolutionary diatribe, part homespun entertainment -- and wholly Hugo Chavez.
One of the highest-rated Sunday programs on Venezuelan television, ''Alo, Presidente!" (Hello, President) -- a rambling and unpredictable monologue/call-in show -- is watched as intently by some of Chavez's frustrated opponents as by his dedicated loyalists.
''Millions are watching to know how to follow him, and millions of others are watching to try to destroy him," said Zenndy Berrios, the show's executive producer.
A mass-market soapbox for the policies and musings of the wildly popular, controversial, and potentially the most influential leader in Latin America today, ''Alo, Presidente"-- like Chavez himself -- still mesmerizes, delights, and infuriates a polarized public after more than six years on the air. In many ways, the program mirrors Chavez's leadership style: whimsical, polemical, and highly personalized. And its message is deeply threatening to the Bush administration's vision of politics in its backyard.
Chavez rarely misses an on-air opportunity to urge Venezuelans to throw off the shackles of Uncle Sam's capitalist influence, which he blames for the region's persistent poverty, and follow the model of his admired friend, Cuban leader Fidel Castro. ''Love is socialism. Capitalism is hate and selfishness," he declared during a recent program.
While he's easily the country's most popular figure with more than 70 percent support, according to polls, only one-third of the nation shares his vision of a socialized Venezuela. It's perhaps no surprise, then, that Chavez dedicates every Sunday to preaching his message with the fervor of a televangelist.
A media savvy, forward-thinking propagandist, Chavez, who turns 51 tomorrow, has the oil wealth to influence public opinion well beyond his country's borders. His government has given the network use of broadcast facilities and an estimated 70 percent of financing for a regional, 24-hour satellite news channel, Telesur, which began broadcasting Sunday. Supported by the leftist governments of Cuba, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, Telesur is being promoted as a Latin socialist answer to CNN. Telesur's critics have dubbed the channel TeleChavez, predicting it will be a mouthpiece for the president's vision of a regional revolution, all the more worrying to some at a time when Chavez is accused of curbing media freedoms at home with a law that imposes fines or jail time for dissemination of information ''contrary to national security."
Telesur executives insist the network will be independent and international, a counterbalance to North American media domination. Either way, until it starts broadcasting, ''Alo, Presidente" offers a window into Chavez's effective use of the airwaves to promote his ideas.
Nearly all of Chavez's ideas and policies get first play on his weekly show, with top ministers often learning of new presidential initiatives and Cabinet shake-ups at the same time the public does. What began as a call-in radio show shortly after Chavez took office in 1999 soon migrated to television. This year, a new, young production staff jazzed up the show with a logo, pretaped videos, and music, and took Chavez out of the presidential palace and onto on the road.
The program starts every Sunday at 11 a.m., but no one -- including the state-run TV network that airs it -- knows when the president will stop talking. A recent program about free healthcare filmed in the northeastern state of Monagas so channeled Chavez's enthusiasm that he carried on without a break for eight hours, shattering previous records.
''He reminds me of the Energizer Bunny . . . More than a good president, we have a good TV presenter -- he sings, he recites poems, he keeps people abreast of the progress of his daughter's pet turtle, he blames the CIA for everything. You have to laugh," said one of his most outspoken critics, Alberto Ravell, owner of the private Venezuelan news channel, Globovision.
But even Ravell acknowledges that Chavez ''makes contact with the people." Recognizing the profound influence of the program on public opinion, Ravell's network created a rival show called ''Alo, Ciudadanos!" (Hello, Citizens), in which critics pick apart Chavez's statements as he makes them.
Chavez is a long-winded but charismatic extemporaneous speaker. After eight hours on a recent Sunday, the indefatigable leader looked as if he could go for more. It was the 40 or so government officials and guests, who clapped and answered questions at appropriate times and furtively ate lunch from styrofoam containers at 4 p.m., who appeared to need a break by nightfall.
The epic show had kicked off with cheering mobs thronging the barricades to catch a glimpse of Chavez outside Maturin's newly opened ''integrated diagnostic health center," one of 30 free health clinics with modern medical facilities staffed by Cuban doctors that was being inaugurated that day. Chavez led scrambling cameramen on a live, hourslong tour of the facility, asking doctors questions about procedures and equipment, and translating their answers into easily understood tidbits for lay people. But for Chavez's energy, the show would feel like dull public-access cable TV.
Hooked up to a heart monitor, he complimented a pretty Cuban doctor on her hair, joking at one point that the machine was so sophisticated it could even diagnose heartbreak. He stopped in the dental clinic and spoke banefully of a root canal he underwent after ignoring a cavity, urging viewers to take care of their teeth. He toured the physical rehabilitation center, playing with a whistle and rehabilitative toys, then turning serious to speak with a disabled teenager. Examining an endoscope and a glaucoma machine, Chavez tried to demystify the high-tech equipment for viewers who might never have seen such machines.
''In the past, the poor had nothing -- only sugar water or aspirin or a witch doctor to wave fumes around," Chavez said, praising the clinics that he said will eventually cover the country.
Chavez's father-knows-best attitude comes through in the show, but so does his willingness to air critical phone calls and e-mails along with laudatory ones.
The secret to his success seems to be his folksy persona and the widespread perception that he cares about the common man's problems. ''In the past, whenever a president spoke on TV, I'd shut it off. Now when Chavez talks on TV, I get goosebumps," said Petra Cedeno, 40, coordinator of a neighborhood health committee who was an invited guest in the studio during the recent show.
''This is the first TV program we've ever had that's participatory, where people have a say and are asked what they think," agreed Ivan Rivas, 52, another health committee volunteer. ''Every Sunday we watch this show, and I think it should be even longer, because it's all about people having a chance to express their concerns."
As a measure of the show's popularity, the ministry of information earlier this year received letters complaining when the show was temporarily taken off the air while it was being redesigned. More recently, Chavez skipped a Sunday show without explanation, prompting diehard supporters to rally outside the palace, worried something had happened to him.
''I've seen people fainting when they see him or touch him, he's like a rock star," gushed Berrios. ''I don't know anywhere else in the world where a president would spend at least five hours every Sunday listening to his people . . . It is a giant ear to the people."
Critics retort that the show -- and Chavez's frequent public appearances on weekdays -- are more mouth than ear. ''Any president who can talk eight hours every Sunday and one hour every other day on TV is a person who doesn't work. It's not normal," insisted Dr. Franzel Delgado, a prominent Venezuelan psychiatrist who has written and lectured on what he says is the president's narcissistic personality disorder.
Delgado complains that Chavez uses his on-air charm to ''manipulate the susceptible," less-educated part of the populace.
Maruja Torre, a political science professor and former opposition party activist, says she finds herself glued to the TV every Sunday, paralyzed like an onlooker at a car crash. ''He begins in a very calm way . . . and by the end, he's quite furious. . . . He's a fantastic liar, but I think he really believes what he says."
In the end, what matters is if the majority of Venezuelans are persuaded.
According to independent polling firm Datanalisis, when asked what they thought of Chavez using Castro's Cuba as a model for their own country, a mere 3 percent of Venezuelans were in favor in November 2002. Asked the same question in May of this year, 12 percent thought it was a good idea. Another 33 percent told pollsters they now favor socialism -- 1 percent more than supported capitalism.