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Honorable Prime Minister of Turkey, have you ever watched “Alo Presidente”?
Please watch. Did you know that Hugo Chavez Frias, President of Venezuela, is also a television star in Venezuela? Yes, he is literally a television star. Since 1999, Chavez is both governing the country and hosts, directs and designs a weekly talk show. And Alo Presidente (Hello President) is the name of that show. When took over the office, President Obama immediately revised the web site of the White House and promised the public an "open government". Accordingly, the decisions made or to be made would be as transparent as possible and the comments of the public would be received. In this sense, "Alo Presidente" of President Chavez becomes "wide-open government" rather than "open government". Let us see why.
"Alo Presidente" is broadcasted on a state-owned television channel on Sundays at 11 am. And it is only the guest-host-producer of the show, President Chavez who knows when the show will end. Sometimes, the show lasts five hours. If the President has a talkative time, the show might even last about eight hours. And during the show, Chavez talks without taking a break. Sometimes, he thinks out loud or gives directives, gives lessons, talks about his memories, and so on. First episode of the show was broadcasted ten years ago, on 23 May 1999. New season of the show started after Chavez finally won the referendum that allowed him to be re-elected as a President, at his second try (After losing the first referendum, the President said, "The revolution has lost for now"). Until today, Chavez has spent more than 320 Sundays at the television studio. And almost at each show, "How are you Fidel?" he said in English to Fidel Castro, President of Cuba. There are lots of things to mention when talking about Chavez; however, when you see the show one cannot help saying "Chavez is really an interesting man". The show must certainly be watched. However, there is one certain point to state: Chavez really loves his job as the president.
In fact, "Alo Presidente" is sort of "public policy design in a live broadcast". The only problem is that it is a bit arbitrary. We had a purpose in referring it as a "wide-open government". In the studio, there is a classroom-model setting. Chavez, as a lecturer, sits on the "teacher's table". On the table, there lie a bunch books he wants to comment on and a bunch of papers full of tables and graphs. Around the table, there are paintings and sculptures. In front of the table, there is a group of people sitting down as the students of the classroom. Often, everyone is wearing red "Chavista" shirts. In the first rows of desks, ministers and bureaucrats sit along with foreign guests; i.e. there is a protocol. After those rows, the ordinary public sits. And Chavez starts the show with any topic he would like to begin with.
At the show broadcasted on March 2 last year, Chavez began with bombing of Ecuador by Columbian war crafts. During the bombardment, Raul Reyes, leader of "Columbian Revolutionist Armed Forces" (FRAC) who fought against the Columbian government was killed. Reyes was an old friend of Chavez. Chavez asked the Minister of Defense sitting along with the audience to stand up. Then, Chavez instructed him to cross the Columbia border with 10 troops. The audience, looking at the face and observing the astonishment of the Minister, understood that he has not heard the instruction before. This is a crystal clear model of a slightly arbitrary government.
Can you imagine the impact of this situation on administrators? For the bureaucracy and ministers, Chavez-style "open government" is in fact the weekly "I wonder when the teacher makes me take an oral exam" pressure. I think ministers and bureaucrats cheer up when the show takes a break-up. Otherwise, this is what happens: Chavez starts the show with the topic he chose for that week and apparently, he does not announce the topic in advance. It is all a surprise and real.
Let us say that he starts the show with the milk issue in Venezuela. Venezuela imports almost all of the milk it needs. Because, the President has introduced price control for milk production and price controls have cut out private production. Then, as milk shortage has sparked and the price intervention initiated with good faith turned out to a disaster, Venezuelan state started to import milk directly. So, empty milk sections of supermarkets were filled. Now, the army is taking over milk production facilities in Venezuela. This is what the daily newspapers said recently.
After this quite long bracket, let us turn back to the show. At "Alo Presidente", the President starts talking about a problem in milk importation. The issue is not simple; the revolution is unable to feed its children with milk. In the meanwhile, heartbeats of the minister of agriculture are most probably going wild. Was not this also the case in primary school? Did not you get excited when it was almost your turn to go out to the blackboard? This is how the minister of agriculture feels at the meanwhile. However, for instance, the minister of customs is also at the show and the issue is imports. He might also be the lucky one. Furthermore, minister of transport is also there and the problem might be related with traffic jam. As oil prices are low, the best way to transport is a Venezuelan invention, motorcycle-taxi that enables you to ride between the cars and escape the traffic jam. So, the problem is certainly the traffic jam. Let the excited ministers wait stressfully and see.
Then, the President suddenly turns his head toward the minister of agriculture and says "Hey, did not I give you an instruction two weeks ago? So, why the Venezuelan people do not have any milk? Why do not you embrace your job with enthusiasm and find solutions? It is a shame on you. Now, account before the public. Do I have to take over your responsibilities and accomplish everything alone?" Simultaneously, minister of agriculture gets devastated, stands up and hems and haws. This way, Chavez simply addresses and solves a problem; gives orders and scolds ministers on a live show. There is still milk shortage but the President is trying hard in front of the public and gains popularity. This is a way to rule a country in the media age. If the goal is not to fulfill tasks but to stay in power; there exists a wide array of opportunities.
By the way, everyone learns that the nickname of the President as a student at the Army School was Gofy (you know, the friend of Mickey Mouse). "See" says the President showing the school yearbook, "back then, I was Afro; I had to cut it a bit." Besides, it is also possible to learn about the romantic life of the President. This is why the audience watches the show. Anything can happen in President Chavez's show "Alo Presidente". A minister can be discharged, Fidel can be called, a war against neighboring country can be initiated or the President can be seen giving orders to the cameraman to shoot better. He is the President, so he knows everything. The President asks the famous question "Do I have to accomplish everything alone?" Everyone watches the show. Why? As we also mentioned before: Hugo Chavez Frias is an interesting man.
We would like to invite everyone to the period of "wide open government", not "open government". We strongly recommend Honorable Prime Minister of Turkey to watch the show "Alo Presidente".
This commentary was published in Referans daily on 11.04.2009