MARACAY, Venezuela (AP) — It was show time for the most-watched program on Venezuela’s normally sleep-inducing state TV: Episode No. 240 of “Hitting it With a Sledgehammer,” the talk show hosted by one of the ruling socialist party’s most-revered — and reviled — leaders.
A military salsa band playing pro-government songs stirred up a live audience of several thousand state employees, pilot cadets and ideological die-hards.
Then Diosdado Cabello, sporting an army camouflage jacket, walked onto a stage bedecked in socialist party red to the ear-splitting thunder of a 1970s Venezuelan revolutionary anthem, “Open the Door.”
For government supporters attending last week’s program at an aviation academy in the central city of Maracay, the enthusiasm for Cabello, who the U.S. and European Union have sanctioned for human rights abuses and corruption, bordered on Elvis Presley-like idolatry.
A pregnant woman, with the words “Venezuela is mine” scribbled in red lipstick across her bared belly, stomped her feet and waved her arms above her head in unison with the human wave moving across the packed bleachers. Some held up signs reading “Yankee Go Home!” and “Always Loyal.”
The Wednesday night show, which this week celebrates its fifth year on the air, is produced with a military-like precision and the latest in technology.
But there was nothing staged about the enormous energy that lasted until nearly 1 a.m., when Cabello’s five-hour televised monologue finally ended last week.
“The European Union should worry about its own affairs,” declared Cabello, who heads the ruling party-dominated constitutional assembly that is charged with re-writing the nation’s charter and has effectively gutted the opposition-controlled congress of all authority.
“They’ve got plenty of human beings they’ve allowed to drown in the Mediterranean, plenty of human rights violations that occur in their countries and to which they close their eyes.”
While lawmaker Juan Guaido’s recognition by dozens of countries as Venezuela’s rightful president has renewed the opposition’s hope of gaining power after two decades of socialist rule it also has riled up President Nicolas Maduro’s still sizable pro-government base.
For the past five years, Cabello, a 55-year-old retired army lieutenant with strong influence over the security forces, has crisscrossed the country with his TV program, pressing the flesh with socialist party stalwarts for whom he is their torchbearer, in many ways more than Maduro.
The show’s production team says it has racked up more than 47,000 miles (75,700 kilometers) — the equivalent of circling the globe twice at the equator — bringing the program to all corners of Venezuela.
Every episode carries a heavy serving of recorded footage of the late President Hugo Chavez’s speeches, interviews and foreign trips — a “Greatest Hits” of the socialist comandante’s teachings. Far less frequent are references to Maduro, a sometimes Cabello rival behind the scenes.
The show is a family affair, with Cabello’s revolutionary pop singer daughter, Daniella, usually in the wings and sometimes joining her father on stage for a musical interlude.
It’s also a platform to attack opponents.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, one of Cabello’s chief critics, is called “Narco Rubio,” and a front-row seat in the audience is sometimes left empty for “Maria Violencia,” his chosen smear for Maria Corina Machado, a vocal government critic.
Then there are the broadcasts of secret videos and audio recordings Cabello says are provided by “cooperating patriots” and reveal private conversations and meetings between government opponents.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Amnesty International are among groups that have complained about Cabello’s on-air harassment and attacks of opponents, the media and local NGOs.
Cabello has responded by saying such “information artillery” is needed to expose plots by government opponents and their backers among foreign governments and the mainstream media.
For government supporters, it’s red meat and an opportunity to recharge for the battle ahead.
“Venezuela wants peace,” Cabello asserted at the end of last week’s show, warning the U.S. that it was ready to fight to defend Chavez’ revolution. “But if they try to steal our dreams of being a free, sovereign and independent nation we won’t let them have any sleep and we’ll become their worst nightmare.”
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/APjoshgoodman