Despite his reputation as a darling of the Left for his anti-American rhetoric, Venezuela’s strongman Hugo Chávez is known by many in his country as a dedicated suppressor of free speech. An article in the International Herald Tribune today by Francisco Toro spells out the lengths Chávez has gone to stifle one of his bêtes noires, Twitter.

The Twitter accounts of many of Chávez’s critics have suddenly begun spewing pro-Chávez, anti-opposition propaganda. More recently, the tack the hackers have taken has begun to show more subtlety.

“At first it was easy to spot the tampering: overnight, the tweets went from broadly critical of the government to virulent, obscenity-laden ALL CAPS attacks on the opposition. In recent days, however, the hackers have become more sly.When the opposition-linked pollster Luis Vicente León lost control of his account last week, the messages on his feed criticizing Maria Corina Machado, one of the opposition’s presidential candidates, were measured enough to be mistaken for León’s real opinion.”

Anyone who has followed Chávez’s activities regarding free speech here on ReadWriteWeb (to say nothing of the view from the ground) will know he has consistently employed his control of the laws and the bully pulpit of the presidency to stifle dissent.

Chávez is particularly enthusiastic in his hatred of Twitter, given its widespread use by opposition politicians, critics and civil society workers in Venezuela. He has described Twitter as a “battle trench because it is bringing a current of conspiracy.” This hasn’t stopped him from eventually starting his own Twitter account.

Chávez’s rhetoric, and his workaday efforts to silence his opposition should surprise nobody at this point. But what Toro wrote about was a step further.

“After Milagros Socorro, the editor of the opposition news site, had her account hacked, she received an anonymous email from a sympathizer working inside the Ministry of Science and Technology. It said that an entire floor of the ministry, staffed largely by Cubans, was devoted to tracking and hacking into opposition activists’ online activities.”

Chávez has declared “the Internet cannot be free.” He may have meant in Venezuela, as long as he is in power.

curt hopkins