CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s gaffe-prone President Nicolas Maduro says his latest verbal mix-up was a deliberate attempt to outwit opponents who love to portray him as a buffoon and ignore the socialist government’s advances.
In the best tradition of global figures from former US President George W Bush to Britain’s Prince Philip, the 50-year-old Venezuelan leader has been sometimes tripping up during his daily, hours-long speeches.
The latest incident was over the weekend, when Maduro told Venezuelans the government was going to give children 35 million “books and pounds” (“libros y libras”) for Monday’s return to school.
That prompted jeers on the Internet from critics, casting Maduro’s erroneous offer of millions in British currency to kids as further evidence of incompetence.
But the president re-appeared hours later in an attempt to have the last laugh. He said the mistake was a deliberate trick so that media usually antagonistic to him would in fact show the clip where he is offering the free school materials.
“The right wing is stupid. As they want to censure the historic fact that we are going to give 35 million books to the boys and girls of Venezuela … I left them a little trap, and some fell for it,” he told supporters.
“Some of the most stupid ones put the video on Twitter. Great! Because they show where I say we’re giving away 35 million books. At least people see it. If they hide things due to hatred of the fatherland, I’m obliged to find other ways.”
Maduro, a former bus driver who rose to be vice president under President Hugo Chavez and then won election after the death of his mentor from cancer this year, frequently refers to himself with pride as Venezuela’s first “worker-president.”
Supporters say the fact that a man like him – without a university degree and the traditional background of most presidents – can rise to power, shows how Chavez’s 14-year rule transformed Venezuela and gave opportunities to all.
Opponents though, among the nearly half of Venezuelans who did not vote for Maduro in April, often portray him as an ignoramus who only won power because he had Chavez’s blessing and has been incapable of creating any identity of his own.
Maduro’s most embarrassing mix up was when he was alluding to the biblical miracle of Jesus feeding the multitude. The president spoke of a multiplication of “penises” instead of “fishes”, muddling the Spanish words “penes” and “peces.”
On that occasion last month, Maduro apologised.
During his multiple Chavez-style, meandering live appearances on state TV, Maduro has also caused titters by telling a nurse to check his heart with a “telescope” instead of a stethoscope, and muddled up his masculine and feminine endings in Spanish grammar with the word “millions.”
Showing a healthy sense of humour, Maduro satirised his own misuse of the Spanish word “millonas”, instead of “millones”, saying he had made a formal request to the Spanish Language Academy for its inclusion as a new term.
He has also laughed in public at opponents’ nickname for him, “Maburro” – a wordplay on the Spanish for donkey, “burro.”
On Twitter, the president has sometimes misspelled words in messages to his 1.35 million followers.
His image was not helped over the weekend when he fell of his bike during a government sports event. State TV cameras kindly panned up, while Maduro picked himself up and carried on.
That brought a torrent of mockery from opponents via Twitter. “Who will he blame now? The CIA? (Opposition leader) Capriles? Ha-ha-ha!” wrote one. “God help us. If he can’t ride a bike, how can he manage Venezuela?” asked another.
Supporters remained steadfast. “So Nicolas fell off a bike?” said US-Venezuelan lawyer and writer Eva Golinger. “At least he’s a human being. That’s what a people’s president should be.”