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In the United States, the idea of having a conversation with the President is pretty outlandish. But in Latin America, it’s a regular occurrence. The most accessible president on Latin American social media is Ecuador’s Rafael Correa. But what’s it like to get the attention of a head of state when you may not exactly want it?
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ALEX GOLDMAN: Gimlet co-founder Matt Lieber. So there’s a couple F-words in this show.
MATT LIEBER: Which ones?
ALEX: Which F-words?
MATT: You’re not talking about frailties or foibles or friendship?
ALEX: I think you can guess. So should we have a language advisory?
MATT: At this point if you have to ask then the answer’s yes.
ALEX: Listener you’ve been advised.
ALEX: Alright, so let’s say you are the one person in the country with the knowledge in 24 hours, aliens will invade the Earth. Your only hope of stopping them is warning the president in time. How do you get the president’s attention?
DANIEL ALARCON: It was a question that my friend Sam threw out there. It was basically a thought experiment. How would you get in touch with the president?
ALEX: This is Daniel Alarcon and this week’s episode comes to us by way of his radio show, Radio Ambulante.
DANIEL: My friend Sam I think went to Harvard, his entire strategy to solving the game was to work his way up the administration of Harvard to get to the president of Harvard who would presumably then be able to talk to a senator or someone in the President’s cabinet and maybe the President himself. But if you don’t go to Harvard how do you do that?
ALEX: If i were to try and use the connections that I have in the world, I don’t think I could do it. I don’t think I know anybody who is influential enough.
DANIEL: Yeah, I would go to my friend Vinnie who is de Blasio’s cousin.
ALEX: The de Blasio he is referring to is Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City.
DANIEL: And that would be my pretty direct route. I think de Blasio can get Barack Obama on the phone.
ALEX: But what if you don’t know Vinnie? Maybe you panic and decide to take a busload of hostages, screaming out the window. You might get some attention for a minute, but let’s face it, a SWAT team would take you out in no time. So how bout something quicker, more direct. Like Twitter. Daniel is understandably skeptical.
DANIEL: I could tweet from here until the end of time at Barack Obama and I wouldn’t respond, like I could probably tweet at my House of Rep person and they might not even respond. Like maybe the Mayor of San Francisco. Actually no, that’s not true. I tweeted at the Mayor of San Francisco once. Actually no, I’ve done it. I tweeted at Mayor Ed Lee, I tweeted at San Francisco Unified School District because we live across the street from a school and they left their bells on over Christmas break so New Year’s Day the bells ring at 7 in the morning. I was like, “Fuck you SFUFD, fix that!”
PJ VOGT: Did they respond?
DANIEL: Hell no they didn’t respond.
ALEX: And Daniel says that in the US, that’s basically how it goes.
DANIEL: You know democracy so often feels like a joke doesn’t it? And you know maybe if you could get in touch with the President or if power itself didn’t seem so distant and like a mirage then maybe it wouldn’t feel that way.
ALEX: It’s hard to imagine a place where there aren’t ten, twelve layers between you and the President. Where, if you had a problem, big or small, you could just reach out and say “Hey man, could you please fix this please?” But that place exists, and this week, we go there.
ALEX: From Gimlet, This is Reply All, a show about the internet. I’m Alex Goldman.
ALEX: So Daniel told us that in a lot of Latin America it is strangely easy to get the President’s ear, especially through Twitter.
DANIEL: Twitter in Latin America – and Presidential Twitter, it’s like you really get the sense that these people, these Presidents, these politicians have their phone in their pocket and they’re actually doing it themselves.
ALEX: By way of example, he told us a story from a couple of months ago about Argentinian president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
DANIEL: The president of Argentina had tweeted this ridiculous racist statement where she made fun of the way Chinese people speak spanish.
ALEX: Whoa. What did it say?
DANIEL: She was in China basically, begging for money as people do when they go to China, presidents do. Oh here it is, here it is: [in Spanish] “More than a thousand attendees at this event. Did they come just for the lice and the petlolio?” So instead of rice she said lice, and instead of Petroleum, she said Peloleum. That was her tweet. Ridiculous.
ALEX: Oh man.
DANIEL: So obviously people responded and were like, “Yo, are you out of your mind?” and she was like “Oh, in these difficult moments, we have to,” on Twitter right? “You know, we have to laugh and make jokes.
ALEX: I seriously doubt that Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has a social media team helping her craft racist tweets. Daniel says this is a trait common with many Latin American presidents: Argentina, Peru. One of Daniel’s sister-in-law’s favorite pastimes is arguing with the former president of Colombia on Twitter. And then there’s the shining example. Rafael Correa, the President of Ecuador. Mr. Accessible. According to a survey by a U.S. public relations firm, Correa is the world’s second most responsive president on Twitter, behind only Rwanda’s Paul Kagame. Not only is he tweeting, but he’s on Twitter, responding to the concerns of the people of Ecuador.
DANIEL: If you look at Correa’s Twitter feed he has this phrase: Favor Atender. Please like attend to this request is basically what it means. So people will tweet him, “Hey there’s a road that’s very rutted in my neighborhood and the city won’t fix it or whatever and he’ll respond and he’ll mention the mayor of that town and then he’ll put like ” Favor Atender.”
PJ: It’s actually, if you look at his replies it’s most of what he says. Like Favor Atender.
DANIEL: Yeah, yeah. He’s super active on Twitter and the majority of what he does is that. Sort of like direct responses to citizens.
ALEX: So if you’re an Ecuadorean, this is kinda cool. You can very easily reach your President online. But there are limits to what you can say online. In 2013, Ecuador’s National Assembly passed a controversial law.
DANIEL: The communications law came out and it basically made newspapers liable for things that were said in their comments sections. So in response a bunch of newspapers just cut that.
DANIEL: Because they were like, “We don’t want to be legally liable in this kind of ever-tightening press situation in Ecuador for like someone like insults the president and we’re like responsible.”
ALEX: So a bunch of newspapers shut down their comments sections. Which should’ve made Correa’s life easier. Now there were fewer places for his critics to talk about him. But instead, this created an environment that helped give birth to Correa’s greatest online nemesis. A man who so missed the conversations he had on newspaper websites that he created a new place where people could talk freely, a Facebook group. The man called himself Crudo Ecuador, which is Spanish for “Raw Ecuador.” He existed on the internet purely as a cartoon avatar, this spiky haired mischievous looking kid holding an axe behind his back. And that avatar would appear as kind of like a watermark in these memes that Crudo Ecuador would make, images plus some snarky text, jokes that took aim at Ecuadorian politicians, bureaucrats and corruption. And the public ate it up.
DANIEL: People started sending him things because they knew he was a big megaphone in Ecuador, right? And so he received a photo of a letter and it was a letter from the National Institutes of Health basically, the health system, the national health system and they’d given him an appointment for 2020. Like February something in 2020, you know. Even when I think about that it cracks me up because it’s so preposterous.
ALEX: Just to be clear, this is a photo of an actual letter from the health care system saying this person had to wait five years for a doctor’s appointment.
DANIEL: And it was signed and said, “Please arrive 15 minutes before your appointment.”
ALEX: So, Crudo posted the letter.
DANIEL: He added something like, “Oh honey don’t worry. I’ve already made my appointment for 2020,” and it has a picture of a man clutching his chest. And then below it, a photo of the appointment letter. And it blew up it was shared thousands of times. And it eventually reached the ears of the health system. And the next day they guy got an appointment. Like the very next day.
ALEX: Daniel actually spoke to Crudo. And Crudo told him that this made him feel really good. All of a sudden he could spotlight an issue that didn’t show up on TV or traditional media.
CRUDO: [in Spanish] Just because of the communications law, so I could address it in a fan page and those would go viral or get so big that they go from being background issues to being front page news.
ALEX: It was like he had this rare valuable superpower. And he did, because all across Ecuador, Crudo was blowing up. He had hundreds of thousands of followers online.
And riding this wave, Crudo decided to take aim at the biggest target: the President himself, Rafael Correa. So what happened is Correa passed a $42 tax on online purchases from abroad, as a way to keep people from bypassing the Ecuadorian economy. And then, Correa took a trip to Holland.
DANIEL: He’s walking through a mall and these Ecuadorean immigrants recognize him and they’re like, “Oh, Mr. President, can we take a picture with you?” and he’s like, “Sure.” And they take a picture with the President. And in the picture, they posted it on their Facebook page and eventually that image got to Crudo.
ALEX: Crudo was ecstatic. I mean here’s Correa, the guy who just passed a tax on foreign goods, getting caught shopping for foreign goods at a mall in foreign country.
DANIEL: The immigrants are hella smiley. They’re just like thrilled to be in a photo with the president. Correa looks a little less thrilled, but you know, he’s being the president. He’s got a bag, a shopping bag in his hand.
ALEX: And to Crudo, this was pretty hypocritical.
CRUDO: [in Spanish] More or less a double-standard, right? That is, if I said to you right now, “Listen, how could you possibly eat foreign food?” And tomorrow, you find me at McDonald’s, then that’s my double standard, right?
DANIEL: And the meme that Crudo made was essentially just calling out Correa for being a hypocrite.
ALEX: Crudo, seeing a clear opportunity, added some text based on those old MasterCard ads.
DANIEL: Oh here it is: “For the pelucones that buy on the internet and impact the national product? A tax, $42 dollars. But getting caught at a luxurious mall in Europe shopping? Priceless.
ALEX: And again, Crudo’s meme blew up. It was shared tens of thousands of times. But what he didn’t realize is that he had totally deeply misjudged Correa’s sense of humor. Correa has a weekly TV show, called La Sabatina where he does interviews and addresses the Ecuadorean people and he brought up Crudo’s meme on his show. At first, Correa sounds affable.
DANIEL: He was like “Well we weren’t going shopping, it was actually just cold and we walked into the mall to get out of the cold. Yeah we just wanted to buy a little gift for a friend of one of my daughters. I t wasn’t a luxurious shopping mall.” It’s like who cares man, just ignore it. Like, it’s Twitter. You don’t have to respond to everybody who critiques you. Plus you’re the president.
ALEX: And then, Correa turns his attention to Crudo himself. And he starts making outlandish claims. Like Crudo is a paid operative for Correa’s political opposition. And that Crudo used some kind of specialized software to scour the internet for mentions of Correa and then automatically turn those mentions into mocking memes. He implores his fans to storm Crudo’s website and, “React to these stupidities and acts of manipulation.” And then, Correa says this:
DANIEL: “Let’s see if he’s so funny when we know his name.”
PJ: He said that on TV?
DANIEL: Yeah. “Vamos a ver si es tan jocoso.” Let’s see if he’s so funny once he’s been outed.
ALEX: Coming up after the break, what it’s like to have the ear of the president when you may not exactly want it.
ALEX: So before the break, Rafael Correa, the President of Ecuador, took the extreme step of threatening to publish the identity of Crudo Ecuador on national TV. And the thing is, Correa takes this extreme step a lot.
DANIEL: You should watch these videos because they’re nuts. Because we’re talking about the President of a country saying, someone at-ed me and it’s outrageous. Super offended that someone wrote something mean about the president.
PJ: Wait so is he on television just reading mean tweets that people send him?
DANIEL: And then he reads their avatar name or whatever and then he’s like, “Well this one, and his real name is so and so, and he’s eighteen years old and lives in Quito.”
PJ: How is he doing that? How did he people’s real identities?
DANIEL: Well, we don’t really know that, we don’t know how he knew, you know…
RAFAEL CORREA: Esta chica shami santa maria, que pena.
DANIEL: “She’s 22 years old.” He outs this woman. It’s just not a fair fight. It’s like, dude! What are you doing? Just let these people be!
ALEX: This is a pretty bald faced intimidation tactic, right? If you criticize the president online, he will dox you on television. And what’s worse, Correa has a ton of supporters, so inevitably, being named publicly leads to harassment, death threats, all the wonderful mob behavior the internet is famous for. And now, Correa’s had his sights set on Crudo Ecuador. But in spite of Correa’s claims, Crudo wasn’t a paid provocateur or some entrenched political operative out to undermine the office of the President. He was just an ordinary guy named Gabriel Gonzalez. And compared to the character he played online, he’s actually pretty mild mannered.
DANIEL: He would tweet about drinking on the weekends and stuff and he told me he didn’t even drink. He would tweet about soccer matches and he was like, “I don’t even like soccer.” But he was trying to make Crudo Ecuador very much like had this mass appeal or to be as if it was the voice of the people. But you know in real life he described himself as a quiet guy, had a desk job basically that allowed him a bunch of free time. A job that had him in front of a computer screen online a lot. He knew something about marketing and social media. Married, the father of two young kids.
ALEX: Suddenly, this dad with an office job had become public enemy number one. And at first Crudo wasn’t worried exactly, because he was anonymous.
DANIEL: So he’s like, “I’m fine, you know everything’s fine.” He keeps doing his page, everything’s fine. But then they publish his address, his phone number, his ID number, the name of his father, his mother, his kids, their ages, you know all the stuff that was in the civil registry. They also published a photo of him.
ALEX: It’s a grainy photo taken from a distance with a cell phone. In it, Gabriel is walking through the food court holding a tray of food. And walking next to him is his son.
CRUDO: [in Spanish] I see that they publish my photo and is not one that they’ve downloaded from my Facebook. When I show my wife, she tells me, “Hey, that’s where we went three days ago, remember? Because you said we should escape the stress for a little while and go eat something.” And I said, “Sure.” So there, you’ll see that they’re following me to take my photo.
ALEX: Gabriel is freaked out. And he decides to leave town with his family, ASAP, until things blow over. So they go to a little town outside of Quito, where a friend of his lives. And they don’t tell anyone where they’re going.
DANIEL: And a few days later someone rings the doorbell and it’s a letter for him and some flowers. And the letter says [Spanish]. It’s a very baroque sentence, “I confess that it gives me great satisfaction and a great pleasure to know that you are passing some much deserved vacations here in the province of Guyas, which will give you a moment of relaxation after your not so appropriate activities.
ALEX: Oh my god.
DANIEL: [Spanish] That’s the part that kills me. Believe us that you will always count on our interest and attention so long as your bravery lasts. And they mentioned like his wife by name, his kids by name. Sincerely, and then they put the logo of Crudo Ecuador.
ALEX: Oh my god, it’s like the Godfather or something. It’s like waking up with a horsehead in your bed.
DANIEL: Well, I mean there’s just not other way to interpret that except as a threat. “As long as your bravery lasts,” it’s kind of this rococo sentence structure but it’s pretty clear what they’re saying.
ALEX: Gabriel and his family were exhausted and frightened and he decided he’d had enough.
DANIEL: Within a few hours he published a photo of the picture and the flowers, on kind of a black background with white and yellow letters. It said, “Mr. President, you won. Usted gano.” And that was the last time he published anything on Crudo Ecuador.
ALEX: In the wake of the incident with the flowers, Gabriel tried to prompt the government to investigate.
DANIEL: He tried to put in a police complaint, You know he did a bunch of stuff to get people to investigate who had done this and eventually one of the ministers, when asked, “Are you investigating the threats made on Crudo Ecuador?” he was like, “Oh well we would like to but he’s technically still anonymous because he’s never said that names that were published were actually his, so we can’t, we can’t investigate.” Which Crudo was like, “Alright, bullshit,” and he went on TV. And was like, “Hey, I’m Crudo Ecuador.”
TV Host: [in Spanish] Who is behind Crudo Ecuador? Who are you?
Crudo: [in Spanish] Well, my name is Gabriel Gonzales. I’m 32 years old. I work in multimedia design, I manage networks.
ALEX: Nothing came of his public plea. Daniel and his staff at Radio Ambulante reached out to the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Interior and never heard back. To be clear, there’s no proof that the government sent the flowers. Correa says that it was actually his own opponents who sent the flowers to discredit the government. But Gabriel can’t imagine that anyone but the government sent them. He says his life as an online provocateur is over. Daniel’s of two minds on what happened to Gabriel. On the one hand, making fun of the president basically ruined Gabriel’s life. But on the other hand, this ordinary nobody was able to speak truth to power, in a way that Americans never can. And when Daniel put that to Gabriel, that silver lining,
DANIEL: I think he just didn’t buy it, you know? He was like “Yes, I mean I suppose but, it does go both ways.” I can reach out and touch power, but oh shit, power can reach out and touch me. And that’s when the scale of the imbalance is made perfectly clear to me.
CRUDO: [in Spanish] All my relatives were frightened. Like, they didn’t want to go out anywhere. I thought that I might go to the zoo with my kids that day, but they didn’t want to leave for anything. We are all crazy. We were like, where will they be? Where will they be watching us?
ALEX: Crudo Ecuador, Gabriel sees a dark future for free speech in Ecuador. From his perspective, if turns out that it would be nice to have ten, twelve layers between you and the president. You know, just to keep you safe.
ALEX: Oh, and we tweeted at Correa asking for an interview and the most amazing thing happened. He didn’t reply.
Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. Our show was produced by Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin and edited by Alex Blumberg. Production assistance by Sylvie Douglis. Matt Lieber is the confidence to fight through the self doubt that keeps you from being your best self. Our show was mixed by the Reverend John DeLore and the super chill dude Rick Kwon. You can hear a Spanish language version of this story on Daniel Alarcon’s excellent radio show, Radio Ambulante. Extra special thanks to him and Silvia Viñas for their help with this story. Special thanks also this week to Lilly Sullivan for translation assistance. Our theme music is by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings. You can find more episodes at iTunes.com/replyall and you can find this week’s episode in article form on Digg.com. Our website is replyall.limo which was deisgned in partnership with Athletics.
Also, just a reminder that Gimlet Media’s latest show, called Mystery Show, hosted by Starlee Kine comes out this Friday. You can already listen to a preview of the show and subscribe to it on iTunes or whatever podcast app you use. And if you haven’t listened to it already, what are you doing with your life? I mean it’s amazing. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.