By Brian Winter
BUENOS AIRES, April 28 (Reuters) - When a million angry Argentines flooded the streets earlier this month to protest her government, President Cristina Fernandez decided to post a message on Twitter.
And another. And then another.
"Yes, I'm a bit stubborn, and I'm also old. But in the end, it's lucky to arrive at old age, isn't it?" one tweet read. She also mused about a 19th century fresco in her "gorgeous" palace, and the merits of a state-run literacy program.
At the end of the day, Fernandez had sent 61 tweets in a nine-hour period - prolific even by the standards of Latin America, where presidents and other leading politicians have embraced social media with a zeal unmatched anywhere else.
Their love for Twitter, in particular, has given millions of voyeurs a real-time window into policymaking - and, often, their leaders' most intimate thoughts.
Yet it has also fueled debate on whether some are guilty of "oversharing" - making politics more polarized, confrontations more personal, and potentially making the leaders themselves look awkward when they post about chats with strangers in a bathroom, for example, as Fernandez also did this month.
"Everybody who uses Twitter knows that sometimes you write something and push the send button without thinking enough about it. That's dangerous in politics ... and we've seen many examples of it," said Alan Clutterbuck, head of Fundacion RAP, a group based in Buenos Aires that seeks to improve the civility of political discourse.
"We should hold our political leaders to a different standard," he said. "You see a message that says 'I'm having a sandwich,' and you think: 'Who cares?'"
With a rich tradition of florid oratory, Latin America produced Cuba's Fidel Castro and his famed five-hour-long speeches. So it's unsurprising that some of its modern-day leaders have embraced a new platform to express themselves - but also struggle to shoehorn their thoughts into a few tidy blasts of 140 characters or less.
Politicians have also been hurling around insults since before the Twitter age, such as when the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez called former U.S. President George W. Bush the "devil" at the United Nations in 2006.
Yet there is no question that the technology has made the invective fly faster than ever before.
In the aftermath of this month's bitterly contested election to succeed Chavez in Venezuela, there were moments when both candidates were simultaneously tweeting attacks on each other.
Eventual winner Nicolas Maduro referred to the opposition as "fascists," declaring: "In their crazy hatred and desperation they're capable of anything." Losing candidate Henrique Capriles used Twitter to question the results of the voting hours after polls closed, tweeting "There is an illegitimate president!"
SHOWING THEIR HUMAN SIDE
Leaders elsewhere have also taken to Twitter, though not with the same fervor. U.S. President Barack Obama has a robust feed, but his profile says he only sends some himself, signing them "-bo." As of Friday, he hadn't done so in at least a month.
In contrast, Latin America's most prolific tweeting presidents - Fernandez, Maduro, Colombia's Juan Manuel Santos and Mexico's Enrique Pena Nieto - all send a large percentage of messages themselves, their aides say.
The most popular of all was Chavez, who had more than 4 million followers prior to his death in March.
Not everybody's on board: The president of the region's biggest country, Brazil's Dilma Rousseff, stopped tweeting right after she was elected in 2010. "She thinks it's a total waste of time," one aide said.
But for others, it has become part of their identity.
Since leaving office in 2010, former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has sometimes sent dozens of tweets a day criticizing Santos for being weak on security, among other alleged failings.
Uribe's critics say he has diminished his stature, and unfairly hamstrung his chosen successor, by weighing in so frequently on day-to-day affairs. But he has shown no signs of slowing down, and even hung in his home office a framed cartoon of himself hunched over his Blackberry, tweeting away.
"It allows direct communication, without intermediaries," Uribe said via e-mail. "The danger is that it tempts you to react to first impressions, so I try to avoid seeing many of the provocations that arrive."
At its best, Twitter can remind voters that their politicians are human - and even vulnerable.
The night of the march against her in Buenos Aires, Fernandez traveled to Caracas, and began to reflect on Chavez's death - words that added poignancy given the sudden passing of her own husband, former President Nestor Kirchner, in 2010.
"Why is it that those who live with so much intensity abandon us so soon?" she tweeted.
The following night, she started writing about "the human condition," before seemingly remembering that, even on Twitter, there are limits.
"Pardon me," she tweeted. "I started thinking, and since I can't speak (because my voice is gone), I'm channeling it through here."
"In the end, it's healthy and absolutely inoffensive." (Additional reporting by Helen Murphy in Bogota; Editing by Kieran Murray and Sandra Maler)
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Sebastian Pinera, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Felipe Calderon
In Latin America, <a href="http://live.reuters.com/Event/World_News/65917374" target="_hplink">Chilean President Sebastian Pinera</a> and <a href="http://live.reuters.com/Event/World_News/65917869" target="_hplink">former Mexican president Felipe Calderon</a> expressed their condolences, and Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner cleared her busy schedule <a href="http://www.buenosairesherald.com/article/125674/cfk-cancels-activities-to-travel-to-venezuela-for-ch%C3%A1vezs-wake" target="_hplink">so she could fly to Venezuela tomorrow to be at Chavez's wake</a>. <em>Presidents and Heads of State wave during the official photo at the sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, Sunday, April 15, 2012.</em> (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Bolivian President Evo Morales gave an emotional statement on TV, <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/05/hugo-chavez-death-venezuela-reaction#block-513685ad95cbcb6c863dd77d" target="_hplink">saying he felt "destroyed" by Chavez's death</a>. "It hurts, but we must stand united in this process of liberation, not only of Venezuela but of the whole region," Morales said, according to The Guardian. <em>Bolivia's President Evo Morales pauses during a news conference at the government palace in La Paz, Bolivia, Tuesday, March 5, 2013</em>. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon
Over at the United Nations, Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20130305/ap-hugo-chavez-world-reactions/" target="_hplink">called Chavez a "great politician" and said his death was "a tragedy,"</a> according to the Associated Press.
Juan Manuel Santos
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos <a href="https://twitter.com/JuanManSantos/status/309087721287204864" target="_hplink">tweeted his condolences</a> and <a href="http://twiffo.com/1JJy" target="_hplink">gave a lengthy statement</a> on Chavez's passing, saying that although the two had many differences, Chavez's death was a great loss for Venezuela and the whole region. <em>Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos arrives to the Justice House (sort of police station) of the Commune 13 -- one of the shantytowns with the highest rates of urban violence and displacement-- during a security council in Medellin, Antioquia department, Colombia, on February 22, 2013.</em> (RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Via <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/06/us-venezuela-chavez-reaction-idUSBRE92502R20130306" target="_hplink">Reuters</a>, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement: "I was saddened to learn of the death of President Hugo Chavez today. As president of Venezuela for 14 years he has left a lasting impression on the country and more widely. I would like to offer my condolences to his family and to the Venezuelan people at this time." <em>Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague delivers a speech, setting the government's counter terrorism policy, in central London, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013.</em> (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, pool)
Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin
Over at the United Nations, Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20130305/ap-hugo-chavez-world-reactions/" target="_hplink">called Chavez a "great politician" and said his death was "a tragedy,"</a> according to the Associated Press. <em>Vitaly Churkin, Russia's Ambassador to the United Nations, speaks to the media after Security Council was briefed by Lakhdar Brahimi, Joint Special Representative of the United Nations and the League of Arab States for Syria, November 29, 2012 at UN headquarters in New York.</em> (STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva
The former president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, also <a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-21679372" target="_hplink">reacted to the news emotionally</a>, according to the BBC, saying he was "proud" to have worked together with Chavez. <em>Brazilian former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva delivers a speech during a campaign event for the mayoral candidates of the Workers Party (PT) he founded, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on September 27, 2012.</em> (YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/GettyImages)
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/03/05/hugo-chavez-dead-stephen-harper-canada_n_2814363.html?utm_hp_ref=canada" target="_hplink">The Canadian Press</a> reports that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered his "condolences to the people of Venezuela." He stated: "At this key juncture, I hope the people of Venezuela can now build for themselves a better, brighter future based on the principles of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights." <em>Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers a statement regarding the federal government review of the $15.1-billion takeover of Nexen Inc. by China's CNOOC Ltd. and the $6-billion takeover of Progress by Malaysia's Petronas, Friday Dec. 7, 2012.</em> (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Fred Chartrand)
In the U.K., the author and Member of British Parliament <a href="https://twitter.com/georgegalloway" target="_hplink">George Galloway</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/georgegalloway/status/309069249396228096" target="_hplink">sent this tweet</a> after Chavez's death.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff -- herself a cancer survivor -- told <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/06/us-venezuela-chavez-reaction-idUSBRE92502R20130306" target="_hplink">Reuters</a>: "Today a great Latin American died. ... On many occasions, the Brazilian government did not fully agree with President Hugo Chavez but today, as always, we recognize in him a great leader, an irreparable loss and, above all, a friend of Brazil." <em>Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff speaks during the opening meeting of the National Council for Science and Technology at the Planalto presidential palace, in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013.</em> (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
Ed Royce, Republican chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Relations Committee, had some scathing remarks for the late Venezuelan President, according to <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/06/us-venezuela-chavez-reaction-idUSBRE92502R20130306" target="_hplink">Reuters</a>: "Hugo Chavez was a tyrant who forced the people of Venezuela to live in fear. His death dents the alliance of anti-U.S. leftist leaders in South America. Good riddance to this dictator. <em>Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA (C) speaks during a news conference to introduce a GOP-sponsored Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac reform plan with House Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) (L) and Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ) at the U.S. Capitol March 29, 2011 in Washington, DC.</em> (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
In Belarus, reports <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/06/us-venezuela-chavez-belarus-idUSBRE9250YJ20130306">Reuters</a>, flags flew at half-mast and President Alexander Lukashenko issued a statement honoring Chavez as "a close and reliable friend, our brother." The two men shared a prominent anti-U.S. outlook, and Lukashenko had traveled to Venezuela three times. <em>Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko looks on at the opening ceremony of the Track Cycling World Championships in Minsk on February 20, 2013. (SERGEI GRITS/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
China's Xinhua News Agency <a href="http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2013-03/06/c_132213619.htm">released a statement</a> from Chinese President Hu Jintao expressing condolences for the death of Chavez, who he called a "great friend" to the Chinese people. Jintao said Chavez "had devoted all his life to national development and social progress, and earned respect and support from the Venezuelan people." <em>Chinese President Hu Jintao attend the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference at Great Hall of the People on March 3, 2013 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)</em>
According to <a href="http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/putin-reaches-out-to-venezuela-after-death-of-close-friend-chavez/476576.html">The Moscow Times</a>, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a telegram to Caracas expressing his "deepest condolences" and calling Chavez "an extraordinary and powerful man who looked to the future and always set the highest bar for himself." <em>Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with top officials of the prosecutor general's office in Moscow on Tuesday, March 5, 2013. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti Kremlin, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service)</em>
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy sent a telegram to Venezuela's acting leader Nicolas Maduro calling Chavez's death the “disappearance of one of the most influential figures in contemporary Venezuelan history," <a href="http://elpais.com/elpais/2013/03/06/inenglish/1362592407_661149.html">El Pais reports</a>. Spain's King Juan Carlos also extended condolences. Juan Carlos and Chavez famously clashed at the Iberoamerican Summit in 2007, when Juan Carlos asked Chavez, "why don't you shut up?" <em>Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy gestures during a control session at the Spanish Parliament, in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)</em>