By Corina Pons
CARACAS (Reuters) - Struggling to contain an economic crisis and an opposition push to remove him, Venezuela's socialist leader Nicolas Maduro has launched a radio show devoted to salsa music in an effort to cheer the nation and boost his faltering image.
Maduro, a music aficionado who used to play in a rock band, debuted "Salsa Hour" this month and has broadcast four episodes from a radio booth specially installed in the Miraflores presidential palace, with each episode lasting several hours.
"This is a program full of energy and joy," said Maduro, 53, in one show, headphones on as he drummed his fingers and spun classics of the Caribbean rhythm. "I would do it every day ... to sing about our lives, anxieties, pains and dreams."
During the shows, sometimes also shown on TV, Maduro has danced with his wife, explained the history of salsa and devoted a program to Puerto Rican singer Ismael Rivera.
Politics have crept in too.
He dedicated the song "You're crazy, crazy, but I'm cool" to arch-foe and National Assembly President Henry Ramos and the song "Vagrant" to opposition leader Henrique Capriles.
Though Venezuela's 30 million people adore music, especially salsa, Maduro's show has fueled criticism that he is disconnected from reality in a country where millions are skipping meals amid shortages and rising prices.
"NOT AN ENTERTAINER"
Internet memes by opposition supporters have super-imposed an official picture of Maduro dancing during the show on photos of food lines, jailed activists and people foraging through garbage.
"Maduro's program is like a mockery," said Capriles, who narrowly lost to him in the 2013 presidential vote and has championed a drive for a referendum to recall Maduro.
"He should have a bit more respect for the Venezuelan people. He is not an entertainer."
Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader, has seen his popularity tumble since the election and is constantly compared unfavorably with his charismatic predecessor, Hugo Chavez.
"Maduro wants to connect with the poorest who, despite the crisis, still get together and listen to music," said Andres Canizales, a media scholar and spokesman for the Citizens' Monitor group.
Before the salsa show, Maduro already averaged 30 minutes of televised and radio appearances per day, above Chavez's 20 minutes, according to the group, which is critical of the government. Maduro has not set an end date for "Salsa Hour."
(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Cynthia Osterman)