Hugo Chavez, who died today, will be remembered as the socialist who transformed Venezuelan politics and helped mobilize his country with anti-American rhetoric. However, his bizarre misadventures in the mobile-phone industry will probably not make it into the history books.
In 2009, President Chavez held a news conference to announce the Vergatario, the first mobile phone assembled in Venezuela. The device had a camera, FM radio and digital-music player costing 30 Bolivar (about $15 at the time). During the unveiling, Chavez used the phone to call his mom.
The handset resembled the candy-bar-shaped devices popularized by Nokia about a decade earlier, and certainly didn't look cutting edge next to the iPhone, which predated the Vergatario by two years. But Venezuela hoped to boost mobile adoption in the country and other parts of Latin America by offering a low-cost product.
The Vergatario, like many Chavez initiatives, was controversial from the start. Some people took offense to the name, which sounds similar to a Spanish slang word for a certain part of the male anatomy, the Guardian reported then. Chavez didn't help his case by snickering each time he said Vergatario during the news conference.
Chavez quickly addressed the controversy in a televised speech. He cited the Real Academia Espanola dictionary, which defines vergatario as quality. He also called the UK newspaper that ignited the controversy "ignorant."
The Vergatario was assembled by Vtelca (Venezolana de Telecomunicaciones), a state-owned handset maker in partnership with China's ZTE. Customers snapped up the 5,000 units made available on the device's launch day in 2009, the Associated Press reported.
By 2010, Vtelca still hadn't gotten all the hardware kinks figured out. The company managed to only assemble about one-quarter of its annual target, the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal reported. In 2011, the government said Vtelca produced more than 1 million phones.
The Vergatario II hit the market in August 2011. About 45,000 were purchased on the day it came out, Nestor Gonzalez, a vice president at Movilnet, the mobile operator that carries the phone, told Radio Nacional de Venezuela.
"Within a couple years, we'll be exporting a good-quality phone at a low cost," Chavez said in 2009.
The late Chavez did not live to see his Vergatario challenge the iPhone.