November 19, 2007

Chávez the Inevitable

[Quico says: About a year ago, we had a funny little incident in the comments section. Readers accused me of using a Sockpuppet by the name of "Lucía" to back up my opinions! Of course, Lucía wasn't an alter ego at all, just a reader who happened to agree with Katy and me most of the time. She's a stylish writer as well, and I'm very glad to say she's agreed to contribute to the site sporadically, starting with:]

Lucía says: Have you noticed how many of the foreign journalists covering Venezuela are treating a Chávez victory on December 2nd as a foregone conclusion? They’re not predicting trouble at the polls, or government fraud, or even a close race – they’re simply saying more people will vote YES than NO.

Polls showing most Venezuelans do not support the reforms have not dented this conventional wisdom, repeated in article after article, even a bit.

This is not about bias. The student movement and the Baduel defection, for instance, have received generous coverage from these same reporters.

So what’s happening here? I have a couple of ideas:

Journalists Use the Last Election as a Template for the Next One. Not entirely unreasonably, how the last election played out influences how the next one is covered. In the last election, foreign journalists saw massive rallies staged against Chávez. The opposition was mobilized and united behind Rosales. And the opposition lost.

And this made sense, too. Double-digit economic growth + billions in social spending + massively outspending your opponent -- politicians don’t tend to lose with this formula. Petrocrats worldwide are basking in strong approval ratings and consolidating power, and Chávez is no exception.

Journalists look at the current campaign and see that many of the disadvantages faced by the opposition last time around are still in place – or have gotten worse. The Venezuelan economy grew at an impressive clip in the third quarter of 2007. Billions more are being poured into misiones (with new misiones created, it seems, every time Chávez thinks up a dead ideologue he wants to honor). The opposition will again be absurdly outspent in the campaign.

If anything, the opposition's position is even worse this time around. No RCTV. Even harsher restrictions on advertising space. And an abstention problem in their own camp.

Too Many Bad Polls.
Another reason journalists are skeptical about a possible No victory is that the primary evidence one could be brewing comes from the polls. And as everyone who follows Venezuelan politics knows, polls have been a major source of controversy over the last few years. There are, in fact, ways to tell good polls from bad (the composition of the sample [hint: make sure rural Venezuela is represented] and the track record of the pollster are good places to start), but most journalists aren’t going to sift through piles of data and ask tough questions about methodology. They’re going to do what makes sense when facing a deadline: they’ll print some survey results, discard most, and treat all with a healthy dose of skepticism.

And with Venezuela’s recent history littered with polls off by ten or more points, it’s hard to argue that the skepticism isn’t warranted.

The Opposition.
The opposition is not, for the most part, press-savvy. To be sure, opposition leaders can be counted on to provide a quote or two to fill out an article. But opposition leaders don’t regularly cultivate foreign journalists, or share news-breaking material, or do much at all to try to combat the notion that they’re the gang who can’t shoot straight. Which is too bad. Because while some opposition figures are nothing more than Globovisión windbags, others could offer a valuable perspective, and access to grassroots sources. (You don’t think courting the foreign press is important? The Venezuelan government does: they spend your money on some very fancy lobby and PR firms.)

So that’s how many journalists genuinely view this election – some interesting developments, but still an impossible climb for the opposition.

But could the conventional wisdom be wrong?


This December is not last December. Standing in line for milk makes voters cranky. And Chávez is not on the ballot. This is important, because some moderate Chavistas may be willing to vote against the reforms even though they’re not entirely ready to give up on him yet. Chávez’s support outside his hard-core base is due to the misiones. But moderate Chavistas are very wary of extreme Chavismo: they don’t like the divisive rhetoric, the Fidel and Mahmoud love affairs, the spending abroad, the RCTV license cancellation, the violence against the students, the insults to the church. And they don’t like many of the reform proposals, either. The very vocal defections of Baduel and Podemos may underline what they themselves are feeling – this revolution is getting out of control.

We may have reached a tipping point for this key segment of voters.

If so, I hope reporters pick up on it and start writing about it.

Because what they write matters. If, in the final days before the vote, the LatAm cognoscenti around the world believe a Chávez victory is inevitable, there will be little scrutiny of the electoral process or outcome. But if the conventional wisdom shifts, and the “NO” momentum is acknowledged, we could be looking at a whole new ball game.