November 22, 2008

Frontline on Aló Presidente: Simply Brilliant

Quico says: Frontline, PBS's flagship current affairs show, has just released a documentary on el que te conté on its website. They're calling it The Hugo Chávez Show, and it's as close to The Whole Story on Chávez in 90 minutes as you're ever likely to get.

Watch it. No, seriously, watch it. The production values are top-notch, and the analysis is on a level of sophistication well beyond what we're used to seeing in foreign outlets.

This segment in particular, which methodically takes apart the way Chávez brutalizes his own ministers and supporters on Aló, presidente, includes some of the most insightful stuff yet on the way the man actually exercises power. The basic insight/paradox, that opposition supporters enjoy far more freedom of speech in Venezuela than government backers, is brilliantly shown, not told.

Don't miss it.

The Spanish version está aquí.

[Hat tip to like 15 or 20 of you who've been bombarding my inbox with links to this thing...]

Chigüire Strikes Again

Quico says: Barreto reveals revolutionary plans for a sub-aquatic Caracas.

Could Chávez's Cadena Blunder Rescue the Opposition in Caracas?

Panel one: "Not sure whether to go vote or not..."
Panel three:
Cadena announcement... "It's decided...I'm going to vote!"

Venezuela: "I could use a little help over here!"
Chávez: "Quit bugging me, I'm on cadena."

Quico says: Looking at editorial cartoons like these, I have to wonder if Chávez's idiot decision to run an hours' long cadena in the middle of a natural disaster might not provide the kind of lifeline opposition hopeful Antonio Ledezma needed to pull off a dramatic, come-from-behind win in the race for Metropolitan Mayor of Caracas.

I mean, that cadena was a disaster. Commandeering the airwaves, all the airwaves, for an unrelated rant, at a time when people needed up-to-the-minute information as a matter of life or death...that just crystallizes everything that's gone wrong with the revolutionary dream.
Chávez se olvidó del pueblo!
The guy's off doing his own thing. Your problems just don't rank all that high in his list of concerns, not even when they're something quite as dire, quite as immediate, as needing to know whether you're about to get washed away by a flash flood in the next few seconds.

That cadena was Fat Man in a Palace Syndrome made visible in its starkest, most dramatic terms. I refuse to believe chavismo won't take an electoral hit for it.

Will it be enough? As recently as a week ago, Ledezma was pretty far behind. Veremos.

Polling gossip: Pessimist's Edition

Quico says: A trusted reader with access to polling data I could only dream of writes in. Our forecast map looks optimistic to him. Says only Sucre and Nueva Esparta are genuine Deep Blues. Zulia, tightening. Táchira, tightening. Carabobo, tightening. Miranda, dead even. Aragua, Anzoátegui, Bolívar, Vargas, Yaracuy and Caracas-at-Large: all well out of reach.

In states where we're behind, we're way behind. In states where we're ahead, we're barely ahead. The one bright spot: Trujillo, where the dissident chavista has a better shot at upsetting PSUV than most realize.

November 21, 2008

Life Immitates Satire

Quico says: Yesterday's scenes of traffic madness in Caracas reminded me of a classic Otrova Gomas piece called "El Día D." It originally showed up in El Cofre de los Reconcomios - a collection of wonderfully bizarre and extremely funny essays he first published (if you can believe this) all the way back in 1979.

It takes some local knowledge to fully appreciate the genius of this piece, for sure. But even if you've only been to Caracas once or twice you can intuit how the city's location along a long, narrow valley makes this scenario chillingly plausible.

Of course, the original Spanish (which I'll post in the comments,) is way funnier than my translation. Still, here goes nothing:
by Otrova Gomas

A couple of days earlier, I had the feeling that the traffic reports on the radio were showing uncommon concern. I seem to remember one of the chopper guys saying he'd never seen so many cars in one place. But really, it all happened on February 24th.

At 9 a.m., the massive traffic jam from Caricuao bumped up into the one from Altamira, while the tailback on Plaza Venezuela practically cut off the flow of cars from the University, whose drivers got desperate and started trying to flee towards the highway via downtown. That might have worked, except the tailback from Universidad Avenue had blocked the highway in both directions.

A number of desperate drivers then struck off for the Norte-Sur, but the congestion on Nueva Granada Avenue, caused by the gridlock in El Paraiso produced by the cars that were fleeing the jam in Caricuao, ended up blocking every route into and out of Central Caracas.

At 10:30, after a truck overturned on the way into the La Guaira highway tunnel, a rubberneckers' crash on the way up into Caracas shut down traffic between the city and the coast forever. We have to acknowledge that people, driven crazy by the hot sun beating down on them, ended up making everything worse by clogging the breakdown lane as they tried to turn around and head back, making it impossible for tow-trucks to reach the scene and try to patch things up somehow.

Meanwhile, back in Caracas, the cars coming from the Cota Mil got boxed in on the eastern end because gridlock on the East-side highway had set off an unprecedented jam on the Francisco de Miranda Avenue, which in turn got blocked on the west by the traffic jams from Chacaito, la Libertador and the end of Casanova Avenue, and to the east by the collapse of the Altamira overpass (que tiempos aquellos!), which buckled under the weight of the cars stranded on it.

I remember that the Prados del Este Highway, crammed full of desperate drivers, ended up gridlocked from Chacao to the Prados del Este roundabout, where furious drivers tried to turn back without realizing that they would end up locked into a circle formed by the cars that were trying to escape through Alto Hatillo from the jams in El Cafetal and Chuao as well as the desperados fleeing Baruta.

At 11:00 a.m., with the entire city clogged and becoming a bedlam of cars trying to turn back, it started to rain. When Catia flooded, traffic on Urdaneta Avenue shut down completely, setting off panic in San Bernardino, San José and La Pastora. Crazed drivers tried to get out by driving on the sidewalks and traffic isles, even if it meant mowing down trees, but the deep puddles that started to form all over the city closed down every escape route.

By 3:30 p.m., the city of Caracas was completely gridlocked without the slightest possibility of movement anywhere. To make matters worse, a bus accident in Tazón shut off passage through the mountains to the South, after the tailback from the Valle-Coche highway ran into the one from the East-side highway.

At first, traffic wardens and motorcyclists tried to help out in emergency cases, but the desperation of people trying to flee through any gap, even if it meant driving over smaller cars, formed an automotive barricade over every nook and cranny that made it impossible even for bikes to get through.

At 4:55, the bikes were abandoned just like hundreds of cars had been. The army overflew the city and the president improvised a cadena from the jam in La Carlota, calling for calm and promising to work things out somehow. But the suppressed sobs in his voice made it impossible to believe him. There was no hope.

Foreign experts declared it impossible to get traffic moving again, explaining that the streets had morphed into one immense traffic jam that circled back on itself again and again like a snake. The only chance to get any movement, according to a Ministry of Transport communiqué, would involve getting 50,000 cars to reverse at the same time, but that would inevitably just mean replicating the jam backwards.

Worst of all was the irresponsible attitude of thousands of drivers who, at 3 in the morning, abandoned their cars. Some even locked the doors to make sure they didn't get stolen.

It was the worst night in memory. The honking horns of idiots, the carbon monoxide, the smoke, the gasoline vapors and the high lead concentrations caused the first fatalities towards 5 in the morning.

Within two days, the exodus started. Still not quite able to believe the official declaration that it was impossible to move that inferno of cars, people started to abandon the city. The absence of supplies turned it into a dead city almost overnight.

Millions of people began the greatest migration in the history of time, taking nothing more than what they could carry in their arms.

Within six days, the city was completely abandoned. It had become the exclusive preserve of hundreds of thousands of vehicles forming a horrific queue of luxury junk. A ghost city populated only by a handful of very patient and extremely inattentive drivers who, never noticing the exodus, waited patiently for traffic to get going.
(Read the original in the comments.)

Thinking through the Major Mayor's race

Juan Cristobal says: A lot of you have asked about the Caracas Mayor-at-Large (or Major Mayor) race between Chavez's candidate Aristobulo Isturiz and opposition candidate Antonio Ledezma. The race is not just one of the most symbolically important ones that will be held on Sunday, it's also a toss-up: one to watch very closely (assuming the rains don't just wash away the whole valley which, at this point, is a toss up too.)

In the last election in 2004, the good people of the Metro area elected Juan Barreto over Claudio Fermin by a margin of 60-40. This went down in the midst of dismally low turnout by our voters, right on the heels of the Great Recall Referendum Debacle of 2004.

Barreto got most of his votes from the Libertador side of the city. Chavista votes in Libertador accounted for 73% of his total. The opposition votes came from all over - 29% of the votes for Claudio Fermin came from Baruta, 17% from Sucre, 10% from Chacao and 6 % from El Hatillo. But still, 37% of his votes came from Libertador.

So in order for Ledezma to win, two things must happen: there has to be a significant increase in opposition turnout in our strongholds of Baruta and Chacao, a surge of opposition votes in Sucre, and a competitive fight in Libertador that blunts Aristóbulo's advantage there. In other words, people in our strongholds need to turn out big, and the predictable chavista victory in its stronghold should be less than overwhelming.

Several facts suggest the wind is blowing in Ledezma's favor. Though he is the one oppo politico Quico loves to hate more than any other, he has run a disciplined campaign, and deserves kudos for getting Leopoldo Lopez's full endorsement.

The competitive race in Chacao may increase turnout if people feel strongly about one candidate or the other. Furthermore, Ocariz may be riding a wave of support in Sucre that could translate nicely into a bigger margin for Ledezma.

Finally, in Libertador, the opposition is running two competitive candidates: student leader Stalin Gonzalez and Claudio Fermin. Neither of them has a chance against Jorge Rodriguez, but this two-sided attack may steal enough votes from Rodriguez from both older, more traditional adeco voters and younger voters identified with the student movement, that it may well push Ledezma over the finish line. If instead of Freddy Bernal's 74% win in 2004 over Carlos Melo, Jorge Rodriguez were to win with, say 50% of the vote, Ledezma could squeak through.

In other words, running several candidates in both Chacao and Libertador could end up benefitting the opposition!

It's the oldest cliché in the book, but true nonetheless: it's all down to turnout. Now with the rains, who knows. In this clip, Ledezma is sounding like the Mayor already.

Panic on the Streets of El Rosal

Quico says: A day of chaos in Caracas yesterday, as uninterrupted, torrential rain caused deadly mudslides and absolute traffic chaos all over the city. Mudslides wiped out at least 30 houses (a euphemism, really they mean shanties) in Baruta (Southeastern Caracas). In Libertador (Central Caracas), 170 houses were destroyed. Five people died in Caracas, including two children. Two more died in floods in Zulia.

As an urban system, Caracas just stops functioning when it rains this hard. Yesterday saw a kind of systemic city-wide traffic collapse. (Erm...more so than usual, is what I mean.) Caracas's open-sewer-cum-river, the Guaire, looked set to burst its banks...literally covering El Rosal with shit. The Prados del Este and Valle-Coche Highways simply stopped moving, with water and mud waist high in places and people reduced to sleeping in their cars. Spotting an opportunity, gangs of muggers made their way through the cola, holding up stranded motorists at will. Mad Max stuff.

Amid all this, at around 4:00 p.m., Chávez called a cadena broadcast, linking up all terrestrial TV and radio. "Good," you think, "the Big Man is taking this weather bull by the horns!"

Not a bit of was just a standard, ranting, ideology-heavy cadena, this time to welcome the Vietnamese president and sing the praises of Ho Chi Minh.

His one mention of the weather? A wistful complaint that all that rain would mess with the satellite link-up to the site of a planned Vietnovenezuelan low-energy light-bulb factory in Falcón State - which was to be the highlight of the cadena. The sheer chaos all around him? Bien gracias...lets just say it wasn't just those light-bulbs operating at suspiciously low wattage yesterday.

For once, Leopoldo Castillo's incensed rant at the end of the cadena made good sense to me:

Fat Man in a Palace Syndrome is never quite so stomach turning as when people really do need their government to help them as a matter of life or death. In the normal run of affairs, Chávez's galactic level of isolation is merely funny, in a sad sort of way. But when the flood waters are rising all around you, it's not funny. Not funny at all.

So there you have it...more and more rain, pouring down and taxing the country's emergency response services just hours before an important vote, and the government utterly focused on the election rather than on sorting out the growing chaos engulfing the city...remind you of anything?

Update: Apparently the Guaire did finally burst its banks in some places. Some reports now talk of 11 deaths from the floods. Traffic in Caracas is still not back to normal. And the forecast calls for more rain today and tomorrow.

November 20, 2008

Two more 23N maps

Quico says: The pre-election forecasts are coming thick and fast now, and just to keep the people who make them accountable after the election, we're going to keep posting them.

Opposition-linked pollster Oscar Schemel of Hinterlaces has a map that's not miles away from our own forecast:

Schemel has Cojedes and Yaracuy reversed from our map, and he's holding out hope for our side in Vargas, which no one else seems to be doing. He doesn't think Sucre is in the bag yet, though, or that we have a chance in Mérida or Aragua.

The biggest difference, though, has to do with Bolívar, where Schemel thinks we're likely to win, even though the opposition vote will be split between two rival former governors each of which is about as popular as the other! How that's supposed to work, I have no idea...

Then there's Chaverrific pro-government pollster Consultores 30.11. The Venezuelan Embassy in DC has been circulating their forecast - which, right there, tells you about as much as you need to know about these guys' independence. Going through their slides, I got this map:

Ummmm...where to start? 30.11 thinks we have a better chance in Delta Amacuro than we do in Táchira! And they give us an outside chance in Cojedes - rushing into territory where Schemel fears to tread...but then they call Zulia, which the opposition is very likely to win by double-digits, a toss up.

Lets not mince words: this map makes no sense. Their methodology sheet is so garbled, I have to wonder if any actual polling at all went into the making it.

But hey, at least they're giving us Margarita...

23N Map: Caracas Chronicles Forecast

Juan Cristobal and Quico say: So after some debate, we have decided to go out on a limb and publish a Forecast Map for Sunday's gubernatorial elections. We think it'll go like this:

This is basically Juan's post, with Bolívar shifted over to the Solid Chavista column and Mérida downgraded to "Lean" from Solid Chavista. On second thought, we can't see how a divided opposition can possibly take Bolívar, and we have to accept that even if William Dávila is a tool, Mérida has been trending blue in recent votes and the opposition could conceivably pull it off there.

We also decided that in a context where Chávez has spent considerable time and effort attacking the hell out of "dissident chavistas", it doesn't make sense to think of Lenny Manuitt in Guárico or of Julio César Reyes in Barinas as anything other than opposition. So we're making them blue rather than green.

We're real unsure about Portuguesa, where we have neither polling nor inside info to go on. A couple of months ago Datanalisis thought the PPT candidate was competitive there, but we can't really believe chavismo can lose a state like that. Falcón is another place where we wished we had more local knowledge to go on, as was Aragua. But on the basis of what we know now, the former looks like a chavista lock and the latter like an imaginable oppo upset.

Turnout will be a key factor everywhere, but nowhere more so than in the race for Mayor-at-Large of Caracas (how how how to translate Alcalde Mayor?!) We're saying it is lean chavista, but again, if Ocariz wins big in Sucre and the oppo heartland of Chacao, Baruta and El Hatillo turn out in numbers, anything could happen. We'll post on that in detail later.

Overall, the opposition is almost sure to win 4 states, likely to win 9, but could go as high as 13 if the stars line up just right for us. The government is a sure thing in 9 states and likely to win 12 (+ Greater Caracas) in all, but could imaginably win 18 if our people don't turn out.

That's our story and we're sticking by it!

November 19, 2008

Orbital Identity Crisis Chronicles

Quico says: So I was reading this thing and wondering how long it will take after the satellite breaks down before Chavistas suddenly "discover" that the First Venezuelan Satellite wasn't actually Venezuelan at all and start passing the buck saying, y'know, of course that thing was 100% certified slanty-eyed, rice-burning and amarillo amarillito from day one:
In May 2007, the Nigerian government rejoiced as the Chinese-built Nigeria Communications Satellite - 1 (NIGCOMSAT-1), was sent into orbit by a Chinese rocket at the Xichang launch facility. Nigeria was upbeat and looking forward to 15 years of advanced telecommunications service, thanks to a satellite which China, along with sending into space, had funded to the tune of well over $200 million.

But in early November, after NIGCOMSAT-1 had been in service for only 18 months, all the dreams were dashed. NIGCOMSAT-1 went out of service completely with its onboard electrical power supply damaged significantly due to a malfunctioning solar array. Rumors flew that it was almost completely out of control and perhaps a threat to nearby satellites. These were addressed by Nigerian and later Chinese officials, but only after a day had passed, and after that only a series of denials were issued.

Just a week earlier, the Chinese had launched a new communications satellite for Venezuela known as Venesat-1 which used the same core technology or "bus" as NIGCOMSAT-1. If the sequence of events was reversed, and Venezuela's first communications satellite was still on the ground when the NIGCOMSAT-1 breakdown took place, there is a strong possibility that Chinese satellite engineers would have postponed the launch of Venesat-1 to make sure that the same problem would not surface again.

Now, with the window of opportunity for a thorough pre-launch assessment of Venesat-1 lost, its operators in Caracas are almost completely powerless to control its fate, and no doubt evaluating the need for a new game-plan.

November 18, 2008

Too-long-to-translate Chronicles

Quico says: Not for the first time, Chuo Torrealba has the most insightful take on the current political situation you're likely to find. (Sorry, Spanish readers only.)

November 17, 2008

Election guide 2008: The Governors

Juan Cristobal says: - Dozens of governors' races, hundreds of mayor's races. With so much information, what should you watch out for in Sunday's Regional Elections? How will you be able to tell whether we did well or we underperformed?

What follows is my personal summary of the election, including the things to look out for in each state.

First off, Governors.

Safe opposition states

Importance: Crucial. The most populous state in the country, one that has rarely supported Chávez in the past, bucking the rest of the country's trend. Oh, and it's the most vergatarious place on Earth ...
Opposition candidate: Pablo Pérez (UNT), Manuel Rosales' right-hand man in the State government for the past eight years. Not a particularly inspired candidate, but he's getting the job done.
Chavista candidate: Giancarlo DiMartino, popularly known as DiMardito. Effective as mayor of Maracaibo, but recent allegations of corruption and links with the FARC have seriously hurt his standing among moderates.
What to look for: Pérez will win, double digits.

Importance: Little to none. Beautiful state is also one of the poorest, far removed from Caracas. Traditionally strong adeco presence and nasty fight with the dissident current governor may have come back to haunt chavismo.
Opposition candidate: Eduardo Morales Gil, Sucre's first elected governor and something of an intellectual. Check out this fun little video on his website.
Chavista candidate: Enrique Maestre, mayor of Cumaná. His candidacy has been beset by infighting. One of the states where chavista allies the PCV (Communist Party) is running its own candidate.
What to look for: Comfortable eight-point win for Morales Gil.

Importance: A legion of former Venezuelan presidents hailed from Táchira, from Castro to Gómez to Lopez Contreras to Medina to Pérez Jiménez to CAP. Is it something in the water? Border state is home to the main traffic routes to and from Colombia. In recent years, rural areas have become notorious safe havens for the FARC, under the complacent watch of chavista authorities. The state gave the opposition one of its biggest margins of victory last December.
Opposition candidate: César Pérez Vivas, former COPEI congressman and scratching post for demented chavista feline and fellow Táchira congresswoman Iris Varela. Winner of a late primary amongst opposition candidates.
Chavista candidate: Leonardo Salcedo. Won the PSUV primary against all odds, beating strong candidates Vielma Mora and Arias Cárdenas. Considered part of the "technocratic" wing of the PSUV (if there is such a thing). An Oxford-educated lawyer, so it's no surprise Iris Varela considers him a sifrino, which should immediately make him palatable to moderates. Another state where the Communists are running their own candidate.
What to look for: Pérez Vivas with a comfortable nine-point win.

Nueva Esparta
Importance: Little to none. The smallest state in the country is its own little island paradise, far removed from many of the political ills of the mainland. Still, it's nice to know it's there, a sturdy opposition stronghold, one of two states we managed to win in the 2004 debacle.
Opposition candidate: Morel Rodríguez, incumbent governor and a one-time protegé of former President Carlos Andrés Pérez.
Chavista candidate: William Fariñas. Fariñas has had a long and undistinguished career managing different funds set up by Chávez like the FUS and the Foncrei. A former Lt. Cnel. of the Air Force, he participated in the aborted coup of November, 1992. Considered part of chavismo's radical wing.
What to look for: Rodríguez with a comfortable double-digit win.

States that are leaning opposition

Huge. Caracas' backyard is the second most populous state in the nation. A mix of urban and rural voters of all ethnic backgrounds make this an interesting bellweather.
Opposition candidate: Henrique Capriles Radonski (PJ), mayor of Baruta. After much wrangling and the help of Clodosvaldo Russián, who ilegally banned popular former governor Enrique Mendoza, the opposition decanted on Capriles as its candidate.
Chavista candidate: Incumbent governor and Chávez right-hand man, Diosdado Cabello. Hard to believe Godgiven Hair was actually President for, like, three minutes. Makes up lack of charisma with machiavellian sense of timing, a pragmatic streak and an allegedly large stake in many a shady business. Although Chávez has been campaigning hard for him, he has huge negatives that all but rule out a win for him.
What to look for: Capriles ekes out a four-point win, but this could be a cliffhanger, and if Cabello pulls it off, there could be trouble in the streets.

Importance: More symbolic than anything else. Agricultural state in the center of the country is fertile ground for Chavez's message, so an opposition win here would carry large symbolic weight.
Opposition candidate: Alberto Galíndez, former AD governor. Hey, he may be from Cojedes, but he has his own Facebook group.
Chavista candidate: Teodoro Bolívar, mayor of Tinaco. An economist with a graduate degree, Bolívar seems like too much of a yes-man to make much of a dent in a state where the Chávez brand has been severly damaged. Plus, the MEP is running its own candidate in Cojedes.
What to look for:
Galíndez with a narrow three-point win.

Importance: Moderate. Another one of those llanero states where interesting things are happening. What should be a chavista lock is looking less and less like one.
Opposition candidate:
Lenny Manuitt, state Assembly member and the daughter of incumbent governor Eduardo Manuitt. While Manuitt is technically not part of the opposition, she is no chavista either. She hardly qualifies as a chavista "dissident" when Chávez has accused her, her father and her party (the PPT) of high treason and worse. Iris Varela went so far as to accuse Governor Manuitt of violating human rights. Meanwhile, the opposition has been busily shooting itself in the foot by running folk singer Reynaldo Armas and former MAS congressman Nicolás Sosa. Still, look to Manuitt to seal the deal in what has become a fight of Shakesperian proportions.
Chavista candidate:
Willian Lara, former Minister, former president of the National Assembly and frontline chavista figurehead. A prissy, urbane university type, Lara has looked hopelessly out of place mingling with rural Guárico voters.
What to look for: Manuitt will eke out a win in this three-way election. Pundits will tack this for the "dissidence," but there is no such thing in Chávez's "with-me-or-against-me" world.

Importance: On paper, moderate to little. Symbolically, huge. A loss for Chávez in his own home fiefdom would be hard for the Narcissist-in-chief to digest.
Opposition candidate:
Julio Cesar Reyes, mayor of Barinas. While the nominal opposition candidate is former congressman and Chávez marble playmate Rafael Simón Jiménez, he will not be a factor in this election. Like in Guárico, Reyes will ride a wave of anti-corruption outrage and win this election.
Chavista candidate: Adán Chávez Frías. Does the name ring a bell?
What to look for:
Save your dulce de lechoza for when Reyes wins with a two-percentage point victory in this three-way election. I eagerly await an ungracious, expletive-laden concession speech by Adán's brother.

Importance: Huge. Industrial powerhouse is the third-most populous state in the nation.
Opposition candidate: Henrique Salas Feo (PV), former governor and the son of former governor and presidential candidate Henrique Salas Römer. Salas Feo lost his job by a few thousand votes in the 2004 debacle, and he looks set to recapture it.
Chavista candidate:
Mario Silva, viperous shock-jock. One of the few people in Venezuela the opposition hates more than Chávez. Say what you will, but it takes talent to accomplish such a thing. Running Silva in a moderate, prosperous state like Carabobo is akin to Sarah Palin running for mayor of Provincetown. Don't miss Silva's Frikipedia profile.
What to look for: Salas Feo will win, but by less than people are predicting (I say six points). Incumbent chavista governor and so-called "traitor" Acosta may just steal more votes from Salas than Silva. Still, it's hard to see Silva or Acosta winning this thing.

Final tally for the opposition: 9 states

States that are leaning chavista

Importance: High. Populous, prosperous state in eastern Venezuela should be fertile ground for the opposition. In fact, Anzoátegui voted strongly against the government last December.
Opposition candidate: Gustavo Marcano (PJ), mayor of the Puerto La Cruz suburb of Lechería. Marcano was the runner-up in the primaries and assumed the nominal unity candidacy when front-runner Barreto Sira was banned from running. Marcano is young and energetic, but he has been hurt by allegations of nepotism when he named his mother to run for his current post of mayor. Comedian Benjamín Rausseo ("Er Conde del Guácharo") didn't get the unity memo and has run a surprisingly strong campaign.
Chavista candidate: Incumbent governor Tarek William Saab. The "poet of the revolution" has kept a low profile nationally in the last few years, and he has never been regarded as a scenery-chewing chavista.
What to look for: Look for Saab to post a comfortable seven-point win. Marcano and Rausseo's joint vote tallies will trounce Saab, but they won't hatch a unity deal before the election, and first across the finish line wins.

Importance: Large. Industrial powerhouse is the second-largest state of the union, but the governor has traditionally been less powerful than he/she should be given the federal government's outsized importance in the state. Sucre Figarella, anyone?
Opposition candidate: If you want to make the case that the oppopsition cannot get its act together, Bolívar is Exhibit Number One. The opposition is running two strong candidates: former governor, union leader, congressman and Quico's personal friend Andres Velásquez, and former governor Antonio Rojas Suárez. Both are likely to lose, and the fight has at times been ugly. Curious thing about Rojas Suárez: the PJ candidate was the guy at the wheel of the tank that plowed through the gates of the Palacio Blanco on the placid evening of February 4th, 1992.
Chavista candidate:
Incumbent governor Francisco Rangel Gómez. This is the rare state where chavistas are running several candidates (the PPT has its own man) and, still, they are poised to win because disunity among the opposing ranks is even worse.
What to look for: Rangel will win a comfortable four-point victory, unless a late-hatching unity pact changes things dramatically.

Importance: Moderate. State is mostly agricultural, but lately they have become an important exporter of prickly, pointed political punditry.
Opposition candidate:
Filippo Lapi. Who? Yes, the brother of the former governor Eduardo Lapi, who is on the run from the feds. Filippo stepped up to the plate like three hours ago, after the Supreme Tribunal decided that Eduardo couldn't run. Late-bloomer will not be able to make a dent.
Chavista candidate:
Julio León Heredia, president of the Yaracuy State House. León won the PSUV primary with a mere 26 percent of the votes. Still, this is one state where the Chávez coattails may still carry some weight.
What to look for:
León ekes out a close three-point win.

Importance: Huge. Industrial powerhouse is looking like an important pickup for chavistas.
Opposition candidate: State legislator Henry Rosales (PODEMOS), who won the Súmate-organized primary in what has been one of the highlights of this election season.
Chavista candidate: Former Finance Minister Rafael Isea. Isea is young, charismatic and sort of likeable from what I can gather.
What to look for:
Isea will squeak out a four-point win. It's hard to pinpoint why this isn't closer for the opposition, specially considering that Rosales' ads are really well-made and his website is outstanding. But Aragua is a left-leaning state tailor-made for a moderate chavista candidate like Isea.

Safe chavista states

Importance: Moderate. Venezuela's rooftop is beautiful and its population better educated than the average, but its politics tend to be quirky.
Opposition candidate:
Former governor William Dávila (AD). A longtime Caracas politician, Dávila is backed by pretty much the entire spectrum of opposition parties. His spots, though, have been particularly uninspired. Check out this one and the ones like it - the candidate is not even shown!
Chavista candidate:
Marcos Díaz Orellana, a youngish state government bureaucrat. Díaz benefits from running as a moderate - check out the piano score in the video link on his webpage - straight out of a Hallmark ad.
What to look for:
Díaz will win a comfortable five-point victory. This will be particularly disappointing given that Mérida voted 54% against the Constitutional Reform of 2007, but Díaz Orellana has run a disciplined, centrist campaign.

Importance: Minimal. Apure is like Venezuela's Wyoming, a sparsely populated FARC-infested hinterland. No offense.
Opposition candidate:
Miriam de Montilla, former first lady. Don't miss the vacuous, content-free ads complete with an 80s revival band.
Chavista candidate:
Incumbent governor Jesús Aguilarte. Apure is one of the few states where the PPT and the MEP are also running candidates. They won't affect the outcome.
What to look for: Aguilarte, double-digits. Apure is the land of caciques, and Aguilarte is the current one. Santos Luzardo never wins in Apure - Doña Bárbara does, and Miriam de Montilla is not Doña Bárbara in this analogy.

Delta Amacuro
Importance: Nil. The Delta is one of those places few Venezuelans have ever been to. With no industry and little agriculture, it basically lives off of Chávez's checkbook.
Opposition candidate:
Victor Cedeño (Copei), state assemblyman.
Chavista candidate:
Lizeta Hernández, state bureaucrat and the daughter of a former governor. Other chavista candidates include Amado Heredia and Henry Hernández.
What to look for:
While El Universal is bullish on Cedeño sneaking in thanks to divisions within chavismo, it's more wishful thinking than anything else. Lizeta Hernández will join Guárico's Lenny Manuitt and the lady in the following state as one of our country's three female governors.

Importance: Moderate. Falcón is one of those places that rarely makes the news, but we all sure love to visit its beaches.
Opposition candidate: José Gregorio "Goyo" Graterol (COPEI), former congressman. Graterol was in a bitter fight for the unity nomination against UNT's Luis Stefanelli, and this may have left some scars. His website is surprisingly wonkish in spite of the earsplitting reggaeton soundtrack.
Chavista candidate:
Estela de Montilla, incumbent first lady. Chavismo has been remarkably organized in this state, and Falcón residents don't seem to mind the incumbent governor's Kirchnerian move to push his wife into the seat he is term-limited from. I only hope Mrs. Montilla's commitment to her state parallels her dedication to plastic surgery.
What to look for:
The bosom, in double digits.

Importance: High. Populous central state is one of chavismo's bright spots.
Opposition candidate:
Who cares? Some schmuck named Pedro Pablo Alcántara (UNT) is gonna take the fall on this one.
Chavista candidate: Henry Falcón. Popular, moderate mayor of Barquisimeto was briefly expelled from the PSUV for not being socialist enough, only to force Chávez to swallow his insults due to the mere power of his appeal. One of the few chavistas a good chunk of the opposition will be voting for.
What to look for: Falcón in Lara, in triple digits.

Importance: Moderate to high. Oil powerhouse makes it important, but the real power lies in PDVSA.
Opposition candidate:
Domingo Urbina (AD), mayor of Maturín, the state's capital. Long legacy of AD backdeals in the home state of Luis Alfaro Ucero suggests Urbina is running on a damaged brand.
Chavista candidate:
Incumbent governor Jose Gregorio "el Gato" Briceño. You gotta admire a politician with the gall to name his political party "my cat", but even more admirable is the fact that he is hugely succesful.
What to look for: Briceño, in double digits.

Importance: Low. Agricultural state has many problems, but they seem set to stick with chavismo.
Opposition candidate:
Jobito Villegas (COPEI), current mayor of Mun. Sucre. Villegas has been mentioned in an ugly scheme involving the state police and human rights violations, and this has kept him off message.
Chavista candidate: Wilmar Castro Sotelo, former Tourism Minister and a close ally of Chávez. A moderate in nature (I once heard him being cordially interviewed by Marianella Salazar of all people), he is benefitting from strong chavista roots in his state.
What to look for: Not even Our Lady of Coromoto can prevent Castro from coasting to a double-digit victory. Chavez's allies the PPT and PCV are running a separate candidate, state congresswoman Bella María Petrizzo, but the PPT will lose this seat they currently hold and Castro will be elected.

Importance: Moderate to none. My old stomping grounds, the place where maracuchos drive to "cool off" and harass the locals with their loud music, it is a lovely state to visit, but is rarely in the news. It is also a chavista stronghold, as solidly red as they come.
Opposition candidate: Enrique Catalán (UNT), the former mayor of Valera.
Chavista candidate: Hugo Cabezas, the former head of the ONIDEX and the guy whose signature in the form of an "x" graces millions of Venezuelan ID cards. When you think of it, voters will be voting using a card signed by Cabezas himself - how's that for effective advertising?
What to look for: Cabezas in double digits. Catalán is a nice enough guy, but he's just no match for the chavista machinery in full throttle backing a candidate with national name recognition. Besides, what do Trujillo voters care about an article in the Miami Herald?

Importance: Moderate. Vargas is one of those heavily chavista states that is just begging to be flipped. If only...
Opposition candidate:
Roberto Smith (VdP), former Minister, Ambassador and Presidential candidate. A technocrat and a favorite of Quico's, one can only hope his day finally comes. It won't be this time though.
Chavista candidate:
Jorge Luis García Carneiro, loyal chavista general, former Minister and a "hero" of chavista mythology concerning the 2002 coup.
What to look for: García Carneiro is a lock here, in double digits. Varguenses' dependence on the federal government will override any hopes Smith has of flipping tiny Vargas.

Final tally for chavismo: 13 states.

November 16, 2008

Is Cojedes Venezuela's Ohio?

Juan Cristobal says: As Venezuela gears up to elect its mayors and governors just days from now, most of us have been frustrated by the absence of clear polling numbers in many of the key races. The information out there is so muddy, it's become difficult to gauge even which of the races we should keep an eye and an ear on.

Some predict a chavista landslide on Sunday; others foresee big wins for the opposition. At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if either of these things happened (or both!). Is there any hope for political junkies like ourselves? Do we have no choice but to throw out common sense and trust, ahem, Quinto Día?!

Not at all. When public data is scarce, you can still infer what the private polling looks like by looking at what politicians are doing and, most importantly, where they are going. In the waning weeks of an election, campaigners focus time and resources on a few key races, the "battlegrounds" if you will. It's not by chance that Barack Obama and John McCain spent most of last month in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Virginia. Even if you'd had no access to public polling at all, you could've figured out that those were the states up for grabs just by looking at their travel schedules.

So it's worth puzzling through the places where Chávez is spending his time these days.

The man has been campaigning furiously (both figuratively and literally) for more than a month now. His rhetoric has heightened to a fevered pitch matched only by the staggering indifference his threats have been met with by our side. Chavismo have decided that the only way their guys are going to win is if this campaign is "nationalized". Their game is to turn Sunday's vote into the Nth national referendum on Chávez, into another episode in the epic struggle between revolutionary good and pitiyanqui evil rather than the humdrum affairs about garbage collection and local policing that races for mayor should normally be.

The upshot is that they're going all-out negative, letting Chávez play the role of pitbull, sans the lipstick. Instead of proposals and ideas, the only things spewing from Chávez's mouth in the last few weeks have been threats, hyperbole, baseless accusations and foam - a winning combination for him in more than one election, but also a strategy that can easily backfire. Time will tell if his approach is working this time around.

So where is Chávez going, and is his travel schedule any indication of what is going to happen?

Let's begin with where he's not going. The consensus is that PSUV candidates for Governor are locks in states like Lara, Trujillo and Vargas. Not surprisingly, Chavez has not spent much time in any of these places. Instead, he has been to Carabobo and Cojedes several times. Along with Anzoategui, Yaracuy and Miranda, these states are where his efforts are concentrated. He's also spent some time in Sucre and (today) in Zulia.

The last two are odd choices. Just a few days ago, the President was in Carúpano ordering the military seizure of the airport there. Today he was in Zulia in a rally supporting the flailing campaign for the governorship of the current mayor of Maracaibo, Giancarlo Di Martino.

Conventional wisdom has Zulia and Sucre as safe opposition states, so the fact that Chavez is going there could indicate that a) the polls are tightening; b) Chávez thinks his presence alone can overturn big opposition leads in a short time; c) the President simply sees these states as too important to lose; or d) Chávez is doing all he can to avoid losing by double digits. An alternate, slightly unnerving possibility is that his advisers are just too scared to tell the Big Man the awful truth about how bad things really are out there.

Carabobo and Miranda are both very important states that are leaning opposition. In Carabobo chavistas are facing a divided ticket, with the President repeatedly declaring the incumbent Governor a traitor and sending him to the "dumpster," and the inimitable chavista candidate, Mario Silva, apparently getting no traction there. As I was preparing this post, for example, I noticed that Silva's webpage had gotten a mere 5 hits today - and it's 11 pm!

The opposition, in turn, is running a single candidate, the popular former governor Henrique Salas Feo. Salas, a two-term Governor until 2004, has tons of name recognition and plenty of cash to campaign. He also has the benefit of running in a state where few have any love for the chavista governor and where Chávez is running a far-left VTV shock-jock with huge negatives among independent voters and very tenuous connections to the place he aspires to govern.

As for Miranda, both Consultores 21 and Datos point to a clear Capriles victory. A loss for Chávez's long time right-hand man, incumbent governor Diosdado Cabello, would be psychologically devastating for chavismo and trash Godgiven's hopes of succeeding Chávez in 2013. Chávez is gamely doing all he can to reverse this, even mentioning Capriles by name (only to trash him, of course), something he had never done before.

Anzoátegui, Cojedes and Yaracuy are curious cases. In Anzoátegui, the opposition is running two candidates, and most pollsters predict this has hurt their chances in favor of incumbent chavista governor Tarek William Saab, one of the more moderate chavistas out there (if there is such a thing). But Chávez has been spending a lot of time there, no doubt predicting a late-hatching unity pact among opposition candidates Marcano and HRH Rausseo. In Yaracuy, another state where the incumbent Governor has proven to be a calamity of quasi-biblical proportions, the opposition is counting on the brother of a persecuted popular former Governor.

In Cojedes, the outgoing chavista Governor Yánez Rangel is knee-deep in Maleta-gate, severely damaging the chavista brand in the state. The opposition, on the other hand, is running the popular former Governor, AD's Alberto Galindez, pictured at the top. This is yet another state where Chávez is campaigning hard for his candidate, Teodoro Bolívar, who judging by this ad, has nothing to say other than he's very, very red.

A win for Galindez, like a win for the dissident chavista mayor of Barinas city in Chávez's home state of Barinas, would be very damaging for the government. It would break the narrative that the opposition can only win in big cities. By showing they can win in the Chávez stronghold of the Llanos, the opposition will have earned huge bragging rights. Call it the start of the Parapara fightback. Coupled with what is looking like a hugely symbolic win for the opposition in Venezuela's biggest slum, Petare, winning Cojedes and Barinas would seal a very good night for our side.

Chávez is taking a big risk in this election. By involving himself so deeply in local races over which he has limited control, he has set himself up to take the political hit if things don't go well for his side.

Normally, lousy returns from swing states like Carabobo, Miranda, Anzoategui, Cojedes and Barinas could be put down to local factors. But having invested himself so heavily in his crappy candidates, Chávez has forfeited all plausible deniability if people like Mario Silva and Jesse Chacón go down.

So stay tuned, and whatever you do, go vote!

23N Map: Huggy Bear Edition

Quico says: I'm still looking for a bird's eye view of what to expect from next Sunday's state and local elections, but with polling spotty and mostly private, disinformation rife and most media concentrating on their local races only, it's tough going.

The not-always-reliable newsweekly Quinto Día gets props for at least trying to provide the Whole Picture as far as governors' races go, something the big national dailies don't seem to be even striving for.

Quinto Día's
method is not exactly scientific: basically, they got on the phone and called 52 local journos all over the country, asking them what the "word on the street" is. Call it the Huggy Bear approach to election forecasting.

This map is cobbled together from my subjective synthesis of what their subjective reporting based on subjective assessments of subjective informants found:

So word on the street has the opposition up in 6 states - including the 3 most populous - chavismo up in 11 (plus Caracas), chavista dissidents ahead in 3, and 2 states as genuine toss-ups.

Obviously there are all kinds of pitfalls to this kind of forecasting, with various informants clearly having a stake in "pushing" their favorite candidates/compadres to a national audience. (Have I hedged this map enough yet?)

Still and all, some things jump out at you:

Local journos in Falcón and Cojedes don't think the election is a done deal yet. In Miranda, you have as many opinions as interviewees - though Diosdado's very high negatives make it hard to imagine him winning - and in Mérida and Bolívar any outcome seems likely. Even at this late stage, internal splits look like they will cost the government Carabobo and the opposition Anzoátegui, and possibly Bolívar as well.

My sense is that the real uncertainty next Sunday will be over Mérida, Bolívar and - especially - Miranda. But Huggy Bear says keep an eye on Falcón, too, where the oppo candidate has been making up ground against the outgoing governor's doña, who was once seen as a shoo in.

My favorite bit of this map, though, is that southernmost patch of deep green covering Chávez's home state, where his brother Adan now looks all but certain to lose the governorship to the ex-chavista, now oppositionish mayor of Barinas City.

I spent a few months in Barinas back in 2001-2002, and I was always amazed to witness the contrast between people's fervent devotion to Hugo Chávez and their visceral disgust with his family. The Chávez Clan (mom, dad, ne'er-do-well brothers) has ruled the state as a personal fiefdom for years, barely even bothering to dissimulate its corruption. Their opponent this time is a kind of llanero technocrat by the name of Julio Cesar Reyes. He's a genuinely popular figure down there, and the psychological impact for chavismo of losing on such symbolically loaded turf is very hard to overstate.