September 3, 2004

Taking stock of the CD's collapse in international standing

I'm not about to tell the CD to give up its fraud claims until they're satisfied they know what happened on August 15th. But as they go forward with this line, they do so with eyes wide open...they need to understand the scale of the international public relations catastrophe they create by sticking by this line. This New Republic piece gives you a taste for the sort of coverage the opposition can expect if it sticks to its claim. Brutal stuff.


Caracas, Venezeula
Late Monday night, 19 hours after the results in this week's referendum on Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez were reported, opposition leader Carlos Hermoso was furiously spinning a conspiracy theory. Despite results endorsed by international observers that showed Chávez winning by a landslide 16 percentage points, Hermoso said that "massive fraud" had been committed by both the election observers and the electronic voting machines used here for the first time. In a complicated yarn, Hermoso claimed that touch-screen voting machines in which people could vote "Yes" to oust Chávez or "No" to keep him were expertly "manipulated" by the government. Though there had also been a paper trail recording each voter's choice, Hermoso said the papers had been kidnapped and are now under military custody in a building called the "White Rabbit." But Hermoso warned that hard evidence of such fraud will be "very difficult" to find. As for the stamp of approval offered by election observers like Jimmy Carter, Hermoso argued that such observers were "compromised" by oil companies and the U.S. State Department, which wanted to keep Chávez in power.

Never mind that the populist Venezuelan commander-in-chief spent much of the recall campaign bashing the U.S., or that Washington openly welcomed a short-lived coup against Chávez earlier in his term. Like many others in the Democratic Coordinator (CD), the loose grouping of 27 political parties and 40 civil society organizations that united against Chávez, Hermoso suddenly found himself on the defensive following Chávez's big victory on Sunday, and simply refused to believe he had lost. The New York Times reported that on Monday two opposition leaders became so angry that "their faces turned white." Indeed, many other opposition leaders demanded a manual recount. "We want to know the truth," said Julio Borges, another top Coordinator official. "We will keep fighting until all our hair falls out." Some called for more anti-Chávez protests like the ones that have disrupted Venezuelan life for more than two years. Seven people were wounded in a small protest on Monday.

Indeed, it seems that the opposition leaders simply believed their own hype, while not realizing how ineffective the anti-Chávez movement had been. Riven by internal divisions, the CD waged a weak campaign that failed to take into account the president's enormous popularity in the poor barrios that make up the majority of Venezuela. The CD started on a bad note. In December 2003, the group mounted a devastating two month strike in which almost all Venezuelan business came to a halt and the state oil company nearly ceased operations. The strike ended in February 2004, but the economic damage was severe and the public, say some analysts, largely blamed the CD. "The strike was a failure," said Gregory Wilpert, head of a website called Venezuela Analysis.

Already behind, the CD never created a coherent political agenda to gain the 3.75 million votes it needed to oust Chávez. Its leader, Enrique Mendoza, was an uninspired speaker who brought little to the campaign. Then, the agenda the CD did release at the end of July largely copied Chávez's programs to end poverty and unemployment, without his searing--and popular--populist rhetoric. "The problem with the opposition is that they live in their own world," said Michael Shifter, a senior fellow at Washington's Inter-American Dialogue, an organization focused on Latin America. "Having an anti-Chávez agenda wasn't enough." Indeed, on Election Day the opposition's internal exit polls showed it beating Chávez by 20 percentage points, though most mainstream polls, at the time, showed Chávez had a slight lead.

Meanwhile, Chávez, though known as a loose cannon, ran a strong and disciplined campaign. "We shouldn't be asking what the Coordinator lacked, but what Chávez had in abundance," said one opposition consultant who believes the Coordinator underestimated Chávez's charismatic leadership. "The truth is that the president is an excellent campaigner." Chávez's social programs, funded by oil money from the state-run oil monopoly--which has benefited from skyrocketing oil prices--were part of this campaign. Chávez invested up to $1.7 billion from Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA, in building "missions" in poor barrios that offer free health care and teach people how to read. He also spent state money on primary education and new housing for the poor, all of which was advertised as being a direct result of Chávez policies. And after the oil strike, Chávez got the state oil company back up and running--partly by hiring Algerian experts to come in and train new Venezuelan workers--and kept the country's 3 million barrels of oil exports a day flowing. Venezuela is the world's number five oil exporter, and Chávez has vowed to expand oil production even further in the coming months.

In fact, the hard truth is that Venezuela is more stable today than it would have been if the opposition had won, at least in the short term. If the president was defeated or even if the vote had been close, mass chaos likely would have ensued with fanatics on both sides taking to the streets. A new election probably would have been held in 30 days, creating another opportunity for protest and even violence.

So despite Hermoso's cries of fraud, the long journey to remove Chávez through a recall is over. Opposition leaders should accept their loss if they are to have any chance of toppling him in the next presidential election in 2006. And they had better get cracking--Chávez's supporters are already talking about keeping him in office until 2021.

Rachel Van Dongen covers Latin America for The Christian Science Monitor, The Economist, and other publications.

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September 2, 2004

The epistemology of fraud

Say you witness an electoral event...your side loses, you're mad, you think there was fraud. What does it take to demonstrate that there actually was fraud?

Well, it depends what side you're on. If you're a chavista, the president's word is enough. Back in November 2003, when the opposition gathered the signatures to demand an RR, president Chávez cried fraud before the signature collection process had even finished! On what basis, you might ask, did he make these allegations? It's a good question...he never told us.

I spent weeks on this blog asking a chavista, any chavista, to spell out for me clearly and specifically how it is that the alleged fraud was supposed to have happened. I wanted to understand what, exactly, they had in mind.

But I never got a satisfactory answer. By that I don't mean that I never got an answer I agreed with. I mean I never got an answer that made any sense, that made an actual, good faith attempt to describe coherently what the government thought had happened.

The closest we got was a farcical news conference where Chavez alleged that a guy named Emiliano Chavez Rosales had signed against him, despite being dead. The next day Emiliano Chavez Rosales came forward to disabuse the president of this notion.

Now, later events showed fairly clearly that the chavista claim of "megafraud" was a sham - but have you seen a single chavista question the president's leadership for the string of lies that was the megafraud claim? Within the cult of personality, Chavez is above reproach - even when everyone can see that he's lying.

Now, I don't find the opposition's fraud claims persuasive. But I can see that their claims are structured qualitatively different from Chavez's. The opposition has a battery of professionals, mathematicians and lawyers working on documenting its allegations right now. My inbox, for the last few weeks, has been peppered with emails that look like this,

where serious statisticians make a good faith effort to try to come up with an objective analysis of the numerical patterns in the CNE data. The search for answers is conducted, at least, with an eye to producing a demonstrable, coherent explanation that tries to make sense of all the facts and all the data. Miguel Octavio's blog reports the results of several such studies here, here and here.

Me? I'm open minded...maybe the opposition will eventually produce an argument, backed by a coherent analysis, that convinces me there was fraud. I doubt it, but who knows? One way or another, my conclusion will not based on unquestioning adherence to the opinions of any one leader: it'll be based on an a serious effort to try to understand what happened on the basis of the available evidence.

All of which chavistas ought to keep in mind before they berate the opposition for its skepticism and for making an effort to piece together the August 15th jigsaw puzzle. Me? I'll never attack people who ask questions simply for asking questions. And when I see chavistas doing so, I have to wonder...well, where exactly were they when President Chavez asserted a megafraud on the basis of no evidence, no plausible explanation of what he thought had happened, not even a a halfway decent conspiracy theory?

Cuz sure - up until this point the opposition's claims are just a conspiracy theory...but at least they are that! They're a hypothesis, an attempt to fit in every known part of the story into a narrative that makes some sense. From Chavez, we didn't even get that - we got an impossible assertion that we were expected to believe blindly, on faith alone.

Again, I don't actually believe the opposition can make its case. I'll be surprised if they do. If they don't, I think the CD leadership ought to resign - because making a false fraud allegation is really a despicable, irresponsible way to do politics. What I don't see, however, is chavistas taking the president to task for making wild fraud allegations that have a-already been disproven, and b-were made without even a cursory attempt to provide a coherent hypothesis about what had happened, much less credible evidence, to back them.

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September 1, 2004

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

Just to clarify my last few posts: am I sure there was no fraud on August 15th? No, of course not! How could I be?

I am sure that there is no evidence of fraud on August 15th. At best, the CD can string together a pretty compelling conspiracy theory. But without corroborating evidence, it must be seen as just that: a conspiracy theory.

However, to paraphrase the old aphorism, absence of evidence of fraud is not the same thing as evidence of an absence of fraud.

Lots of questions remain unanswered.

If the government and CNE really wanted to dispel all doubts, and if they have nothing to hide, they would just fling open all the ballot boxes. So far, they've refused to do that.

What can we conclude from that? Either they don't really want to dispel all doubts, or they have something to hide.

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August 31, 2004

Will somebody please give Enrique Mendoza a piano?

I. Where's our William Hague? Where are our pianos?
There's no particular reason for most Venezuelans to know who William Hague is. Briefly the leader of the UK Conservative Party, Hague was destroyed by Tony Blair in the 2002 British elections. The next day, he gave a speech to the party and nation congratulating the prime minister and promptly set off to learn the piano. Hague had never played a note in his life, but he'd understood that life after front-line politics would include much, much more free time, and he'd promised one of his constituents that, if he lost (as all opinion polls suggested) he'd dedicate himself to learning how to play. Reportedly, he's progressed to the point of learning the Moonlight Sonata.

The British have mechanisms - formal and informal - for renewing their political leaders once they've tried and failed. This is normal, as it should be. Nobody had to denounce Hague as a coupster fascist to persuade him to take up the piano. He understood that one gets one chance to lead a major British party to an election, and if yoiu fail, you resign. Simple.

Where are our William Hagues? Where are our pianos?

II. "Es que el fraude se nos fue de las manos..."
There is, to my mind, a strong whiff in the air right now of January 2003. You have to think back, to remember the panicked faces on CD leaders towards the end of that fateful month when they started to realize that the National Strike was a strategy without a plan, certain to fail. Stuck to positions too vociferously stated, the CD leaders realized only too late that they had blocked all their own exits. Extricating themselves from the giant mess they'd plunged the country and the movement into took the better part of a month. And why? Because not one of them was willing to stand up and say clearly what, nevertheless, the country could see: that they'd screwed up, put themselves into a political deadend, that they'd taken as divine truth positions that turned out to be just wrong. How many people had to lose their jobs just to protect their egos?

It was in January 2003 that that lovely phrase, in some sense true but obviously designed to pass the buck, was coined: es que el paro se nos fue de las manos - the paro ran away from us. Little by little, you can see the CD leaders sliding to the same kind of argument this que el fraude se nos fue de las manos. Certainly it it was predictable it would from the moment they decided to turn the "fraude" into an article of faith rather than a hypothesis to be either confirmed or denied on the basis of the availabe evidence. (And no, an accumulation of suspicions is not the same thing as evidence.)

III. The invisible movement
Perhaps the most telling part of the opposition's reaction to Chavez's victory is, precisely, the fact that so many don't seem to believe evidence is even necessary to demonstrate fraud. For a good many escualidos, Chavez must have lost, axiomatically. Articles like Ricardo Mitre's "Teodoro is Wrong" show clearly an opposition that takes the notion of a clean chavista win as a simple impossibility "after five years of wear and tear." Fraud is assumed but not stated - hardly in need of stating, since, after all, everyone knows that 60% of venezuelans hate Chavez.

Mitre, like so many of us, can't believe in the 6 million chavista votes because he never saw the movement that mobilized them. That's hardly surprising, since the opposition media never showed it to him, and he certainly assumes that everything on Channel 8 is a lie.

The Patrulleros de Florentino were more or less ignored in the opposition media, but the reality is that in the days before the referendum, the country's barrios were comprehensibly canvassed, organized and mobilized by a small army of highly motivated chavista volunteers. In other words, while the opposition wasn't looking, Chavismo did what it had been promising to do for years but had never quite managed to pull off: it became a genuine, organized mass movement.

Faced with the real possibility of seeing Chavez replaced in power by the opposition, millions of his supporters worked their hearts out for him. Some of my contacts in Caracas warned me of this in the days before the vote, "the opposition has no idea what's happening in the barrios. It's amazing! Normal people in the barrios are taking this fight and making it their own. Comando Maisanta is just as clueless as they've always been, but you should see it, it's the people, the patrulleros on the street that are doing it. They have maps, they have voter rolls, they're doing it all on their own. The opposition is going to lose and they're not going to know what hit them."

Mitre can't see that movement. It was hidden from him. He can't understand a world where more people vote for Chavez now than were voting for him four years ago. It seems non-sensical to him. But he can't see it because he inhabits just one of Venezuela's two realities and has lost any contact with, any insight into the other. So he takes it as a matter of dogma that chavismo cannot have grown since 2000. And nothing could be worse for the opposition's future prospects than accepting as dogma ideas that are just plain wrong.

IV: Opposition Big Bang Now!
Sooner or later we'll have to put our wide-ranging, amply justified outrage at Chavez to one side and question the shortcomings on our side that brought us to this sad juncture. It is not Chavez's fault that we've acquiesced to being led by an organization like the CD - slow, unimaginative, bureaucratically clumsy, riven by hidden power struggles, rudderless, unable to plan, unable to take responsibility for mistakes, unable to lead, fundamentally ineffective. It is not Chavez's fault that we've allowed a constellation of IVth Republic dinosaurs to appoint themselves "opposition leaders", and we've gone along with it. It's not Chavez's fault that nobody in the CD leadership can make a speech without sounding like an AD secretary general circa 1985. (They may not be AD party members today, but culturally, they're adecos.) It is not Chavez's fault that our leaders don't know how to talk to normal Venezuelans.

My feeling is that for once in the history of humanity, the government is actually giving us good advice right now - and stubborn bastards we are, we're refusing to take it precisely because it's the government issuing it. But MariPili is right: it's time for the rank-and-file members of the opposition to work up some anger at the way our leaders have behaved and demand that they go get better acquainted with their pianos. To stay wedded to the current CD leadership and the current CD organizational structure is to guarantee a long, painful string of failures into the future.

We deserve better leadership than we're getting, folks. And unless we demand it, there's no chance we'll get it.

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August 30, 2004

Reflections of a suspicious comeflor

by Gustavo Soto-Rosa

I want to warn you, first off, that I'm a die hard comeflor, but at the same time I am very distrustful.

What if the Coordinadora, seeing itself on the losing end, invented the story of the fraud to hang on to the 41%, plus those "they stole from us"?

If the exit polls were showing the Si winning four hours before the end of voting and they knew the government was preparing to say No had won, why didn't they publish a statement calling on people to be alert and not to let the ballot boxes out of sight even for a minute in the centers chosen for an on-the-spot audit? Why didn't they give the news media a list of these polling centers? There were opposition representatives in just 27 of the 192 centers selected for the audit. Why didn't they demand the presence of international observers right then, not in Caracas but on the spot at each audit center? Was there a directive issued to stand back from the audit process, from the counting and the tallying and from the after-the-fact audit in order to create doubt? Remember that the first to cry fraud was (Accion Democratica Secretary General) Ramos Allup, and I hope he'll forgive me, but he's one of the CD leaders that inspires least confidence. In fact, I believe he didn't use the word fraud.

Which, of course, take us to the exit polls. They're the very definition of inauditable and can easily be manipulated in tallying. This would show up Plaza and Machado as liars, which is hard to believe, unless they temselves were fooled. [Quico's note - they could also be hopelessly incompetent.] It would also make fools of Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, the company that designed the exit poll. They have publicly backed the results of their poll. They're a recognized firm with lots to lose if its methodology is questioned, or worse yet, its ethics.

I of course don't doubt for a minute that the government would be willing and able to carry out a fraud. In fact, the fraud is out in the open in the form of the scandalous use of public resources for the No campaign; an unscrupulous use of the goods and power of the state to plow over dissenters and hoard yet more power.

I also think it's very possible that there could have been a switch at the moment when each voting machine connected at to the central database so it would register not the real vote, but pre-programmed, tampered with votes. Call it "matrix" voting, because at the same time it would have to print up the ballots for the fraud to be switched with the pre-existing boxes at the right moment.

Of course, here the plot thickens because we've already seen how long it took Sumate to organize 3.5 million signatures. In this case you'd have to dilute two million voting papers among many others (9.5 million) to make the switch go by unseen. That means they'd have to have had a battery of printers working day and night with people to organize all the boxes, close them with fake signatures to then transport them and switch them with the original.

This is where the fraud theory falls under its own weight.. To be able to pull off a stunt of this caliber, the government would've needed a small army of people to set it all up. A few hackers could have manipulated the system and you could keep that secret, but you can't do that with a mass of people working to switch millions of ballots. How many people did Sumate need to organize the signatures? Multiply it by three. How much time did Sumate, an efficient organization, take? These people were supposedly ready for an audit in two days and according to Smartmatic, they're ready for a total audit. Something is not right with this theory. The government has given many signs of extreme clumsiness when efficiency counts most. Remember how hard a time they had getting signatures against the diputados.

Obviously, somebody is lying here. The truly tragic thing wouldn't be if our adversary lied to us, from Chavez we expect that and much more, but if the betrayal came from our own leaders.

And may God forgive me for going around mistrusting people, like my old lady says.

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The political dynamics of crying fraud

Whether or not there was fraud is one question. The political dynamics of the Fraud-claim are something else altogether.

Who gains from the fraud claim?

1-The Current CD Leadership: Claiming fraud shields the CD leadership from an uncomfortable debate about what they did wrong, how they managed to lose the election, and what they should do differently in the future. So long as they cling on to their "reasonable doubt", CD leaders don't have to walk the plank, and they know it. Probably, an all-out finger-pointing Battle Royale would break out if the CD accepted results as legitimate. Fractures would turn up immediately, the CD could collapse altogether. (This, in my opinion, would be a good thing, not a bad thing.)

2-Chavez: At the same time, the fraud claim serves Chavez well, by painting the CD as the same old tired extremist fringe of April 12th 2002 and Dec-Jan 2002-2003. An opposition wedded to fraud claims will tend to exclude itself from the political process, marginalize itself internationally and alienate the uncommited swing-voters Venezuelans call Ni-Nis. Such a movement cannot and will not carry out the painful process of introspection it would take to correct the mistakes it's made in the last two years. Politically, then, the fraud claims are a God-send to the government.

[In my more conspiratorial moments, I tend to think the CNE understands that fraud-claims benefit Chavez, and has refused to take the steps it would take to convince the opposition that the election was clean (the hot-audit, a wide-ranging cold-audit of ballot papers, a machine audit) as a way of keeping the opposition's "reasonable doubt" alive.]

Meanwhile, who loses?

1-Rank-and-file opposition members: Not only did we lose the election, now we're also losing the opportunity to use that loss as a platform to renew our political movement. The referendum leaves us stuck not just with Chavez, but also with the opposition leadership that managed to lose the referendum against him.

2-Rank-and-file chavistas: Who, like anyone who lives in democracy, stand to benefit from having a serious, vigorous, forward looking opposition to the government rather than the dawning Chavista one-party system.

In other words, quite aside from whether there was or wasn't fraud, official results will not change. Given that they will not change, we have to ask ourselves: what is the sense of continuing these claims? Who do they benefit? When will the opposition's rank-and-file work up some anger at the CD and demand more serious leadership?

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Return to Interactivity

One week ago, I pulled the plug on the simple "comments" feature due to the turn the discussions had taken...straight into the gutter. This week, thanks to the initiative of several readers, Caracas Chronicles returns to interactivity on a far fancier, moderated forum platform:

The new software is far more powerful and flexible than the old haloscan comments forum. Nueva-Venezuela has sections for debates in both English and Spanish. It requires you to register before posting, and it will make it much easier to nip abusive posting in the bud.

In the interest of the separation of powers, I will not moderate the discussion myself: longtime posters Pepe Mora and Gustavo Soto-Rosa will keep the peace. Pepe and Gustavo will work hard to keep the debate constructive and civilized: with any luck, the result will be vigorous discussion free from sterile ideological diatribes, personal attacks or party-line rants. Put another way, Pepe and Gustavo will have plenipotentiary authority to boot your ass out of the forum if you succomb to posting sterile ideological diatribes, personal attacks or party-line rants.

Scared yet? If you're not, click here to join the new moderated forum at

August 29, 2004

Something very strange happened in Venezuela

Readers of this blog know I've had a very hard time trying to piece together what happened during and after the August 15th referendum. Like everyone in the opposition, I've gone through a lot of confusing, contradictory information on whether or not claims of fraud make any sense.

It's a disorienting exercise. Both sides have seemingly incontrovertible arguments, and each has to resort to fantastic allegations to refute the other. CNE has the backing of international observers not only for its official results, but also for a very-tricky to get-around consequent audit. CANTV has ratified that its machine operators and data transmission system worked as advertised. No concrete evidence of fraud has been brought forward. The opposition can only disown the results by explaining away a this evidence on the basis of a massive, perfect conspiracy, a conspiracy with no visible leaks.

But the opposition also has evidence in hand that cannot be contradicted without supposing an set of equal but opposite conspiracies. Everyone knows there's no way that a professionally run exit poll using established methodology and repeated by several different organization comes out with a result 40 points off from the official result. This happened in Venezuela systematically. There are state level pollsters in Venezuela that have been carrying out exit polls using the same methodology in election after election and never gotten an exit poll result more than 1% off from the announced result. This time, using the same methodology and polling intensively - as always - in poor areas, they come up with results miles away from those announced.

No "nice" hypothesis can explain the gap: it's not a matter of bias in the areas polled, because exit poll results from given voting centers vary widely from the results reported from that center. Nor can the gap be assigned to the choice of political activists as polling staff: polls run by Sumate volunteers came up with similar results as polls carried out by firms that hire college students as interviewers.

The only possible explanation for the disparity is that there's a wide-ranging conspiracy, a kind of fraud-crying cartel of any number of different organizations to diffuse false exit poll results. This sort of story is easy for chavistas to believe, after hearing years of oversimplifications and lies about the opposition. But if it is a conspiracy, it's a perfect conspiracy - one where no one leaks, no one squeals, no one made a single mistake.

Whether or not you believe there was fraud, you're required to believe a series of wildly improbable evils against your political opponents for the events of the last two weeks to make sense. Rather than providing a solution to deepening polarization, the dispute over the referendum became yet another phase in this process of increasing polarization of the country into competing camps that believe the very worst about one another.

Because, in the end, Venezuelans will believe the conspiracy theory that favors their side of the political divide and that's the end of it. And this is what's so worrying about this odd-ball situation the country's living. Each half of the country is forced to believe a conspiracy theory that paints the other half in the worst possible light. Each takes refuge in its own truth, and building an understanding, let alone trust, across the divide becomes impossible.

Which is too bad, because Venezuela was badly in need of a peaceful, democratic, electoral and constitutional solution to the governability crisis, and it didn't get it.

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