March 18, 2006

Utter Debacle Chronicles

Well, Consultores 21's latest poll is not for the faint of heart. Conducted from January 27th through February 7th and based on 1,500 living-room interviews in 66 cities and towns, the thing reads like the opposition's death certificate.

To start with, their basic map of Venezuelans' political allegiances is not encouraging:

This next slide shows the country evenly split on whether to trust CNE. Two relevant things here: it contradicts the oppo sing-song that 80% abstention in December means 80% of voters don't trust CNE. It also belies Jorge Rodríguez's NAOR-based argument that vast majorities trust CNE.

But then look what happens when you ask people why they think the opposition parties pulled out...

58% think the opposition pulled out because they knew they would lose. Not surprising given that, if they had voted on Dec. 4th, 61% say they would have voted for pro-Chavez parties and only 39% for opposition parties. 51% believe the withdrawal does not make the National Assembly less valid, while 43% think it makes it less valid.

This following one surprised me: it shows Primero Justicia's Julio Borges far out ahead of the pack of opposition pre-candidates, with Zulia governor Manuel Rosales running a creditable second. In polls, Teodoro languishes. In hypothetical head-to-head matchups, Chavez beats Borges 56%-34% (ouch!) and Teodoro 58% to 23% (double ouch!)

These next two slides really tend to make me think my countrymen have gone collectively insane:

This last one in particular is just staggering - 65% think Chavez can solve the housing problem, Chavez's biggest performance black hole! Here my interpretative powers cease and I just stare at the screen in dismayed amazement. Hope springs eternal, I guess...or people just don't learn...

Anyway, the whole poll reads a bit like this. You find that 49% of respondents agree that Chavez strengthens their right to have private property, 49% think the Supreme Tribunal is working to solve the country's problems, that José Vicente Rangel has a higher favorable rating (34%) than Manuel Rosales (30%), and on and on and on.

You really have to comb through the slides to find any non-disastrous news for the anti-Chavez movement here (e.g. over 60% believe the media are working to solve the country's problems.) Otherwise...bleak, very bleak...

...and all this before the pre-electoral populist spending binge even starts...

How to waste a Saturday morning without really trying...

Just discovered the e-lecciones website and spent way too much time surfing through the various powerpoints.

I realize looking at polling powerpoints isn't everyone's idea of a good time...for those of you who go for that sort of thing, though, it's a really fun site...

Some especially revealing slides:

This slide, in particular, is revealing. It's not just Chávez's big surge in the months prior to the recall referendum in 2004, it's also the fact that they decided to pull out of parliamentary elections when they were at a whopping 15% in the polls. Under such conditions, it's not surprising that the high hopes that low turnout would delegitimize the government internationally weren't really met. In this polling context, who could take it seriously?

March 17, 2006

Claro que estoy en el ring...

From my inbox: I have the impression Teodoro just launched his campaign.

1. He appeared on Alo Ciudadano

2. In answer to the question "estas en el ring?" (are you in the ring?) he answered (at the second try), "claro que estoy en el ring." (of course I'm in the ring."

The government immediately showed its democratic credentials by sticking in a five-minute cadena, full of Chávez's electoral propaganda, timed to wipe out the end of Alo Ciudadano and prevent Teodoro wrapping up his arguments OR responding to the government's gross and blatant abuse of state resources to promote Chávez's candidacy and disrupt a statement by his putative opponent.

Welcome to Bolivarian participatory democracy...

March 16, 2006

Pre-Recall Polls

Two years on, it's kind of crazy that this stuff is still relevant, but...

Yes: 34%
No: 45%
Poll conducted June 14 - July 1st 2004

Yes: 40%
No: 51%
Poll conducted July 3 - July 18 2004

Evans McDonough
Yes: 41%
No: 49%
Poll conducted June 2004

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research Inc
Yes: 44%
No: 49%
Poll conducted June 2004

Yes: 42%
No: 55%
Poll conducted June 2004

Yes: 39%
No: 51%
Poll conducted June 2004

Consultores 21
Yes: 47%
Tracking poll conducted through August 13, 2004


Yes: 57%
No: 42%
Poll conducted May 10 and May 19

Yes: 50%
No: 44%
Poll conducted July 2004.

Yes: 54%
No: 33%
Poll conducted May 20-June 5th

Consultores 21
Yes: 54%
No: 41%
Poll conducted June 2004


Idiot Controversy Chronicles

How petty and destructive can Chavez's pissing match with the Americans get? This petty and destructive:
The U.S. government warned Venezuela on Tuesday it would suspend Venezuelan flights to the United States if Caracas carries out a threat to ban or restrict U.S. carriers flying to Venezuela.

"Hopefully that will not happen. If that happens, it is not only possible or probable, but absolute certain the U.S. government and Transport Department would suspend flights by Venezuelan airlines," U.S. Ambassador to Caracas William Brownfield told reporters.

March 15, 2006

Sanity on the EU EOM

Well, the European Union Electoral Observation Mission (EU EOM) final report has been published (strictly for Spanish speaking masochists) and the predictable Media frenzy has ensued.

The final report isn't much different from the preliminary report. The main difference, as far as I can see, is a new recommendation for much deeper reform of the Electoral Registry (note, reform, not audit.) On page 23, the EU EOM notes that the ongoing calls for a REP "audit" are somewhat misplaced: the only credible way to get to the bottom of REP's "structural problems" (their phrase) is to cross-check it systematically against the Civil Registry. But, in practice, that's not possible, because there's no digital version of the Civil Registry. So the EU calls for deep reform, including an intriguing suggestion to merge REP outright with an overhauled, computerized Civil Registry.

Though the inevitable tug-of-war to highlight the parts of the report that "favor" one side or the other has already started, I'll do the unthinkable and highlight EU spokesman Doménico Tuccinardi's plea for people to attempt a holistic reading - resisting the urge to pick and choose between findings.

So while the EU EOM does highlight the need to stop using the Maisanta Software for political discrimination, it also notes that "in their electoral preparation, CNE demonstrated a clear will to respond to opposition demands and boost confidence in the process." While the report notes, on page 30, that it was possible to reconstruct the sequence of voting stored in the machines, it goes on to describe the likelihood that such data could be used to violate secret voting as "remote."

Their take on two very sensitive aspects seems worth citing at some length. First there's the matter of when, precisely, voting machines are hooked in to telecom networks (p. 53):
Results were transmitted very quickly and in an orderly fashion. When voting tables closed, their members printed final tally sheets without difficulties. They then connected the voting machines to a communications medium (in most cases a telephone land line) and sent the results to the Tallying Center in Caracas. We observed no ccases of results being transmitted before tally sheets had been printed and their results exhibited, which was a major charge after the Presidential Referendum.

Then there's the matter of the "hot" audit - which was conducted on the night of the vote, even though the results have still not been announced:
The closing procedures were followed in general terms, and in all voting centers where EU observers were present, they proceeded to a paper ballot recount audit ("recuento de resguardos de votacion.") The instructions to choose by lots the voting tables to be audited were not always followed. We observed the manual recount of paper ballots in 75 different voting tables. Although the recount procedure was slow, the results showed clearly the trustworthiness of the [electronic] results, except in a few cases where we observed a discrepancy between the number of voters counted in the voting rolls and those counted by the voting machines, and between the paper ballots and the votes registered by the voting machines. In 28% of observed cases there was a discrepancy between the number of votes counted by the voting machine and the paper ballots counted. The difference was, in all cases, between 1 and 5 votes, and was attributed to human error in the manual recount.

As I've written many times, this partial recount of paper ballots is the key safeguard in the whole system. Given that, according to the EU, the paper ballot recount went so well, it is just baffling to me why it takes CNE 10 weeks (and counting) to produce a damn report about it.

In any case it's true that these hot-audits are public events. Even if CNE takes forever and a day to publish results, if all the paper ballot audits were wildly out of line with the electronic results, people at each voting center would notice and word would get around awfully quickly. So CNE's delays are inexcusable, but this is still a significant and underestimated safeguard.

The EU OEM's fundamental overall conclusion, however, is impossible to deny: the biggest problem they observed is the lack of confidence in CNE. The report puts the call for a new, credible and impartial CNE at the top of its recommendations, and it seems clear to me that if that condition were met, the rest would follow...

March 14, 2006

Let him have it

Katy Says: The U.N. Security Council renews five of its ten non-permanent members each year. Latin America has traditionally held two of those seats, the current members being Argentina and Peru. Argentina's term expires December 31st of this year, and guess who wants to take its place? Why our very own Hugo Chávez, of course.

Nobody seems to be paying attention to this, but the Chavez government has been lobbying intensively for the seat, with Guatemala as the other candidate. The lobbying has been in the best chavista tradition: vulgar, laden with overheated rhetoric and very indiscreet. Venezuela's Ambassador to Chile Víctor Delgado went out of his way to request Chile's support in exchange for Venezuela's support for Chile's candidate to head the OAS, current Secretary General José Miguel Insulza.

I say: let him have it.

It is no secret why Chávez wants to go to the Security Council. In a year where the UN is bound to discuss sensitive topics such as Iran and North Korea, Chávez wants to be heard. His sympathy for rogue states like Iran, Zimbabwe and Cuba is not even up for discussion: Venezuela routinely votes in favor of those governments whenever issues arise in international fora. And Chávez's well-known penchant for flamboyant rhetoric and embarassing postures in international stages lures him to the very high-profile Security Council like light lures a moth.

Thing is, the Security Council is really managed by the five countries with veto power: the U.S., France, the U.K., Russia and China. The rest are there mostly for show. Chavez couldn't do much damage in the Security Council; certainly, he wouldn't have many friends there to help support Iran's nuclear weapons program and other nonsense. Venezuela's presence in the body would end up being all show and no substance, much like the government itself. But Venezuelan hystrionics in such a high-profile forum would shine a very bright, worldwide spotlight on Chavez's unique brand of intolerant extremism. To give Chavez a seat on the security council would be to give him just enough rope to hang himself.

And if getting the seat means Venezuela has to cash in its chips for all the favors it has spread around the continent, all the better. Chávez seems to want payback from the region - if he gets it, other Latin American countries may feel less obliged to pay lip service to El Loco when substantive discussions come up, for instance, on the dire state of Venezuelan democracy or human rights.

The OAS is bound to keep Venezuela on its agenda this year, what with electoral prospects getting increasingly worse and a new Presidential "election" coming up. Venezuelan democracy would be greatly favored if Latin American countries did not feel indebted to Chávez for his many favors. Getting him that coveted Security Council spot may just be a way to get this monkey off their back.

Frenchies horrified to be subjected to the Fidel Playbook

Ok, ok...official headline: RSF calls for dialogue with government in letter to new information minister.
Attn. Mr. Willian Lara
Minister of Communications and Information

Dear Minister:

Reporters Without Borders would like to take advantage of your installation as Minister of Communication and Information on 9 March to refer to recent exchanges between the government you represent and our organisation. Our hope is to establish the basis for a real dialogue.

As a press freedom organisation, we recently issued two releases about cases currently before the courts that appear to be causing a controversy in the news media and public opinion in Venezuela. The first, on 27 February, took the form of an open letter to your predecessor, Yuri Pimentel, querying contempt of court proceedings against several news media. The second was about the detention on 7 March of Televisora del Táchira presenter Gustavo Azócar Alcalá on charges of fraud and embezzlement.

We were both astonished and shocked at the violence if the statements issued by your ministry on 1 and 9 March in response to our releases. We even posted - on the Spanish-language version of our website - Mr. Pimentel’s response to our open letter to him.

We were shocked because these statements contained many false accusations against Reporters Without Borders. The 9 March statement charged us with being “in the pay of the US government and secret services” and with undertaking “the media sabotage against the Bolivarian Revolution” ; In the eyes of your government, we were guilty of “defaming the Venezuelan people, despising Venezuela and meddling in its internal affairs”.

All this was said to be “with the complicity of the seditious opposition and the privately-owned media, in a new media offensive that is part of the psychological war operations of the Empire - the United States - designed to justify its aggression against Venezuelan democracy”.

In both cases, we just expressed our concern about specific legal issues without questioning the principle of the proceedings and without in any way denigrating the authorities responsible. Concern does not mean condemnation.

It is the job of every NGO to question democratic governments about the principles or causes they claim to defend. We have, it is true, criticised parts of the law on the social responsibility of the news media and the criminal code reform law. We fear that some of the provisions of these laws restrict press freedom. But have we said there will be no more press freedom in Venezuela ? No, we have not. And criticising a law is not the same as condemning a government.

This is the reason for our astonishment. On the one hand, we know that the situation of journalists is much more dramatic in countries such as Mexico and Colombia in which, unlike Venezuela, they are exposed to reprisals from armed groups. On the other hand, we also condemned the imprisonment of Judith Miller of The New York Times from July to September 2005 in the United States just for refusing to reveal her sources to the judicial authorities.

We have also paid a great deal of attention to the case of Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj, who has been held for nearly four years on the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay without specific charges being brought against him and in conditions that violate all international human rights conventions. We urge you to read our recent report, available on our website, which has a title that could not be clearer about its content : “Camp Bucca and Guantánamo : when American imprisons journalists”. We are ready to send you a copy.

We have not failed to understand the role of certain privately-owned Venezuelan news media during the period of the April 2002 coup, and we stressed this at the time. We therefore find it all the harder to understand why your government is the only one to be unable to tolerate any criticism at all.

Finally, we do indeed receive funding from the National Endowment for Democracy. This financing represents 3 per cent of our budget - our accounts are public - and, aside from the fact that it comes from the US congress and not the White House, it is assigned to our activities in support of imprisoned African journalists. It has nothing to do with western hemisphere.

I very much hope your will heed our appeal.


Robert Ménard

There's something touching, almost quaint, about RSF's tone here...something about their earnest explanations about what they use their NED funding for (as though that's gonna make a difference), something about their shock that a government can't understand that "criticising a law is not the same as condemning a government." It all makes you wonder if they've really been paying attention.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a big RSF fan, but they're about six years behind the curve on this one: Venezuelan dissidents were writing in this tone all the way back in 2000, when we questioned the adoption of Chavez's 49 decree-laws under Enabling Legislation only to be roundly abused as counterrevolutionary elements, enemies of the people, etc. etc.

Time lag and all, it's interesting to see a high-profile foreign NGO going through the same process we all went through back then, coming to understand the autocratic core of a regime that slams moderate and radical critics alike, with the same self-righteous intolerance and rhetorical brutality. Slowly, but surely, the penny is dropping in Paris: chavismo recognizes no space for legitimate dissent.

March 13, 2006

Zero-Kelvin Audit

Remember my rants about the importance of a hot audit for elections' credibility? Remember my dismay when CNE announced it would present the results of its December 5th "hot" audit five weeks after the vote?

Well, it's now been ten weeks since we voted and CNE has only now finished its "hot" audit. Finished conducting it, that is, because the actual report won't be published for some time yet. Ahhh, the warm glow of transparency...

This must be why, according to NAOR, 74% of Venezuelans trust CNE.

President Chavez renewed his readiness to carry out any role to be asked by the Leader of the Revolution

From the stuff I couldn't make up if I wanted to department:
President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, the Gaddafi Human Rights Prize Laureate, expressed his profound appreciation to the Leader of the Revolution, renewing his invitation to visit Venezuela and Latin American.

This came during his reception of the Secretary of Co-operation at the General People's Committee for Foreign Liaison and International Co-operation in Valparaiso City in Chile at the sideline of the inauguration of President Michelle Bachelet as a President of Chile.

President Chavez underlined the importance that the leader devoutes some of his time to the Latin America continent which peoples he said had all respect and gratitude to the Leader Mu'ammer al-Gathafi.

President Chavez renewed his readiness to carry out any role to be asked by the Leader of the Revolution, pointing out that Latin America began speeding up towards the realization of its peoples' aspirations and hopes for unity and integration.

President of Venezuela conveyed during the audience through the Secretary his greetings and appreciation to the Leader.

Excellence in polling methodology...

 How do you consider Venezuelan democracy? 
 With much uncertainty 

 With uncertainty 

 With medium uncertainty 

 Without uncertainty 

 With no uncertainty 

Current results

(I swear this is not a malicious translation - the original question in Spanish is just as weirdly, what the hell is the difference between "sin incertidumbre" and "con nada de incertidumbre"?! What kind of baboon structures a poll response this way?)

 How do you consider President Chavez's policy to foster cooperatives to counterbalance monopolistic neoliberal enterprises? 





Current results

(Good thing that's not a leading question, huh?)

 How do you qualify Venezuelan democracy today? 
 Very revolutionary 


 With characteristics of both 

 Conservative (Puntofijista) 

 Very conservative (Very puntofijista) 


Current results

And to think they say NAOR's polling isn't professional!

(Sorry, no idea why the spacing got so screwed up...)

March 12, 2006

Links ahoy!

I've just updated the links on the right-hand column. If I'm missing something, let me know.

Teodoro's Strange Isolation

All signs are that Teodoro Petkoff will announce he's running for president before the end of this month. Conventional wisdom sees him as the strongest of the potential challengers. Personally, I admire the guy tremendously - I'm sure he'd make a fantastic president. Still, I can't help but worry about his electoral prospects - and for reasons that go well-beyond the neverending, ultimately sterile controversy about CNE.

The structure of the Venezuelan electorate really hasn't changed in the last few years. Something like 25% of the electorate is strongly pro-Chavez, something like 20% is strongly anti-Chavez, and the largest chunk, over half, floats between the two camps. To win, an opposition candidate needs to hold on to the anti-Chavez base while attracting more than half of the floating voters.

Thing is, you can't attract those waverers if you don't know who they are, what they want and why the vote for who they vote for. You need a specific, thought-out strategy to identify them and target them, and I worry that Teodoro hasn't quite grasped this.

Floating voters are basically poor people, living in barrios and down-and-out urbanizaciones, without a university education, focused more on bread-and-butter issues than on ideological niceties. In the last few years most of them have voted for Chavez as part of a clientelist quid-pro-quo: my vote for your petrodollars. You don't win over waverers by waxing lyrical about freedom and democracy or denouncing castrocomunismo, you get their votes by persuading them they'll be better off with you in Miraflores than with Chavez.

Teodoro faces challenges all around. To begin with, he can't necessarily count on the anti-Chavez ultras. It's not just that the CNE polemic has left many of them unwilling to vote at all, it's that most of them are ideological conservative and instinctively distrust any leftish candidate. No matter how moderate Teodoro's stance gets, a good number of militant anti-Chavistas just can't stomach voting for a former guerrillero.

This would be okay if Teodoro could count on solid support from floating voters. And, in principle, waverers should love him: he's been a consistent critic of the more ideologically-strident elements of the Opposition, which are major culprits in floating voters' strong distaste for the Traditional Opposition.

But Teodoro is too much of an intellectual to be a darling of the non-ideological waverers. He's not willing to pander aggressively to them. He makes his pitch in terms so abstract ("a modern, democratic left") that you get the feeling many waverers just won't know what on earth he's talking about. Even if they do understand what he's getting at, the fact is you can't eat a "modern, democratic left" - too often, his language is too high fallutin' to resonate viscerally with people's day-to-day concerns. Needless to say, Teodoro can't make up the difference by spreading oil money around like his opponent can, which leaves you to wonder if he can really mobilize enough waverers to be competitive.

To my mind, Teodoro is oddly politically homeless for a putative oppo front-runner. His main strength - his ability to mete out memorable tongue lashings to both the government and the radical opposition - makes him as many enemies as friends, while leaving non-ideological voters basically cold. Fatally, his only natural constituency seems to be people like me: over-educated, instinctively moderate, incurably wonkish and respectably leftish types- an electoral dead-end if ever there was one.

If he's going to position himself to actually win an election, Teodoro is going to have to develop a far less abstract pitch, one that resonates with wavering voters at a gut level. Colorful denunciations of Chavez that peter out into abstractions about the state's role in development will not do the trick. Using dictionary words that get knowing chuckles from university-educated readers might be a good way to prop up Tal Cual's circulation figures, but if his shtick is going to play in Caucagüita Teodoro has to stop saying "inefable" once a paragraph.

To my mind, his best bet would be to just shamelessly plunder Roberto Smith's formidable rhetorical arsenal. Unlike Teodoro, Smith has thought through these issues systematically and worked diligently to figure out which rhetorical strategies can win over wavering voters. Focus grouping the hell out of your message to strategically brand the candidate is an admittedly gringo way of going about an election, but taking a scientific approach to pandering is far preferable to sticking to rhetorical lines that may "feel right" to a candidate but in fact turn off the very people he should be attracting.

Is Teodoro willing to go down this route, or is it below his dignity? Hmmmm...