April 11, 2008

Six years on: Usón's April 11th

Quico says: On my trip to Caracas, I picked up a copy of "Opinion Prisoner: General Usón Speaks". It's a book of interviews with former Finance Minister and jailbird Francisco Usón by Agustín Blanco Muñoz. What follows is drawn from Usón's recollections of the evening of April 11th, 2002.

There was a gun on Chávez's office table. A pack of cigarettes and a lighter, an ashtray with some stubs in it, an empty cup of coffee, and a gun. That's the detail that sticks out in General Francisco Usón's memories of going to Miraflores to resign his post as Finance Minister. It was about 8:30 p.m. on April 11th, 2002.

It's not the only detail, of course. He remembers people crying in the halls of Miraflores, army officers running from one place to the other like chickens with their heads cut off. He remembers José Vicente Rangel hanging about the scene like a sleepwalker, muttering to himself again and again that Chávez must not resign, that handing over power was unthinkable, that it had to be avoided at all cost, in a kind of loop, like a drunk you meet on an El Silencio sidewalk late at night. And he remembers Chávez's vacant, disoriented expression, how nervous he seemed, how it was impossible to tell if he was actually listening to you as you talked, the way his own speech bordered on the incoherent. The Chávez Usón saw that evening was despondent, defeated.

Mostly, though, he remembers that gun.

It couldn't have been for self-defense. When you keep a gun for protection you keep it in a holster, on your body. Usón, like Chávez, is an army man: it's not the kind of detail either of them would miss. A gun sitting on top of a table like that...it was only ever going to be used for one thing.

The thought alarmed Usón. He was seriously worried that if something happened to Chávez that night the country would careen towards civil war. He was concerned enough to consign his own handgun to one of the president's bodyguard before going in to see him. He even raised the importance of keeping Chávez safe as he resigned and, on his way out, went as far as to have a quiet word with one of Chávez's bodyguards to plead with him to hide that gun when he got a chance because "nothing must happen to Chávez."

That glimpse of a suicidal Chávez is not one Usón would forget. At 8:30 p.m. on April 11th 2002, Hugo Chávez genuinely thought his gig was up.

From Miraflores, Usón headed straight to the fifth floor of the Army General Command Center in Fuerte Tiuna, where he ran into the chaotic conspiratorial verbena so many others have also described. The collapse of the chain of command was obvious to him right away. In the middle of the biggest military crisis Venezuela had seen in half a century, some of the assembled generals were drinking whisky.

General Efraín Vásquez Velasco, whom everyone looked to for leadership, was way out of his depth. He was the army's highest ranking officer, and the hierarchy-minded military men all around him were naturally waiting for his orders. But Vásquez Velasco hadn't thought things through. He hadn't planned ahead, hadn't conspired. Needless to say, planning is critical to the success of a coup, and the guy everyone was looking to for leadership just hadn't done any.

Worse yet, the guys who had planned were pushing a disastrous scheme to impose Pedro Carmona as president. In fact, Carmona's presence at Army headquarters that night was one of the first anomalies Usón noticed. The officers backing him - led by General Medina Gómez and Vice-admiral Ramírez Pérez - commanded no troops. No mandaban ni en su casa, is how Usón puts it. And they weren't senior enough in the military hierarchy to tell Generals Vásquez Velasco and Alfonso Martínez what to do.

The real "power vacuum" that night wasn't in Miraflores, it was in Fuerte Tiuna. The army leadership was making it up as they went along, trying to run a coup "by consensus." In those circumstances, it wasn't hard for the real plotters to outmaneuver the hapless top brass.

Well before midnight, General Rosendo (who'd just resigned as head of the Armed Forces Unified Command) and General Hurtado Sucre (then Infrastructure Minister) go to Miraflores to negotiate a handover of power directly with Chávez. Very quickly, Chávez agrees to resign, but only if safe passage to Cuba is guaranteed for himself and his family. It's his only condition. Rosendo and Hurtado Sucre make the deal.

But the situation is fluid back in Fuerte Tiuna. Alliances shift by the minute and Vásquez Velasco completely fails to stamp his authority and impose a single course of action. So, as they try to work out the details, Rosendo and Hurtado Sucre find themselves negotiating under a mandate that changes again and again. They keep having to call Fuerte Tiuna to get instructions, but the instructions keep changing.

This provides Chávez with the first hint that he may not be as screwed as he'd figured. He asks to speak to Vásquez Velasco directly. They speak on the phone several times throughout the night. When Vásquez Velasco speaks to the president he goes into a small office by himself, so nobody can overhear what he's saying. The conversations follow on throughout the night.

Little by little Chávez starts to put 2 and 2 together. At 12:30, he calls Usón directly on his mobile and asks what's taking so long, why he isn't on a plane to Cuba yet. It's the first of six conversations between the two that night. Gradually, Chávez comes to understand it's all a bit of a bluff. Years later, in his prison cell, General Usón will have plenty of time to wonder whether he inadvertently tipped off Chávez. Maybe it was those phone calls that made Chávez realize that nobody was in overall command in Fuerte Tiuna.

Back in Fuerte Tiuna, one faction has gotten it into its head that sending Chávez off to Cuba would be a disaster. The guy would destabilize any new government from a distance, and besides, the blood that flowed down Baralt Avenue that afternoon was on his hands and he should be held accountable. Another faction argues that it's lunacy to think you can jail a guy passionately supported by 40 to 50% of the population. Characteristically, Vásquez Velasco fails to step in to resolve the dispute.

As the early morning wears on, General Rommel Fuenmayor calls Chávez and threatens to order some tanks and Air Force planes to bomb Miraflores palace if he doesn't leave power within 10 minutes. But Fuenmayor is an army officer - and one without troops under his command at the time (the guy was running CAVIM, the army munitions manufacturer). Fuenmayor had no authority over the Air Force or over any tanks. In the end, his threat only underscores the extent to which the military chain of command has gone to all hell.

By the early morning hours of April 12th, the dazed, suicidal Chávez of the previous evening is just a memory. Sensing the weakness in the generals' position, he's well and truly snapped out of it and gone on Full Survival Mode. After all, if there's one subject he genuinely is a bit of an expert on it's military conspiracies...and how to survive them when they go wrong.

Just before 4:00 a.m. Chávez decides to go to Fuerte Tiuna to negotiate directly with the army brass. This is a detail that's been lost to history: Chávez doesn't submit to an army order to go to Fuerte Tiuna, Chávez decides to go there. He needs to be there to confirm his suspicions about the coupsters' disorganization. He goes flanked by his head of security and his head of Casa Militar, (the presidential protection garrison.) Both are armed and still loyal to him. Amid the confusion, nobody finds anything strange about that.

Once he gets there, Chávez quickly confirms what he'd suspected. Rather than being met by a single officer with a single negotiating position, Chávez is faced with a petit committée of militares alzados.

They demand that he sign a resignation letter. He asks about safe passage to Cuba. They start backsliding. Suddenly, they won't guarantee that he can get out of the country right away. Chávez notes that this is not the deal he'd agreed to. He realizes his choice now is between being a head of state who's illegally detained and being a former head of state who's legally detained. So he refuses, point blank, to sign the letter.

And the generals don't have the first fucking clue what to do next.

For General Usón, what follows was a turning point in the crisis. Faced with Chávez's refusal, the assembled generals make a decision that lays bare all their weakness: they excuse themselves and go off to the room next door and start arguing about what to do next. Any pretense of being an organized force executing a carefully considered plan collapsed right then and there, and right in front of Chávez's eyes.

That was the instant when Chávez's fight back began in earnest. Chavez sensed that if they didn't obtain a signed resignation letter, they wouldn't be able to count on the support of the Maracay garrison or of junior officers nationwide, who are the ones in direct contact with the troops. A bit of bravado at a key moment completely threw the generals off their game and exposed how ramshackle their entire operation was. With his own eyes, he realized that they had no Plan B.

Within minutes, the generals were back merely to re-iterate their demand that he sign, trying to intimidate him into complying. Which only confirmed how precarious their position was, how dependent on his co-operation.

Even Usón, who spent years in jail due to a presidential whim and hates the guy's guts, is forced to recognize Chávez's courage and cunning at that critical moment.

Over the following 24 hours, plenty of other mistakes would greatly aid his fight back - the Carmonada obviously being the biggest one. But it was that one moment, that instantaneous realization that he could send all their plans into a tailspin just by refusing to play along, that made his fight back viable in the first place.

The real irony, considering the turn official rhetoric would take in the months and years to follow, is that it was only because April 11th wasn't the product of a well planned, carefully orchestrated conspiracy that Chávez was able to beat the coup.

April 9, 2008

Mark & Doug's excellent Venezuelan adventure

Katy says:
"Exit poll results show major defeat for Chávez"

Caracas Chronicles headline, August 17th, 2004, citing a press release from Penn, Schoen & Berland.
The long anticipated departure of pollster, best-selling author and political guru Mark Penn from Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign brought back some unkind memories. While the gringo press obsesses about the myriad ways Penn screwed up Hillary's presidential run, we Venezuelans let our minds wander back to his tour of our country between 2004 and 2006, when Penn's firm played a critical role in launching the opposition into three years of self destruction by our misguided abstention strategy.

Mark Penn is a larger-than-life figure. Having worked - sometimes succesfully, other times not so much - with the Clintons, Al Gore and Tony Blair, he is admired and despised in roughly equal measures in First-World political circles. A formidable intellectect with an even more formidable ego, he's apparently the kind of person who never doubts himself.

In a keen new piece, New Republic writer Michelle Cottle describes him as:
"rough, arrogant, antisocial, controlling, manipulative, brutally ambitious, and occasionally downright abusive--a hurler of cell phones, pagers, and Chinese food."
I know that what follows will probably get me an eggroll, hurled straight at my noggin', but here goes anyway. The story goes like this.

Mr. Penn, along with his partner Doug Schoen, worked with Venezuelan opposition NGO Súmate during the Chávez Recall Referendum of 2004. Their firm advised the opposition in the run-up to the referendum and was supposedly in charge of organizing the all-important exit poll on the day of the vote. The evening of the Referendum, PSB announced that Chávez had been handily defeated, and the rest is history.

That poll was the original bit of evidence that convinced everyone that something was dodgy about the referendum. How could it be dismissed out of hand? It was Bill Clinton's pollster! To a remarkable extent, the strategy of the opposition in the coming months and years was shaped by what happened that night.

So, what was the real story behind the exit poll? We'll probably never know, but I can tell you my version of the story, which is shared by Quico and Lucía and has been corroborated by two independent sources close to important opposition players. It goes something like this.

In the months leading up to the Recall Referendum, the polls began to change dramatically. The government had played the clock brilliantly, all the while launching the popular misiones social programs. Opposition elites - with few exceptions - were very slow and/or unwilling to believe Chávez's rise in the polls. They failed to understand the power of the misiones and Chávez's message and put their decline in the polls down to a mythical "fear factor" not supported by the evidence.

The opposition's umbrella group, the Coordinadora Democrática, failed to offer a compelling, competing message. An amalgamation of disparate political groups and NGOs, the Coordinadora failed to act effectively and its leadership was notoriously slow, disorganized and ineffective. All this is common knowledge, right?

Enter Penn, Schoen & Berland. After taking Súmate's hard-earned money, PSB told them that they simply did not have the time to design the exit poll themselves. Instead, they said Súmate should do it and kindly offered to let Súmate put the PSB stamp of approval on the results.

Súmate, an electoral NGO with no experience in polling, probably did their diligent, engineer-like best. It was probably not enough.

Exit polls are tricky to design and run under the best of circumstances. This was a well-intentioned amateur effort, from start to finish.

In the aftermath, Súmate had a lot of accomplices. There should have been tough questions asked about the reach and scope of the exit poll results. Very rural areas and unsafe urban areas, both Chávez strongholds, appeared curiously under-represented. Amid all the anger over the CNE's screwed up "hot audit", it's remarkable that nobody stopped to audit Sumate's PSB endorsed exit poll at all.

Nobody that night asked those questions with anything resembling academic rigor. The wider opposition community, including some very smart people, kept their skepticism to themselves and failed to ask the obvious questions about the exit poll. Instead, academic papers were produced at heart-stopping rates using the exit poll as the major data source, treating it like something it was not: a random sample representative of the population at large.

Opposition leaders had been treated to weeks of bad poll numbers preceding the referendum. Some of them were simply unwilling to believe the bad news. Some of them honestly believed, and still do, that the exit poll is accurate. It is not.

This period marked the beginning of the great "fear factor" myth, through which it wasn't that voters liked the new misiones, it was that they were afraid of pollsters! Most of the opposition leadership, including Coordinadora leader Enrique Mendoza, didn't buy this. They did understand that Chávez's numbers were rising steadily in the weeks before the vote. One has to wonder what would have happened if our leadership had adopted a more skeptical approach that night.

The belief that the exit poll had been correct was shared by the international media. Chavista media outlets were incensed that their man's victory was not being universally recognized. PSB put their reputation on the line with their exit poll, and a lot of people believed it.

The belief that they had uncovered massive fraud thanks to their polls, along with historical ties to major AD figures, paved the way for Doug Schoen to be hired by the Manuel Rosales campaign in 2006. Rosales ran an energetic campaign to unseat Hugo Chávez, yet it failed to show in the vote tallies. Rosales's defeat was somewhat of a foregone conclusion, given how a majority of the opinion polls released prior to the election predicted it.

Again, there were a couple of outliers. Only one high-profile DC poollster showed the race getting tighter, though. Who ran it? If you guessed PSB, you guessed right.

After going against the tide and predicting a few weeks before the poll that the race was tightening, Schoen was mysteriously replaced by Penn the weekend before the election.

You know what happened next: we got trounced, and Rosales accepted defeat gallantly. But if you went by what Penn and Schoen had predicted, you would believe we were robbed all over again.

For the past few months, Quico, Lucía and I have been talking to some of the people involved, and after confirming the story with different sources, this is what we believed happened: a hack-job of an exit-poll conducted by the opposition itself and rubber-stamped by a prestigious polling firm resulted in a collective belief that differed from reality and led to disastrous political decisions for the opposition in the following years.

You may choose to believe something else, but we call it like we see it. I believe there was some vote tampering the night of the Recall Referendum, but it did not make a difference overall. I also believe the exit poll was garbage.

The impact of releasing an exit poll like that at a time like that cannot be underestimated. Has this been tagged as a Súmate exit poll - which is what it was - rather than a PSB exit poll, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation. The fact that it came out at a moment of maximum tension, where it was the only piece of information available, only helped build up the myth.

Social phenomena are sometimes marked by instances where the momentum for change and for the establishment of an idea is unstoppable, a "tipping point" if you will. This concept has been been recently popularized by writer Malcolm Gladwell.

Penn, Schoen and Berland's faulty exit poll may have been our tipping point - the moment when we decided that we were the majority and that anyone who said differently was lying. We've been paying the price ever since.

Media Terrorism Chronicles...

Quico says: Turns out that Simpsons/Baywatch story has legs:

...hey, 290 editors can't all be wrong.

Update: Wow. Homer vs. CJ made it onto the BBC News front page!

Does Conatel grasp they're an international laughing stock now?

Also In The News, we salute you.

What do you do when you don't have time to post original stuff?

You pimp your blog out to YouTube, of course! Today's theme is crazy stuff we saw on TV in 1998:

April 8, 2008

Reality and Discourse

Weil says:I liked this image a lot in simply because it shines a spotlight on the key to understanding Venezuela's current reality: the delirious, rampant mismatch between official discourse and reality.

If I'm going to get really picky about it, though, I guess what I don't like is the implication that some big dust-up is imminent, that the incompatibility between a discourse careening forever leftward and a reality on an unstoppable rightward trajectory is somehow unsustainable.

Venezuela's tragedy is, precisely, that it is sustainable, because there's always enough oil money around to paper over the incoherences the mismatch engenders and prevent an ultimate crash. So I think the cartoon would've been even better if he'd drawn the two trains running along parallel tracks, or along the same track, but pulling away from one another.

Still, in Venezuela today, the discourse-reality mismatch is the story. Anything that helps focus attention on it is all to the good.

April 7, 2008

The Economics of Quítate Tú Pa'Ponerme Yo

Quico says: Francisco Rodríguez has become something of a force of nature in the field of Chávez scholarship. While most of us bullshit at excruciating length, FR brings creativity and rigor to the task of documenting the effect chavismo is having on Venezuela's economy and society.

His latest, a paper entitled The Price of Political Opposition: Evidence from Venezuela’s Maisanta co-authored with Chang-Tai Hsieh, Daniel Ortega (of IESA, not that other one) and Edward Miguel, sets out to measure a phenomenon we all "already" knew about but hadn't been able to prove: the impact of political discrimination on personal and corporate income in the Chávez era.

At the heart of this paper is some startlingly innovative research design. Turning the government's main tool for political discrimination - the Maisanta Database - on its head, the research team crossed its data with income data from the Venezuelan Household Survey by "exploiting the fact that most individuals in both datasets are uniquely identified by their gender, date of birth, and parroquia of residence."

This allowed them to isolate the specific impact of signing for or against the government on individuals' incomes, and lo and behold, they found statistically significant and robust evidence that signing against Chávez cost the average opposition supporter 3.8% of his or her income and massively increased their risk of unemployment.

Among other results, the team documented big shifts in sectoral employment, with a 6.1% reduction in government supporters' propensity to work in the private sector and a 5.7% reduction in government opponents' propensity to work in the public sector.

For firms, the research design was even more ingenious. They sent a small army of flunkies research assistants to pour through public registries in Caracas, Maracaibo, Maracay and Valencia so they could assemble a little database of company board members. They then matched that with the Maisanta Database to construct an index of how pro- or anti-Chávez each corporate board was. That allowed them to regress various indicators of firm performance against their board's scores on the pro- or anti-Chávez scale.

The results were pretty clear: pro-government firms have far easier access to Cadivi dollars than pro-opposition firms. Output and profits grew faster in pro-government firms, but labor productivity fell, indicating that pro-Chávez firms are more politically favored but less efficient than anti-Chávez ones. And oppo firms were paying 40% more in taxes than pro-government firms, suggesting that Tax Enforcement is politically selective.

Though fiendishly clever, this research design does have its limitations. Neither the personal nor the corporate analysis can account for the Arias Cardenas Effect: people who signed against Chávez but then saw the way the wind was blowing and made amends. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Chávez is quite willing to forgive these folks, with Gustavo Cisneros and Omar Camero being the paradigmatic examples. There's no data to differentiate the round-trippers from the hasta las últimas consecuencias oppositionists: one suspects the effects found would be even larger if there were.

The final section of the paper estimates that political polarization itself made the Venezuelan economy as a whole substantially less efficient, with Total Factor Productivity declining 5% in response to political discrimination. (If I'm reading this right, that means that for the same level of total capital, labor and natural resource inputs, the economy generated 5% less in output after the Maisanta List than before.)

On one level, you could say these results are prime candidates for publication in the "Well Duh Journal of International Economics", or perhaps the "Annals of Painfully Obvious Results". But in a country where everybody bullshits and nobody researches, there's something satisfying about having the actual figures.

For Venezuelan newpaper readers, there's nothing new here, but in broader theoretical perspective, this is crucial work. Rodríguez, Hsieh, Miguel and Ortega document a key process I keep trying to write about: the way the petrostate mobilizes its resources to create a socio-economic elite in its own image. And, academically speaking at least, the more detail we can get on the precise mechanics of this elite-generation process, the better.