Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The long process of reflection in Venezuela
The lessons from the Recall Election on Chavez

From the comments and letters received, I sense that there is a great desire to figure out the "what next?" in Venezuela. This will not be an easy. And speedy even less!

I did write a little piece the other day predicting what could happen to Venezuela for the next years if Chavez possibly tainted victory is ratified, or imposed. But I have not started any serious writing on what really the results of Sunday 15 mean. Actually, I cannot start writing seriously until I do some self criticism first. I owe to the readers of this blog, I owe it to my credibility, that to keep writing this blog I must be able to admit errors. Only then will I consider it intellectually honest to write more evaluations on the Venezuelan situation.

What do I think happened?

First, and briefly, I should state what I think happened on August 15. I think that Chavez might have narrowly won the referendum. I also think that we will probably never know because unmasking any fraud that took place will not allow us to trace the real vote, even if ballot boxes are opened. By the time these would be counted, there would have been plenty of time to tamper with a few boxes and throw the process in total disarray.

I also think that some fraud was committed and I do think that eventually there will be enough of it revealed to question the legitimacy of Chavez, if not enough to force international sanctions.

Readers of this page will remember that I predicted a victory of the opposition, at the same time as I always acknowledged that Chavez had a strong core support. So, why did I go wrong in my predictions?

Was I wrong to begin with?

I do not mean to dodge the bullet but I would like to state that my error was not in my basic prediction, but rather that I did not preview some other factors that I minimized unaccountably.

I did write a numerical prevision where I thought that the opposition was guaranteed roughly 4 million votes. It almost got it, and I suspect that the fraud, if proven, was designed to rob the opposition of any extra advantage above the 4 million mark. I also had predicted that it was for Chavez to gather around his core support all that was still up for grabs. And he managed to do so, even if helped by the computer. The victory edge for Chavez, outside of any machine rigging, would originate in the massive voter registration drive made at the last minute. But I will go into all that in later posts.

In other words, I had predicted first a 4-5 million spread for the opposition and a 3-4 for Chavez. Later, in a now defunct comment section from the Chronicles blog, I ventured that the opposition could still win by 800 000 to 1 million votes but contemplated that the margin of victory could go down to 500 000. Curiously, that was what was reflected by the exit polls on August 15. The campaign of the opposition was flawed enough that even my optimism could not accept anymore its wide margin prediction, even though I sensed victory.

Where did I fail?

I did fail in three instances. Two of them by underestimation of the situation, and one by a plain crass mistake that I should not have done.

Chavismo basic appeal.

The first underestimation I made was the appeal of the Chavez social programs. I think that they are overrated and I have talked to enough "beneficiaries" to realize long ago that some of them had doubts about the long term efficiency, not to mention present quality of the famous "misiones".

I did observe that the programs were not effective and did not reach all the people that they were supposed to reach. My mistake was that I failed to see that they reached the geographical areas and strata that they were supposed to influence. The more I look into it, the more the "misiones" are targeted to areas, needs, where the opposition cannot offer anything, even through its elected mayors and governors. Those areas, such as rural Yaracuy, seem to have gone Chavez more than usual. Actually in Yaracuy, the reproaches I have heard about the "misiones" were from city people where the governor can compete with its own programs. The SI won in the San Felipe metro area. But the NO won outside, at least if we can believe the results. Except for the margins, the results in Yaracuy might reflect the tendency.

To that I add that I underestimated the promise that the "misiones" had on people. But this is probably due that the qualities that make Chavez a leader are the ones that always distanced me from his person: I have a natural allergy to cheap populism.

Chavez is a leader.

There is one factor that I have never been able to understand in Chavez appeal: that so many people look at him as a leader figure, even as a Messiah of sort. I am unable to understand why some people want nothing less but to be told what to think and do.

This underestimation came back to haunt me this past week end when I had two long conversations with chavista acquaintances. Both of them do see some of chavismo failures, but curiously both of them complained that the opposition Coordinadora Democratica, CD, was a group of people without a definitive leader. One even tried to pry from me the one I preferred and was rather discomfited when he realized that none within the CD leadership exerted any particular appeal on me. Venezuela is a country where cock fighting was a big past time. With TV and movies it has gone down some, but it has not disappeared. The desire to see a good fight between leaders has remained in our psyche and people want to see the fight before they pick their leader. That is one reason why many will be staying around Chavez until someone comes around and gives him some of his very own medicine.

Maybe the CD, and myself, should reflect more on that. Perhaps it is time to risk primary elections, or depend more on local leadership if we want to convince the locals to drop Chavez. Do not read me wrong, this desire for strong leadership is rather common around the world. It might simply be that Chavez has benefited from it more than what we thought he did. I do not advocate the surrender of the CD to a single leader, but we must rethink how leadership will be handled in the future.

Negative campaigning only goes so far.

In a way I had sensed that. In past posts I had hinted that I had some serious misgivings as to how the opposition campaign was headed. But as weeks went by I forgot this political axiom that negative campaign only works when you can at least say something positive about you. After decades of observing US elections I should have known better. The opposition maintained its frontal attack on Chavez through the campaign, but failed completely to pass the message that it did have something to offer. Certainly, people like myself can understand that offering a more independent judiciary to the country, or more order in its finances is positive and very desirable. But what about the deprived rural inhabitant who does not get his/hers three daily meals? Can she understand that without strong economic growth her fate will never be improved? For the first time in years suddenly he gets the perception that someone in high places cares for him, even if it took that someone 4 years to remember about him?

But no excuses there. By mid July I should have sensed that the negative campaign, no matter how justifiable and easy to do, had run its effect. The CD was making a crucial error not to go to the lower classes with more energy and cheap promises if necessary, even promising to keep a couple of Chavez programs such as Barrio Adentro, for all its faults. I venture to guess that the electoral result would not have been any poorer.

Voila, I have written down some of my mistakes in judging the political moment. Now I can move on and try in the next few days to write on the consequences of the August 15 vote, with or without fraud. I can also write more on the possible fraud mechanism. I have been working with a friend for a few days on something and I hope to be able to post it tomorrow, a relatively simple way to explain one of the possible fraud mechanisms that might have been used. The emotional part of it all is passing and I am recovering strength and purpose.

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