Doubts raised about Venezuela's elections at New York Meeting
Luis Christiansen, President of Consultores 21, a Venezuelan polling firm, said that Venezuelan minds are still dramatically polarized
Uncertainty fell as hard as the rain on Park Avenue outside the Americas Society building in Manhattan on September 18, as a concerned audience of about 75 North and South Americans queried four panelists about polls, the media and scenarios for the elections scheduled in Venezuela for 7-O. After a few hours of discussion, uncertainty seemed the big winner in the discussion.
The audience heard from Luis Christiansen, President of Consultores 21, a Venezuelan polling firm; Carlos Lauria of the Committee to Protect Journalists in Latin America (CPJ); and Alejandro Grisanti, head of research for Barclays Capital. The program was moderated by David Papadopoulos of Bloomberg, who peppered the panelists with provocative questions which were mostly unanswerable.
The missions restored optimism
Mr. Christiansen showed comprehensive research data showing how President Chavez revitalized Venezuelan optimism as well as his own political favorability by creating missions for the poor in preparation for the 2004 Recall Referendum, and continuing them afterwards. The missions have become the one clear edge the president has over his current opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski, a former mayor and governor Miranda.
Venezuelan minds are still dramatically polarized, Mr. Christiansen's finds. Voters are committed to President Chavez regardless of facts that would seemingly derail any incumbent especially after 14 years of governing.
Mr. Christiansen showed that Venezuela's atrocious homicide and inflation rates coincide with unsurprising poll findings that insecurity and economic problems top voter concerns on both sides of the political fence.
Nevertheless, President Chavez, who seems to have no solution to these chronic problems, is rated evenly with Mr. Capriles, who has described concrete solutions and actually has a record of real accomplishment as governor of Miranda.
The poll data suggests that Venezuelan voters are saying - Don't bother me with the facts - I've got my mind made up. Almost half the voters appear committed to President Chavez regardless of facts including significant questions about his cancer, competence or performance. And about half the voters appear committed to Mr. Capriles because of his concrete solutions to problems or because they bitterly oppose Chavez.
Mr. Christiansen showed that the president's missions and massive domestic spending have created beneficiaries that number close to half the population, which could explain why the race is so close - Don't bite the hand that feeds you.
Handshake versus TV politics
Another difference in the campaign is that Mr. Capriles is visiting 300 barrios where he speaks personally and directly to millions of Venezuelans on their home turf using simple sentences and concrete solutions to real problems like the scarcity of food, electricity, housing, jobs and security. Photos of huge crowds following Capriles are rife, whereas the president turns out only a fraction of the people and in fewer personal visits than his vigorous young opponent.
By contrast, President Chavez is running a big media campaign where he speaks emotionally often breaking into tears -- about abstract if charismatic themes of love, death, ideology and revolution in a media environment totally dominated by the government's power, money and the tilting of the playing field in his direction the perquisites of being commander in chief of just about everything.
The above is a key point of Carlos Lauria, whose four-part report for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) entitled, "Venezuela's private media wither under Chavez assault," was distributed to the Americas meeting audience upon arrival.
Government versus the media
Lauria laments the suppression of the independent press and "the building up of a vast state-run media empire" promoting Chavez' rule. In the CPJ report, he cites Carlos Correa of Espacio Publico, a local free expression group, saying "As Chavez has made his presidential power more permanent, we've seen more disrespect for the rules of the game."
Lauria objects to charges brought against broadcast stations and newspapers under the Law on Social Responsibility for "incitement to hatred or intolerance" especially when they are made through incendiary programs such as La Hojilla, whose host, Mario Silva, is provocative to say the least.
Exacerbating the polarized political fight in the news media is not helpful to good journalism on either side, Lauria's CPJ report notes. The never-ending government battle with Globovision is a case in point.
"Critics say the station exacerbates polarization of the press and is as guilty of one-sided coverage as its pro-Chavez counterparts," the CPJ report states. At the same time, the report strongly recommends that the Venezuelan government "guarantee the independence of broadcast regulators and ensure that they are not subject to executive pressure or interference," which is what CPJ claims is happening to Globovision.
Lauria's CPJ report also calls for the repeal of the legal requirement on private media broadcasters to carry presidential speeches and statements cadenas 1,600 hours of which have aired since 1999 according to Espacio Publico, and which are the mainstay of the president's media presence during the 2012 presidential campaign run up to 7-O.
The Chavez government counter-attacks CPJ with the assertion that news channels (and the CPJ itself) are making not reporting the news, and making it worse, which is against the law. The reportage on prison riots is cited as proof by the government, which CPJ looks at as blaming the messenger not the message, which in many cases involves government ineptitude. But the government is hearing nothing of that.
Will there be fraud on 7-O?
A question from the audience raising the specter of fraud caused the panelists to opine about voter fear. They noted that because of reprisals to some of those millions of voters on the Tascon list the presidential Recall petition of 2004 and the belief that the electoral machinery including fingerprint machines adjacent to the electronic voting machines, two-thirds of Capriles voters now believe that government technology has penetrated voter secrecy. Big brother knows what you're thinking.
In other words, the impression exists that it is not safe for voters to tell pollsters how they are going to vote. And reprisals may come to those who vote against a government which probably has the means to find out about it and has promised to punish transgressors or traitors. Nevertheless, half the people in Mr. Christiansen's polls are voting for Capriles, which suggests the opposition voters are getting bolder.
So if Mr. Christiansen's polls are right about a tight race that could mean Mr. Capriles might now actually be running 15 to 20% ahead of Chavez but fear is suppressing that poll report, just as it might suppress the 7-O vote itself. But this is all speculation because there is no scientifically irrefutable proof about fear producing such a result. Polling is based upon probability mathematics that is difficult enough to control without throwing respondent fear into the equation.
Mr. Grisanti, who had previously delivered bad fiscal, economic and market news to whomever wins on 7-O, felt that the armed forces would respect the result of the election no matter how it turns out.
But the panelists did not fully address the factors in Venezuela's known electoral system and machinery that can feasibly rig an electronic result that even participants at the voting tables cannot observe. Former President Jimmy Carter's endorsement of the disputed 2004 Recall Referendum results is one example of the anachronistic electoral system in Venezuela that is still an unsettled issue if only in academic circles.
Ironically, neither the Capriles nor Chavez campaigns are talking about the possibilities of fraud. For the former, such talk could reduce turnout as it did in the vote embargo of 2005. And for the latter, it is an act of disrespect toward the sovereignty of the nation to impute such a capability or motive to the government.
Here comes the rain
As a few dozen people waited for drenching rain to pause for a minute, allowing them to rush for a cab or the subway near the Americas Society building, one brave soul ventured outside and quickly returned, saying,
"We have two choices going out there. One, you get wet. Two, you get wet." He paused for a second and said, "It's kind of like the choice Venezuela is facing." No one laughed.
Venezuela's private media wither under Chávez assault
Luis Jiménez Alfaro seems to have hidden under the rocks. The last time he was seen was on April 2006 walking calmly around Simón Bolívar International Airport of Maiquetía, located nearby Caracas. At that time, more than five tons of cocaine arrived in Mexico in an airplane which took off from Venezuela, and his name featured as a missing piece of the puzzle of one of the most massive drug shipments that has been witnessed in the Western Hemisphere.