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Fix Numbers; Reinvent Venezuela

As the August 15 referendum on whether Hugo Chavez should continue as president looms in Venezuela, anti-Chavez pollsters have begun reluctantly issuing polls showing Chavez in the lead. In June, the Washington-D.C. based polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research Inc.–working on behalf of the opposition–conducted a poll showing that 49 percent of Venezuela’s registered voters would support President Chavez versus 44 percent that would vote to recall him. Another June poll by the Venezuelan firm DATOS–also commissioned by the opposition–gave Chavez 51 percent of support, against 39 percent who would vote against him.

Recently Chavez challenged other Venezuelan polling firms aligned to the opposition to release the results of their latest polls. Venezuelan Information Minister Jesse Chacon has claimed to have copies of these polls–which favor Chavez–and has threatened to publish them if the polling firms do not come forward.

One should not mistakenly conclude that these polls vindicate the anti-Chavez pollsters as “unbiased.”Rather, in the hour of truth, some pollsters–after having long engaged in highly biased polling designed to demoralize the government’s supporters and to embolden the opposition–will issue less biased polls in a last-ditch effort to salvage their own credibility in the face of impending defeat.

In early February 2003, the anti-Chavez Venezuelan polling firms Datanalisis and Consultores 21 held a joint press conference in Caracas claiming to be “neutral parties”in the country’s deeply polarized political conflict. Just over two weeks before the press conference, I reported that Datanalisis’ President Jose Antonio Gil Yepes had told the Los Angeles Times in July 2002 that Chavez “has to be killed.”I pointed out that a simple glance at Datanalisis’ website revealed “the kind of blatant political partisanship that one normally does not associate with respectable polling operations”(as this report goes to print, Datanalisis’ website has been running John Kerry’s Chavez-bashing misstatement at the top of their “news”column for over a month).

Since I first reported on Datanalisis’ blatant partisanship and biased polling, Gil Yepes has mysteriously disappeared as a public spokesperson for his company (although he occasionally pops up brandishing a letter from L.A. Times correspondent T. Christian Miller, who now supposedly claims that the pollster did not have criminal intent when he told Miller that Chavez “has to be killed”).

With Gil Yepes’ reputation in question, the job of restoring Datanalisis’ mythic neutrality was left to company director Luis Vicente Leon. Never mind that Leon had also been making blatantly anti-Chavez statements to the press long before Gil Yepes blurted out his homicidal fantasies to the L.A. Times. In Venezuela, where Chavez-bashing journalists abound, “neutrality”means telling the business-controlled propaganda apparatus what it wants to hear.

Thus, in the spirit of “neutrality,”Leon made a startling announcement at the conference of February 2003. Although it had long been established that Chavez enjoyed his highest levels of support among the poor, Leon declared that Datanalisis’ latest “poll”disproved the “myth”that public opinion was divided along class lines. According to Leon, “people of lower incomes”had become even more inclined to reject Chavez than the rest of Venezuelan society.

For anyone even slightly in tune with reality, Leon’s claim should have sent off alarm bells. Hardly more than two months before, Gil Yepes himself told the Associated Press that_while only 30 percent of the overall Venezuelan population supported the government_45 percent of the poor still approved of Chavez. Setting aside the question of whether or not Gil Yepes’ figures were based on methodologically sound polling (that issue will be taken up in the second part of this series), the figures suggested that the poor were more than twice as inclined to support Chavez as the rest of society, a finding that was consistent with past polls and election returns. Given that Venezuela’s poorest stratum (stratum E) accounts for just over 40 percent of the adult population, the only way Gil Yepes could arrive at an overall 30 percent approval rating amid 45 percent support for Chavez among the poor is if the President’s approval rating among the non-poor was close to 20 percent.

Did Leon actually expect people to believe that_in the course of two months_the poor had gone from being more than twice as likely to support Chavez to rejecting him at a higher rate than the middle and wealthier strata?

Puzzled by Leon’s claim, I decided to ask Jose Miguel Sandoval_an expert on Latin American opinion polls at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill_how the political views among Venezuela’s poor could undergo such a dramatic shift. Sandoval replied that reports of “drastic changes of opinion in a short period of time are not to be taken seriously, particularly in Venezuela, where opinions are well entrenched.” Curiously, Leon’s dubious “finding”of the “myth”of a class divide appeared just in time for the Venezuelan opposition’s new U.S. campaign strategists to spin the same story.

As the Washington Post’s Scott Wilson reported, prominent members of the Venezuelan opposition traveled to Washington in January 2003 and began consulting informally with Democratic Party whore-of-convenience James Carville. Soon thereafter, the Democratic Party polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (GQR)_the company of Carville’s fellow whore and Clintonite pollster Stanley Greenberg_popped up in Venezuela working on behalf of the opposition.

In a bracing demonstration of U.S. bipartisanship at the service of Uncle Sam’s reactionary foreign policy, GQR joined forces with the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies to carry out “polls”on behalf of the opposition. In March 2003, GQR released a misleading statement that its findings contrasted with “the assumption of many analysts that Venezuela is divided between the upper- and middle-class opponents of Chavez and his lower-class supporters.”

The strategy was clear; in order to beat Chavez, GQR _like Datanalisis_sought to deny the government of its base.

The only problem was that GQR’s denial of a class divide and Datanalisis’ claim that the poor were now even more disapproving of Chavez than middle and wealthier strata were strongly contradicted by the actual results of the GQR-POS “poll”. The “poll”showed that the poor (stratum E) and the relatively poor (stratum D)_which together represent about 80 percent of Venezuela’s adult population_were more than twice as likely to continue supporting Chavez than the middle to wealthier strata.

As it turned out, Datanalisis’ claim that the poor had turned against Chavez with greater vehemence than middle to wealthier strata was plainly dishonest. Between November 2002 and February 2003_the period of business-led economic sabotage against the Venezuelan government and people_Datanalisis temporarily stopped sending field workers into Chavista-controlled slums. Due to the heightening of resentment towards biased pollsters as well as increasing levels of crime resulting from the misery induced by the economic sabotage, field workers could not safely perform surveys.

In other words, Leon relied on telephone polls for his claim that lower-income respondents had turned strongly against Chavez (Datanalisis’ website acknowledged that its December 2002 poll regarding the opposition’s so-called “general strike”was conducted by telephone). The sociologist Greg Wilpert, who resides in Caracas, estimates that only 50 percent of Venezuelan households have mainline telephones, meaning that Datanalisis could scarcely have polled stratum E (the poor) during the period on which Leon based his deceitful claim.

Now, as the opposition’s campaign is clearly faltering and Venezuela’s poor appear poised to turn out en masse against the recall of President Chavez, the failure of the anti-Chavez pollsters’ underhanded attempts to deny the government of its long-standing base becomes increasingly clear.

JUSTIN DELACOUR is a freelance writer and recent graduate of the Masters program in Latin American Studies at the University of New Mexico. He has written for Latin America Data Base, a University of New Mexico-based news service. He receives email at jdelac@unm.edu

This article originally appeared in NarcoNews.

 

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