Polls, Damned Polls and the Truth about Venezuela

When I read The Huffington Post (HP) repost of a report that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s popularity is “hitting a seven year low,” and that he’s coming in at only 36% popularity, I’m reminded why HP is called a “liberal” website.

When I read The Huffington Post (HP) repost of a report that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s popularity is “hitting a seven year low,” and that he’s coming in at only 36% popularity, I’m reminded why HP is called a “liberal” website. Phil Ochs got it right when he nailed that political sector in his song, “Love Me I’m a Liberal:” “Once I was young and impulsive/ I wore every conceivable pin/ Even went to the socialist meetings/ Learned all the old union hymns/ But I’ve grown older and wiser/ And that’s why I’m turning you in/ So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.”

Ochs wrote that song based on what a whole young generation had learned about the “good liberals” who presided over the US in the ‘60s. “Liberals” like Kennedy and Johnson dragged us into Vietnam, and kept us there; the “conservative” Nixon, after ratcheting up the war crimes with the secret bombing of Cambodia &etc., finally ended it. Both conservatives and liberals kept that genocidal war going for almost as long as they have done in Afghanistan today. Conservatives and liberals represent the right and left hands of the Empire, and we would do well to always remember that.

Don’t get me wrong. I read HP regularly, or, more accurately, skim it. I’m grateful they’re around and they often print excellent news and commentary, making them a much-needed critical voice. Nevertheless, the editors there should consider fact-checking AP stories when they print them, assuming they hope to distinguish themselves from the massive lie the liberal-conservative press propagates at every turn of the page and click of the mouse. Had they done so they might have exposed the AP poll for the wishful thinking that it was.

Two days after the AP story appeared, Judith Leon wrote at aporrea.org (a Spanish language site from Venezuela that I would recommend) that Teodoro Petkoff, the former leftist, now rabid anti-Chavista, had claimed that Chavez’s popularity had dropped six to ten points, to 54%. Petkoff isn’t a more reliable source for information about Chavez than AP: in many ways he’s far less so, but he would certainly not be one to cite higher poll numbers in favor of Chavez. What’s clear is that Chavez still has a stunningly high approval rating for a leader who has undergone more than a dozen elections and served more than a decade in power: His “favorable” ratings reach 72% in the state of Anzoategui, according to Instituto Venezolano de Análisis de Datos (IVAD), an institute on which the anti-Chavez opposition also relies for its data.

Either way, polls are often extremely unreliable, as those of us who expected the FSLN to win the elections of 1990 discovered. One night the world went to bed sure that Daniel Ortega would win a resounding victory, only to awake to the news that UNO’s Violeta Chamorro, the favorite of the US, had won. The polls had fooled us. People often say one thing to a pollster (who they think might be working for the government) and do something entirely different when they’re alone in the voting booth.

A more important problem with polls might be related to the “observer effect:” in lieu of “measuring” opinion, they often help create it (even if this wasn’t the case in Nicaragua in 1990 where US terrorism won out over democracy). The “observer effect” is most obvious in how pollsters frame the issues, and what issues they take up as “important.” But polls are also often taken by those very organizations that create the “facts” upon which opinions are based, that is, by the “newsmakers” themselves.  Upwards of 90% of “news” is “produced” by a handful of corporations (literally five or six) and when they don’t work directly as “pollsters” (as in a CNN Poll), they operate in a social context of a “reality” as created by news organizations that hold that same conception, and therefore tend to confirm that same socially constructed “reality.” As writer Morris Berman points out in the movie “Psywar,” quoting Marshall McLuhan: “if a fish could talk, and you could ask the fish what’s the most obvious element of the environment, the last thing that the fish would say would be water… and it’s true about any culture. Those things that are most powerful and most obvious to an outsider don’t get seen by those people swimming in the water.”

Few North Americans suspected how poisonous the water in which they swam had become back in 2003. At that time, if they had been reading the foreign press it’s unlikely that (1) by June of that year, three months after the invasion of Iraq, 57% would have still been convinced that Iraq had WMDs at the time of the invasion or (2) that 69% would have been convinced Saddam Hussein was involved in the Twin Towers attacks of September 11th, 2001. Incidentally, example two comes from fact and reality makers the Washington Post and USA Today, September 6, 2003.

The problem then, as now, was that the US press colluded with the government to create the massive lie which few dared challenge. So as not to perpetuate that lie, that “none of us knew what we know now,” it’s important to point out that truly independent, brave and critical writers and analysts on the left, and, to their credit, the libertarian right at www.antiwar.com , did their best to speak out and be heard. But those voices, as we all know, were excluded from the corporate press. The lie was, again, “most obvious to an outsider” and many reverted to getting their news about the war from the foreign press.

By contrast with what might be called a totalitarian unanimity of the dominant US media (if we agree that conservatives and liberals, behind the curtain, are, in fact, on the same side), in Venezuela the media is divided and quite diverse, as is public opinion. For one thing, Venezuelans have far more daily newspapers in opposition to the government than those supporting Chavez. Diario Vea is the only pro-government daily in the country, and its size and circulation is dwarfed by any one of the large corporate papers like El Nacional or Universal. Vea is rarely found outside of the major urban centers while the corporate press still finds its way into the remotest corners of the country. Pro-government opinion is carried into the countryside by one or more of a few television channels or, more likely, by community radio stations which have grown exponentially under Chavez. This range of opinion and competition of ideas, coupled with dramatic increases in funding for education under the Chavez government, has inculcated in the Venezuelan public a rare critical consciousness.

It’s no coincidence that the AP report reprinted at The Huffington Post would appear just at the moment it did. The poll was released less than a month from the time that Venezuela faces parliamentary elections (on September 26th ) and corporate media (and, unfortunately, some of the liberal press) appears to be doing its best to ensure that the PSUV take a hit similar to the sort of beating the Democrats are expected to face in November in the US. While the reasons for voter anger differs in each country, systemic corruption and impunity play a role in both contexts.  But there the similarity ends. In Venezuela no one expects the PSUV to lose its majority. For the past ten years under the presidency of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela has undergone a process that in many ways merits the term “revolutionary” and the majority still side with that process.

As Mark Weisbrot and Rebecca Ray point out in their recent report, “Update on the Venezuelan Economy,” even though Venezuela followed the rest of the world into recession in 2009, its “economy grew by an estimated 5.2 percent in the second quarter of 2010, on an annualized basis.” More significantly, Weisbrot and Ray go on, in the prior economic expansion under Chavez “poverty was reduced by 47 percent and extreme poverty by 70 percent. Real social spending per person tripled, and there were greatly expanded public programs in health care and education; unemployment fell by half and there were large gains in employment.” Also, “according to a recent report by the UN Economic Commission on Latin America, Venezuela had the sharpest reduction in inequality in the Americas during this expansion.”

It’s doubtful any North American could make the claim that the US has made anywhere near the same sort of social progress under the Democrats, much less the Republicans. To the contrary, all indicators show that wealth inequality in the US has increased dramatically under both parties. For that reason, comparing the political processes in the two countries is like comparing apples to oranges. Nevertheless, one element remains consistent in both contexts. As US and Venezuela approach elections, the Spectacle of the corporate media works its dark magic on the minds of both populations, driving voters toward the cliff’s edge. That is, after all, one role of the media in a capitalist economy: to help provide “fresh meat” for those who own the world. The only sure defense against the illusions of this great corporate shadow play, and Hugo Chavez surely knows this, is public awareness of who pulls the strings.

Clifton Ross is the author of “Translations from Silence” (2009, www.freedomvoices.org) and “Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out” (2008, www.pmpress.org ). He teaches English and Critical Thinking at Berkeley City College and can be reached at clifross(at)gmail.com.