In a Voice of America news program on Sunday, August 29th, four U.S.-based analysts debated the Venezuelan opposition’s accusations that the government of President Hugo Chavez had committed fraud in the country’s August 15 referendum. Despite the fact that three of the four analysts were openly anti-Chavez, only one–Thor Halvorssen of the libertarian-leaning Commonwealth Foundation–argued that there were indications of “something very, very awry” in the country’s referendum.
In contrast, Michael Shifter of the anti-Chavez Inter-American Dialogue pointed out that “credible groups like the Carter Center and the Organization of American States” did not find fraud in the referendum. Chris Sabatini, the director of Latin America programs at the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, said, “I think, by and large, the results track with the polls that were done before the elections.” Rachel Van Dongen, who reports for The Christian Science Monitor and The New Republic, reaffirmed Sabatini’s point, stating, “the polls leading up to the referendum itself did show Chavez with a lead that he’d been widening over the months leading up to the referendum…”
Halvorssen then interrupted Von Dongen, asking, “Which polls?”
“There were several polls,” Van Dongen replied.
Halvorssen retorted: “The government polls, correct. The polls paid for by the government.”
Sabatini interjected, “No, no.”
Van Dongen replied, “I think there were others as well, if I recall correctly…”
Indeed, Van Dongen did recall correctly. Most pre-referendum polls were commissioned by the opposition, not the government. In June, the Venezuelan polling firm Datos carried out a poll for the opposition which showed Chavez leading 51 to 39. Also that month, the U.S.-based Democratic Party polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (GQR) –working on behalf of the opposition– released a poll showing Chavez ahead 49 to 44. In early August, the anti-Chavez pollster Alfredo Keller released a poll showing Chavez ahead 45 to 34. Even the oft-cited anti-Chavez polling firm Datanalisis –which has used deceiving methods to inflate the opposition’s polling numbers– appears to have found Chavez leading in July (Datanalisis didn’t release the precise figures of its July poll, presumably because it did not want to further demoralize the opposition).
In fact, I don’t know of one Venezuelan pollster whose last poll before the referendum didn’t show Chavez in the lead.
Thus, when I recently read Halvorssen’s erroneous assertion in his August 19 column in the Wall Street Journal that “dozens of independent polls predicted defeat for Col. Chávez,” I was astonished. Does the concept of “fact-checking” mean anything to the Journal’s editors? Halvorssen’s assertion wasn’t even consistent with the Journal’s own reports; on August 11, the Journal ran a pie chart of Keller’s poll, showing Chavez with a commanding lead just before the referendum.
Sadly, many Venezuelan opponents of Chavez, such as Halvorssen, have been stirred into a blind frenzy by private Venezuelan media that are dead set on destabilizing the country politically and economically. As the referendum approached, most private media refused to publish the polls showing Chavez in the lead, even when these polls were commissioned by the opposition itself. Such omissions on the part of Venezuela’s private media fuel the opposition’s unfounded accusations of fraud. By keeping the opposition in the dark about the fact that Chavez had been leading since at least June, private media have been able to deceive many members of the opposition into believing that the government’s victory is fraudulent. But the government had no interest in jeopardizing the integrity of the electoral process; it was clearly poised to win a clean referendum. Logically, the claim of “fraud” would only carry weight among people who were unaware of the many indications that Chavez would likely win.
It’s time for Venezuela’s private media to come clean with the opposition. For the private media to keep the opposition in the dark is neither good for the development of a responsible and informed opposition nor for the political, social and economic development of the country.
Justin Delacour is a freelance writer and a doctoral student of political science at the University of New Mexico. He participated in a delegation to Venezuela to witness the August 15 referendum and the debates and media coverage surrounding that electoral process. He receives email at [email protected]