Truth and Denial in Venezuela

The Amazon may be South America's longest river, but denial, to borrow the old gag, is today the longest river in Venezuela. On Monday opposition leaders were reported to be "shocked" and "stunned" upon learning from former President Jimmy Carter and the Organization of American States that the referendum to recall President Hugo Chavez had been defeated in a landslide, 58 to 42 percent.

While a mass popular rejection of President Chavez and his policies may have appeared likely when viewed from the comfortable confines of Caracas' fashionable Los Mercedes neighborhood, any clear-eyed examination of the Venezuelan electorate and Chavez's past electoral successes would have suggested that such an outcome was unlikely.

What has been clear since at least the end of May, when the referendum qualified for the ballot, is that the underlying dynamics in last Sunday's vote would not look fundamentally different than those at play in President Hugo Chavez's earlier electoral victories. In a nation in which the overwhelming majority of the population is poor, most of the poor believe that Chavez had their interests at heart.

Our polling consistently showed that significant majorities of Venezuelans believed that President Chavez "cares about people like me" and "cares about the poor" while few Venezuelans believed that these phrases accurately described the opposition. Poor and working class Venezuelans, who make up almost eighty percent of the electorate, were rejecting the referendum by a margin of almost twenty points from the moment it qualified for the ballot.

It came as no surprise to us, nor to just about anyone else who took a hard look at the polling, the results of past elections, and the basic demographics of the Venezuelan nation, that Chavez defeated the recall by almost exactly the same landslide vote that had elected him twice before.

That an out of power, out of touch, and anti-democratic elite might find the result shocking is perhaps not groundbreaking news. What is a good deal more disturbing is that U.S. and international media outlets consistently swallowed the opposition's unlikely claims of certain victory hook, line, and sinker.

News stories in the months leading up to the referendum consistently referred to Chavez as "closing the gap" even when most credible polls showed him winning. As the election drew closer and polls showed Chavez's advantage widening dramatically, news stories insisted that the polls predicted a "close election." Not until former President Carter confirmed the results of the election did the media acknowledge the overwhelming mandate won by President Chavez.

By the end the opposition, led by government-financed activist group "Smate", twice resorted to circulating bogus polls in an attempt to prop up the fiction that Venezuelans were prepared to reject Chavez's presidency. The last of these, a bizarre "exit poll" conducted at polling places by anti-Chavez activists and, unconscionably, endorsed by and attributed to the New York-based pollster Mark Penn, was nothing more than a transparent attempt to discredit the results of the election.

Thankfully, the news media has finally recognized the depth of Chavez's popularity and is starting to treat the Venezuelan opposition with the skepticism that it deserves.

Now it is time for North Americans to look beyond the hysteria surrounding Chavez's friendship with Fidel Castro and his antagonistic stance towards President Bush and understand that the political turmoil of the last five years in Venezuela has really been a fundamental struggle to determine who will control the nation's oil wealth and who will benefit from it.

The overwhelming rejection of the referendum to recall President Chavez gives eloquent testimony to the emptiness of the opposition's rhetoric. Calls for reconciliation and negotiation too will ring hollow unless all involved accept that Venezuela will not go back to the way it was before Chavez. Venezuela's poor majority, for the first time, has a real voice in Venezuelan politics and will continue to demand that the nation's substantial resource wealth be used to better their lives. No popular movement in Venezuela, nor any attempt at reconciliation, will succeed that fails to acknowledge this reality.

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