As I sit here reading Francisco Toro’s latest post in Caracas Chronicles, I can’t but be impressed by his quantitative argument on how it would be impossible in a country that is 80-90% poor, in which 60-65% oppose the President, for the non-poor to be a majority. As a trained scientist (I am still not quite sure whether I am a “former” scientist) I love quantitative arguments like that. People like to oversimplify when it comes to countries and Venezuela is largely abused on the subject. From the black against white argument in a country 80% mestizo, to the rich versus poor argument in a country which once had a large and thriving middle class, people think Venezuela is closer to Africa than it really is, as much as we Venezuelans think that we are further from Africa than we really are. In fact, even our illustrious President Hugo Chavez becomes a victim of his own myths, when after years of talking about the 80% poor that live in Venezuela, his own Institute for Statistics concludes the number is closer to 50%, while more rigorous studies indicate it is more like 65%.
This all comes to mind, because all weekend I have been trying to be a good journalist, even if I am not either “good” or a “journalist” by not spreading either good or bad news about the progress of the signature collection to ask for the recall of President Hugo Chavez Frias’ mandate. The reason is simple: How can I be quantitative in the absence of inside information that I did not have. But one can always be quantitative about it and I have tried a number of variations on the same theme:
Before the recall, my biggest question was not whether we would get the 2.4 million signatures or not, but whether we would get the 3.8 million required to actually recall Hugo Chavez when an actual recall vote ever takes place. Understand that the question was not whether sufficient Venezuelans would or not be willing to sign the petition against Hugo Chavez, but whether how many would be intimidated into not showing up. You see, there was an all out campaign by the Government, Hugo Chavez and his MVR cronies to use all forms of intimidation, including Chavez publicly threatening public workers, companies that handle Government contracts and civil servants on pension if they dared participate in this conspiracy against the country. (You see, in his mind HE is the country, not us). The rules made it easy for this pressure to work, in contrast with the guarantee by the Constitution that the vote is secret, the new regulations made the signatures public, allowing for the Government to apply a direct threat against as many as 1.5 million workers nationwide, as witnessed by the obscene billboard place outside the PDVSA refinery in Paragauna posted earlier by me.
But as the lines did not dwindle Friday afternoon and continued on Saturday, the quantitative argument was actually quite simple. As I stood in line that morning to sign with my brother Alfredo, another science Ph.D. turned generalist; we simply found that the math was too easy and that there was no way to go against the then reality that four million signatures appeared to be a piece of cake. The argument was simple, two signatures per minute (which was slow) for eight hours a day, times two days, times 2700 hundred polling centers made the goal easily within reach. In fact, any improvement to the calculation increased the number above four million, not below. And even if the line did not help by simply not being long enough, it was clear that there was a steady state in which someone was always feeding the line, insuring our two signatures per minute average. Since we were in a pro-Chavez area, we also understood that this average could not hold everywhere, but after all, where we voted the average was actually a factor of three or four higher that would easily compensate for any errors. In fact, as some polls stations were closed due to the lack of forms, in perhaps the most absurd restriction of all, the adequacy of the prediction became clear when polling stations shut down in towns like Caucagua, areas of Guayana and downtown Caracas, all of which would be characterized as “largely” poor and not having a poor majority. (Francisco’s old boss Juan Forero had to ruin a rare reasonable article by him about Venezuela in today’s NYT by saying that polling stations had also run out of forms last weekend during the Chavista drive, something that was never either apparent, clear or demonstrated but simply stated by the Chavista leadership after the polls had shutdown. This inaccuracy was somewhat compensated by the title “Venezuelans flock to sign petitions to ouster Chavez)
And as the first reports that we have reached the magical four million number are published, I can not help to feel a certain degree of satisfaction, at the number, at the people, at the organization, at the fact that I am surprised we got this far. I can’t help but worry at the Chavista strategy of attempting to discredit our number, talk about “megafraud” or about a “third coup” by the opposition. Only the fact that internationally the whole process is being defended as clean, gives me some sense of comfort.
I also remember other Venezuelans when, at a time when it was needed, came out and defended democracy with their hearts: Gonzalo Barrios when he conceded he had lost in 1968 by less than 32,900 votes in 1968, Rafael Caldera in is concession speech in 1983 saying: “the people are never wrong” or Eduardo Fernandez showing up at the TV station to defend the democratic rule of his political arch-enemy Carlos Andres Perez, the night of the Chavez-led coup in 1992. I never liked any of these three politicians, but there was something very noble about their acts, about the timing, about realizing what was important at a time when they were either facing one of their biggest political setbacks of their lives or the opportunity to advance their political careers. Instead they came out and defended the only thing that did not belong to them: democracy. Interestingly enough despite this, two of them, Barrios and Fernandez, never recovered politically.
I wished the Chavistas would simply be silent, if only out of respect for the millions of Venezuelans that signed the petition to recall Hugo Chavez this weekend. With this act, no matter what the future brings, this four million plus Venezuelans, despite the fears and the intimidations, literally ripped away from Chavez’ hands what he claimed was his most important achievement: his mandate for his “revolution”.