Democracy Lab

Venezuela's Magical Realist Voters

The key to next month's presidential election may well lie in the hands of a mysterious and nebulous bloc of swing voters.

Even within a region justly famous for its magical realism, Venezuela can seem particularly incomprehensible to outsiders. This is a nation of bellicose rhetoric that has not gone to war since its independence, where oil rents are lavished on foreign allies despite obscene domestic poverty, and where fervent baseball fans decked in blue jeans routinely decry the evils of American cultural imperialism. Yet even by Venezuelan standards, the events leading up to the October 7 presidential election have been strange.

First there was the news of President Hugo Chávez's cancer, followed by the reports of his supposedly impending death, which streaked like lightning across international headlines and then seemed to disappear just as quickly. While certainly less vigorous than in previous campaigns, "El Comandante" has remained very much alive, continuing to travel and offering his supporters broadcasts of his trademark multi-hour speeches. Though apparently quite sick with something, the details of his condition and prognosis remain closely guarded state secrets, shrouded in mystery.

And then there's this issue with the polls. Sitting across from me at a small café in downtown Caracas, Carlos Lagorio looks down at his seven-dollar can of Diet Pepsi (inflation and exchange rate controls have driven up import prices) and shrugs. "The truth is," he confesses, "nobody really knows what's going on with the polls. I've never seen this happen."

Few people understand the intricacies of Venezuelan opinion polls better than Lagorio, who for many years has dedicated himself to designing, interpreting, and collecting political data for municipal and state governments as well as for the two major Venezuelan pollsters, Datanálisis and Consultores 21. With the election less than two weeks away, both groups are reporting vastly different and seemingly irreconcilable political realities. Datanálisis gives a 10-point lead to the incumbent Hugo Chávez, while Consultores 21 assumes a dead heat with a slim 2-point margin favoring the challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski. Polls from other sources have produced similar results, rendering the data far more inconsistent than the polling results from other contested elections this year such as those in the United States or Mexico.

As Lagorio points out, the preferences of a large chunk of the Venezuelan electorate are vividly clear. Of the 79 percent of the Venezuelan population who intend to go to the polls on October 7, around 45 percent of them say they're voting for President Chávez. Another 35 percent of intended voters favor Capriles. With some 80 percent accounted for, the disconnect in the data turns primarily on the unaffiliated "ni-ni" (Spanish for "neither one nor the other") and the "indecisos" (i.e., the "undecided") -- two nebulous voting blocks upon whose pervasiveness, intentions, and likely behaviors no two pollsters seem able to agree.

Many voters dismiss the current Chávez regime as a corrupt and untrustworthy racket, while also mistrusting the opposition as an elitist holdover from the failed neoliberal policies of Venezuela's past. Others personally like the president but are unhappy with the current state of the country; still others mistrust those around the president who might be left in power should his health fails. Yet an increasing number of Venezuelans are simply fed up with politics and parties in general, and prefer to be left alone. Datanálisis estimates these apathetic voters at around 30 to 40 percent of the voter base, with the number of likely voters  who claim to be undecided or refuse to answer at around 15 percent (although this number appears to be shrinking as the election nears.) Since the repeal of mandatory voting laws, apathy has been rising, driven by the polarization, vitriol, and partisanship of the political scene.

Still, it does seem extraordinary that there could be so many undecided voters in a country where the president excites such intense emotions, both positive and negative, among the population. That's why Henrique Salas Römer, a former state governor who was Chávez's principal opponent during his first presidential race 14 years ago, refuses to take the polls at face value. "The idea that so many people would actually remain undecided thirty days before a presidential election is absurd," he told me. "Those ‘undecideds' are not Chavistas. They can't be."

Here's what he means. Since the risks of being openly pro-Chávez are low and the benefits of supporting the famously clientilistic regime can be quite high, it stands to reason that people who will eventually vote for Chávez would admit it right off the bat. In contrast, those supporting the opposition may not be quite so comfortable speaking openly against the regime -- even if only to share their supposedly anonymous voting preferences with pollsters. "Polling outfits contact people in their homes, and that can make people feel threatened," explains Salas Römer. "People are understandably on guard." After a 2004 recall referendum aimed at removing Chávez from power, Luis Tascón, a parliamentarian loyal to Chávez, made the supposedly secret list of 2.4 million signatories public. Many of those who had voted for the president's recall were subsequently blacklisted from government jobs, and some were even denied public services.

Should Salas Römer's assertion prove correct, and if it turns out that fear is actually motivating Capriles voters to hide their preferences, then the challenger is likely to gain a majority. Of course this scenario also assumes that these covert opposition supporters are still willing to cast their votes against the government even though they're afraid to speak publicly against it. Though the constitution assures that a voter's identity will be kept secret, the latest voting machines require fingerprint identification (ostensibly to protect against those attempting to vote multiple times.) This may frighten off some potential opposition voters -- a possibility likely not lost on the government that opted to switch to these new machines in the first place.

And what if the undecided voters aren't being secretive about their preferences? There's always the possibility that the ni-nis and indecisos may be feigning indecisiveness due to social pressure, or in the hope that either side might offer them some incentive in exchange for their vote. The major Venezuelan political parties of the late twentieth century were certainly not above doing so, and the current government often rewards its supporters with free social events, clothing, goods, and even free houses.

The idea that some sizeable portion of those not reporting a preference for a particular candidate actually represents a type of "crypto-opposition" is quite common on the ground in Caracas. Yet both sides in the election remain vocally optimistic about their chances.

To be sure, even now Chávez remains formidable. He leads in more polls than not and by larger margins, and he can rely on many inherent advantages, such as endless oil funds and the ability to commandeer national radio and television at will. He likewise counts on the complete support of all national institutions (including the nominally independent electoral authorities) and a fiercely loyal and organized core of popular support both among the urban poor and hard-to-reach rural populations.

On the other hand, the opposition does seem to be enjoying greater unity, energy, and optimism than at any other point in the last ten years. The primary vote that put Capriles in charge of the nation's united opposition parties involved the participation of nearly three million voters, a national record for a primary. Unable to draw upon Chávez's powerful resources, Capriles has instead crisscrossed the country, entering rural and slum districts far from the traditional urban middle class base of the Venezuelan opposition.

In contrast, Chávez, who has been unable to keep up with the breakneck electioneering pace of his hyperkinetic challenger, may come across to voters as seeming older and weaker. Meanwhile, recent scandals such as the recent explosion of the Amuay oil refinery that killed at least 50 people, a bridge collapse in a high traffic area of Caracas, and confusion over a reported massacre among the Yanomami tribesman at the Brazilian border, have made the government seem less in control.

Nor is the overall state of the country likely to favor an incumbent. Wages have remained stagnant while inflation is above 20 percent and is by far the highest in the region. Scarcities of basic consumer goods have become a way of life, and utilities and public goods have become increasingly unreliable. Furthermore, over the last decade Venezuela has become an exceedingly dangerous place. Kidnappings and assaults are common and the country also leads in regional homicides and ranks the fourth-highest in the world.

Ultimately, of course, it's the outcome of the vote that matters most. Yet the importance of polls should not to be discounted either, as they may eventually offer a crucial yardstick for assessing the validity of the declared result given the real possibility of electoral fraud. If Chávez declares victory under suspicious circumstances, and the opposition cries foul, polling data will likely play an important role in making a convincing case that fraud has occurred. Even if the opposition loses, the strength of their support will have to be recorded and acknowledged.

After fourteen years of Hugo Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution, it belies belief that anyone could truly be neutral. Yet in Venezuela, where magical realism has always been more an exercise in observation than in creativity, it is probably best to expect anything and everything. In two weeks' time we will know for sure.... Or will we?

Photo by AFP/Stringer/Getty Images

National Security

Tribal Warfare

Why did the Pentagon award a $7 million Afghanistan security contract to this group of Native Americans in Oklahoma?

The Muscogee Nation, part of the Creek Indian tribe, which fought with Confederate troops against the U.S. military during the Civil War, is now guarding Americans stationed at U.S. bases in Herat and Helmand, Afghanistan, under a $7 million Pentagon contract. The Muscogee Nation Business Enterprise (MBNE) is a 100-person firm that has in the past used its status as a tribal-owned company to win government business, some of which it then subcontracted to a larger security company, but it says that its employees are fulfilling this contract, providing security in a war zone.

Neither MBNE nor the Pentagon would provide specifics about the deal, citing security concerns. But, according to the contract announcement, made August 9, MBNE is "to provide life support services to the Department of Defense Task Force for Business and Stability Operations in Afghanistan. These services will include basic necessities, complex security, and personnel security details for safe travel in the immediate region around the Herat and Helmand facilities."

The task force is a U.S. military organization charged with building up Afghan industries, particularly mining, agribusiness, and IT in order to "help Afghanistan achieve economic sovereignty," according to a Pentagon website.

Given its small size, at first glance the notion that MBNE is protecting U.S. efforts in Afghanistan -- a business dominated by large private security firms -- seems implausible. Experts contacted about the contract initially speculated that MBNE might be a so-called pass-through firm.

Pass-through companies are often tiny but politically well-connected Native American-owned businesses that bid for government deals reserved for small, tribal-owned businesses. These firms, usually consisting of a handful of people, then subcontract much or most of the actual work out to a large organization. A small tribal-owned company gets some government business, and the big contractors get a slice of the action.

And, indeed, MNBE used to subcontract at least some of its government-security business in Afghanistan to the Maryland-based Ronco, a private security firm "wholly owned" by G4S, previously known as Wackenhut. G4S, which claims to be largest private security firm in the world, ran security at the London Olympics and guards a range of U.S. government facilities -- from national park sites to sensitive nuclear research facilities, such as the Nevada Test Site.

What's more, MNBE, which is based in Okmulgee, Okla., explicitly describes itself as a small, tribal-owned business that specializes in helping larger companies win federal contracts by partnering with them to take advantage of federal laws designed to funnel government contracts to Native American-owned companies.

"MNBE has developed business skills necessary to compete and perform in the market place and have [sic] developed a network of potential teaming partners for various customer requirements," reads its website. "Not only are you getting a company with a proven track record but regulations allowing the customer flexibility and efficiency in meeting their particular requirements. Tribal owned 8(a) firms, such as, MNBE are eligible to receive sole source direct award 8(a) contracts regardless of dollar size, while all other 8(a) firms may not receive sole source contracts in excess of $3 million for services and $5 million for manufacturing."

8(a) is a U.S. government program that gives preferential treatment, financial assistance, and mentorship to businesses owned by "socially and economically disadvantaged individuals."

In the last decade, the Department of Homeland Security and a number of Alaskan native-owned companies got in hot water in part because the Alaska companies outsourced more than 50 percent of the actual work to a large firm, a violation of federal contracting rules.

However, according to MNBE's CEO, Woody Anderson, the small firm owned by the Muscogee Nation Indian tribe is indeed protecting U.S. military projects in Afghanistan. "The people that we have in this contract here are our employees; they're not Ronco employees," Anderson told FP during a Sept. 21 telephone interview.

While the actual bodyguards working for MNBE aren't members of the Muscogee tribe, some of the technicians who install cameras and other security gear in Afghanistan are, according to Anderson, who says that, of MBNE's hundred-plus employees, about a dozen are tribe members.

For the last two years, MBNE partnered with Ronco to provide security to the Pentagon's Task Force for Business and Sustainability Operations in Afghanistan, learning what it takes to run a private security outfit in a war zone and recruiting former military commandos to staff its security teams.

"The 8(a) program was an opportunity to get our foot in the door," said Anderson; now, MBNE is striking out on its own.

"I've got a guy named Mike Brown who is our Afghan operations guy, and Mike's retired Army, and we have gotten most of these folks through his contacts and other folks over there, because a lot of these guys are former military folks," said Anderson. "We've also recently hired some folks from Ronco" as that company has drawn down its operations in Afghanistan.

Building on the Afghanistan contract, MNBE has sent representatives to security industry expos in Dubai and is preparing to attend a similar expo in Ethiopia, hoping to gin up similar contracts to the one in Afghanistan. "Where some of the same things that we've been doing [in Afghanistan], they're going to be looking at some of those same opportunities in" the Middle East and Africa, said Anderson.

When asked about the information on its website describing the company's specialty as partnering with other companies to bid on contracts reserved for tribal owned businesses, Anderson, citing security, says that information is deliberately out of date. In fact, he said, MNBE is no longer participating in the 8(a) small business program.

"I really do some of that for security reasons. We've been very fortunate, we've not had any adverse things happen over there since we've been doing that.... I don't like to advertise that because I don't want people [looking at the website] to know where our people are, because they're traveling back and forth all the time."

STR/AFP/Getty Images