Why and how pollsters fake Chavez's "plummeting" popularity

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Thu Jan 23 09:12:07 MST 2003

There is a quote from Fidel Castro that says a great deal about Hugo Chavez.
It is actually one of the few, perhaps the only, critical remark about the
Venezuelan president that I have seen from the Cuban leader. The criticism
is exactly the opposite of the charges of "demagogy" and "strongman" rule
that his critics -- from the extreme right to the ultraleft -- make of him.
Castro remarked,
"If I have something to regret, it's his excessive generosity and
kindness.In what country could there be a coup and then have all the
perpetrators meet in a plaza to spend 50 days agitating through television
networks, proposing another coup? Not in any country in the world. I believe
that there is not a more democratic, more law abiding, more tolerant, more
generous man than Hugo Chavez."
Fred Feldman

Can You Believe Venezuela's Pollsters?
"Chávez has to be Killed," Says One, the Other Speaks of "A Fight to the
By Justin Delacour (from Narco News)
News Bulletin
January 22, 2003

Over the last year, several correspondents in Venezuela have repeatedly
attempted to portray Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as an unpopular
leader. The most common basis for these statements has been the recitation
of "polls" claiming that Chávez's approval rating is down to around 30

The commercial media correspondents rarely cite the source of their polls.
So this reporter contacted them, and most of the reporters offered only the
names of two Venezuelan companies - Datanalisis and Keller and Associates.

An investigation into the operations of these two Venezuelan polling firms
and their relationships with correspondents reveals that, by any fair
measure, it is irresponsible for correspondents to cite the two firms' polls
without also mentioning that the two firms are headed by virulently
anti-Chavez figures who frequently use polling samples that are
unrepresentative of the overall Venezuelan population.

The first factor that calls the polls into question is the well-known
political partisanship of the polling firms' directors, Jose Antonio Gil
Yepes of Datanalisis and Alfredo Keller of Keller and Associates.

In a recent e-mail interchange, The Los Angeles Times' correspondent T.
Christian Miller acknowledged that the two pollsters are "pretty
anti-Chavez," but he defends their credibility on grounds that "both do door
to door polling, to get the poorest of poor represented in their surveys,
and also balance for things like gender and region." Miller's defense of
Keller and Gil Yepes is very questionable in view of contrary evidence.
However, before presenting this contrary evidence, we would like to point
out the problems with the two pollsters' political partisanship.

Datanalisis' Pollster:
Chavez "has to be killed"

Gil Yepes and Keller are not merely "anti-Chavez"; they are openly and
virulently anti-Chavez. In a July 8 article in the Los Angeles Times, Miller
describes Gil Yepes as a man of "Venezuela's elite" who "moves in circles of
money, power and influence" and "was educated in top U.S. schools."

It's certainly shocking that the LA Times quoted Gil Yepes saying that
Chavez "has to be killed."

But it is even more shocking that the LA Times and other commercial media
continued to use Gil Yepes' polling "results" after his homicidal fantasies
leaped out of the closet through the pages of last July's LA Times.

According to T. Christian Miller of the LA Times, Gil Yepes saw an
assassination as the only way out of the "political crisis surrounding
President Hugo Chavez." Gil Yepes has since claimed that his quote was taken
out of context, and that he was only making reference to an oft-expressed
sentiment among Chavez's opposition.

But let's look at the full context as reported by the LA Times:

Jose Antonio Gil is among Venezuela's elite.

He moves in circles of money, power and influence. He was educated in top
U.S. schools. He heads of one of the country's most prestigious polling

And he can see only one way out of the political crisis surrounding
President Hugo Chavez.

"He has to be killed," he said, using his finger to stab the table in his
office far above this capital's filthy streets. "He has to be killed."
One need look no further than Datanalisis' website to find the kind of
blatant political partisanship that one normally does not associate with
respectable polling operations. For example, in Datanalisis' summary of a
July 2002 report, the polling firm absurdly characterizes the current
political conflict as one between the government ("el oficialismo") and "the
rest of the country."

Despite the preposterousness of this portrayal, it is nevertheless an
appropriate demonstration of the deep-seated class hatred by a large segment
of Venezuela's business-led opposition, which prefers to pretend that
thousands of poor and working-class Chavez supporters do not exist.

When a massive pro-government demonstration in Caracas on October 13 showed
that a good portion of "the rest of the country" supported Chavez, the
editorial board of Venezuela's elite-controlled newspaper El Nacional was
incensed. El Nacional, which commissions and publishes polls by Datanalisis,
disparagingly referred to Chavez's supporters as "lumpen" who were lured
from the country's interior with "a piece of bread and some rum" to "come
and cheer the great con man of the nation."

As the Venezuelan anthropologist Johnny Alarcón Puentes points out, the
terms "lumpen, rabble hordes, drunks, riff-raff and mobs are only some of
the epithets foisted by the wealthy on citizens of dark skin, on street
merchants, on workers, on the indigenous and on all those who live in slums
or modest neighborhoods and dare raise their voice against the powerful."

Thus, from the warped perspective of much of the opposition, Datanalisis'
contention that "the rest of the country" opposes Chavez makes sense. Since
elites are the people that "matter," and those of less privilege can be
reduced to virtual sub-human status, poor and working-class Chavez
supporters do not qualify as part of "the rest of the country."

Alfredo Keller's "Fight to the Death"
As with Gil Yepes, there is good reason to believe that the pollster Alfredo
Keller has come to advocate a violent solution to Venezuela's current
political conflict. In Keller's recent letter published by
PetroleumWorld.com, he describes the current political standoff as "a fight
to the death for power between two counter-posed ideological forces: an
authoritarian socialism with a spirit of revenge against a democracy that is
open to the market."

The charge of authoritarianism against Chavez is weak, and is especially
hypocritical coming from the likes of Keller.

Here is a country, wracked by unrest, provocation, sabotage and calls for
political assassination, a country that suffered a 48-hour military coup
last April, where the television media and commercial dailies routinely
exhort the public to violence, but the Chávez administration has not
arrested or imprisoned a single journalist or opposition leader.

In fact, Chavez often comes under friendly criticism from the left for being
too soft on his opposition. Cuban President Fidel Castro recently remarked,
"If I have something to regret, it's his excessive generosity and kindness."
Castro continued:

"In what country could there be a coup and then have all the perpetrators
meet in a plaza to spend 50 days agitating through television networks,
proposing another coup? Not in any country in the world. I believe that
there is not a more democratic, more law abiding, more tolerant, more
generous man than Hugo Chavez."

The authoritarian label is more applicable to Keller than to Chavez. After
anti-Chavez Generals led a short-lived coup d'etat against the Venezuelan
President and turned over power to businessman Pedro Carmona and his
entourage of right-wing ministers, Keller called the coup
The real concern for Keller and his avaricious cohorts in the opposition is
the "structure of power" that Chavez and his supporters have erected. Steve
Ellner, a historian who lives in Venezuela and specializes in the country's
labor movement, has pointed out that Chavez's reforms, which include
agrarian reform and severance benefits for workers, "have strongly favored
labor at the expense of business." Some of these reforms are enshrined in
the country's new constitution, which was democratically ratified by the
electorate in 2000. The majority of political representatives in the
country's new unicameral congress support the reforms.

In his recent letter, Keller expresses fear of the possibility that Chavez
could still be in power by August, the month when the constitution allows
for a binding referendum on the fate of the government. Although Keller
claims that Chavez would lose such a referendum, he says that a political
transition of that sort would still represent "a tremendous defeat for the
opposition" because the "structure of power. would remain intact."

Like coup leader Carmona, zealous figures within the opposition such as
Keller seek to erase the entire Chavez legacy. But since that legacy has
unleashed popular social forces that will rightly resist a return to
oligarchic rule, the insistence of Keller and other opposition figures' on
such an uncompromising position suggests their willingness to promote

Partisan Pollsters

The known political partisanship of Venezuela's pollsters causes all sorts
of problems with regard to their polling. Firstly, it calls into question
whether or not they are posing survey questions in a non-biased fashion. But
as any political consultant will admit, a pollster, by phrasing the
questions and deciding the "survey sample" of how the poll is "weighted" to
specific demographic groups, can get any result he wants.

But even if we were to assume that Keller and Gil Yepes are not loading
their questions, the poll respondents' simple awareness of the pollsters'
political partisanship is likely to skew the polls in favor of the

We asked Matthew Mendelsohn, a Canadian political scientist and specialist
on polling methodology, whether or not the pollsters' well-known political
partisanship -- independent of all other factors -- could bias polling
results. Although Mendelsohn told us that he lacked knowledge about polling
in Latin America, he responded as follows:

"Any perception on the part of the respondent that the questioner is
partisan can influence results. You see this with interviewer effects all
the time -- male and female, black and white, etc. interviewers get
different results. And certainly if the respondent knows that you're a
representative from a particular party or group, this biases results."

Biased Polling Samples
The factors that are likely to bias the polling of Gil Yepes and Keller are
not limited to political partisanship alone.

An academic source -- a person that has worked closely with Venezuela's
pollsters - said that most of Keller's polling has been done in the middle
class areas of the ten largest cities, meaning that the populous slums where
Chavez's support is concentrated have been largely excluded from Keller's
polling sample.

Our source informs us that Datanalisis' polling samples are less skewed than
Keller's due to the firm's superior operational team of field workers and
access to Venezuela's 1998 census tracts. However, the poll that Gil Yepes
is currently releasing about the population's views of the so-called
"general strike" and Chavez's handling of the crisis appears to be highly

Here's another fact unreported by English-language correspondents who cite
polls by Gil Yepes and Keller as gospel: Since the "strike" began on
December 2, Chavistas are not allowing Datanalisis' field workers into the
Chavista-controlled slums of Caracas and Maracaibo. While Gil Yepes recently
released lopsided polls that purport popular support for the "strike," he
fails to mention that his polling sample excludes the populous slums where
the "strike" has proved to be a complete failure. The progressive economist
Mark Weisbrot, who recently spent time in Caracas, wrote a column for the
Washington Post explaining that there were "few signs of the strike" in
"most of the city, where poor and working-class people live."

The academic source said that Keller and Gil Yepes generally do not poll
rural inhabitants. The opposition newspapers that commission the polls are
not willing to pay the increased costs that rural polling entails. Thus,
landless peasants who may benefit from Chavez's agrarian reform are also
excluded from polling samples.

Tainted Pollsters, Tainted Press
In view of the above-mentioned facts, it is mind-boggling to see just how
laudatory the English-language press corps is of Gil Yepes and Keller.

AP's Alexandra Olson calls Datanalisis' "Venezuela's most prestigious
polling firm" in a recent report.

The Miami Herald's Juan Tamayo claims, in an e-mail reply to this reporter,
that Datanalisis and Keller and Associates are "the two most credible
polling companies in Venezuela."

Jehan Senaratna of Dow Jones News Wires calls Keller "the head of a
respected Caracas-based polling and economic research firm." Despite his
polite remark about Keller, Senaratna tells us that Datanalisis is the "only
polling firm that can be considered reliable and unbiased politically."

Finally, Phil Gunson, a freelance correspondent in Venezuela who has written
for several papers, says the "polling organizations that most of us consider
to be the most reliable" are Keller and Associates and Datanalisis.

In essence, the correspondents have become so carried away with anti-Chavez
hysteria that they are blinded to the fact that the pollsters whom they rely
upon are neither credible, reliable, or politically unbiased. How would
Keller and Gil Yepes be received in other lands, even in the United States,
promoting themselves as respected pollsters while making statements that
verge on inciting violence against a democratically elected government?

So the next time a member of the commercial press corps tells you that
umpteen percent of the Venezuelan people feel a certain way according to
"polls," ask yourself: Did they identify the source of the "poll"? And if
the "poll" was about Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, was the pollster
someone in "a fight to the death" or who says "Chávez must be killed"?

In a media-fed democracy, polls and simulated polls can be lethal weapons,

Justin Delacour is a freelance writer and recent graduate of the Masters
program in Latin American Studies at the University of New Mexico. He has
written for Latin America Data Base (http://ladb.unm.edu/), a University of
New Mexico-based news service. He receives email at jdelac at unm.edu

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