Something very strange happened in Venezuela

Readers of this blog know I’ve had a very hard time trying to piece together what happened during and after the August 15th referendum. Like everyone in the opposition, I’ve gone through a lot of confusing, contradictory information on whether or not claims of fraud make any sense.

It’s a disorienting exercise. Both sides have seemingly incontrovertible arguments, and each has to resort to fantastic allegations to refute the other. CNE has the backing of international observers not only for its official results, but also for a very-tricky to get-around consequent audit. CANTV has ratified that its machine operators and data transmission system worked as advertised. No concrete evidence of fraud has been brought forward. The opposition can only disown the results by explaining away a this evidence on the basis of a massive, perfect conspiracy, a conspiracy with no visible leaks.

But the opposition also has evidence in hand that cannot be contradicted without supposing an set of equal but opposite conspiracies. Everyone knows there’s no way that a professionally run exit poll using established methodology and repeated by several different organization comes out with a result 40 points off from the official result. This happened in Venezuela systematically. There are state level pollsters in Venezuela that have been carrying out exit polls using the same methodology in election after election and never gotten an exit poll result more than 1% off from the announced result. This time, using the same methodology and polling intensively – as always – in poor areas, they come up with results miles away from those announced.

No “nice” hypothesis can explain the gap: it’s not a matter of bias in the areas polled, because exit poll results from given voting centers vary widely from the results reported from that center. Nor can the gap be assigned to the choice of political activists as polling staff: polls run by Sumate volunteers came up with similar results as polls carried out by firms that hire college students as interviewers.

The only possible explanation for the disparity is that there’s a wide-ranging conspiracy, a kind of fraud-crying cartel of any number of different organizations to diffuse false exit poll results. This sort of story is easy for chavistas to believe, after hearing years of oversimplifications and lies about the opposition. But if it is a conspiracy, it’s a perfect conspiracy – one where no one leaks, no one squeals, no one made a single mistake.

Whether or not you believe there was fraud, you’re required to believe a series of wildly improbable evils against your political opponents for the events of the last two weeks to make sense. Rather than providing a solution to deepening polarization, the dispute over the referendum became yet another phase in this process of increasing polarization of the country into competing camps that believe the very worst about one another.

Because, in the end, Venezuelans will believe the conspiracy theory that favors their side of the political divide and that’s the end of it. And this is what’s so worrying about this odd-ball situation the country’s living. Each half of the country is forced to believe a conspiracy theory that paints the other half in the worst possible light. Each takes refuge in its own truth, and building an understanding, let alone trust, across the divide becomes impossible.

Which is too bad, because Venezuela was badly in need of a peaceful, democratic, electoral and constitutional solution to the governability crisis, and it didn’t get it.

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