Unified Field Theory of Non-Fraud

or…Who exactly is Jorge Rodríguez? I. Suspending disbelief I want to address, first, my many readers who are sure there was fraud in the recall referendum last month....

or…Who exactly is Jorge Rodríguez?

I. Suspending disbelief

I want to address, first, my many readers who are sure there was fraud in the recall referendum last month. And I want to ask you to do something hard: I want you to consider, just for a moment, the possibility that there was no fraud. How could that be? What story can we tell ourselves, what narrative do we need to weave, to make sense of the no-fraud hypothesis?

I think it’s possible to construct such a story, and even to find some quite strong evidence to back it, but only if we first unlearn much of what we thought we knew about the National Electoral Council – CNE – and especially, about its key member: Jorge Rodríguez.

II. Rethinking the CNE Board Appointments

First, we need to go back to September 2003 and the appointment of the current CNE board members. As Venezuelans will remember, the current members were named under a constitutionally exceptional situation. In normal circumstances, the National Assembly is supposed to select the five members of the board via a two-thirds vote. But since the Assembly is split 85-80, neither side could muster the 110 votes needed. Not surprisingly, compromise proved impossible and the selection process deadlocked.

The impasse was cleared by the Constitutional Chamber Supreme Tribunal – TSJ – on the basis of Article 336, paragraph 7 of the 1999 constitution, which empowers the Constitutional Chamber to declare unconstitutional an omission on the part of the National Assembly, and to “determine the guidelines for its correction.” In this case, the Constitutional Chamber of the TSJ ruled that by omitting the decision on a new CNE board the Assembly had violated a constitutional mandate.

Instead of determining the guidelines to correct this omission, however, the Constitutional Chamber just went ahead and appointed a new CNE board unilaterally. And here is where the problems started.

The call at the time, both from the opposition and the dictates of common sense, had been to try to appoint a balanced CNE – in practice, one with two pro-government members, two pro-opposition members and a neutral or apolitical chairman. If the National Assembly had deadlocked it was precisely because the government insisted on retaining a 3-2 majority.

In the event, throwing the matter to the TSJ’s Consitutional Chamber did not seem like much of an advance to the opposition. The five-member Constitutional Chamber itself has a built-in 3-2 chavista majority, and a long and sorry history of highly questionable or “juridically creative” rulings in favor of the government. Chief Magistrate Iván Rincón together with Magistrates Jesús Eduardo Cabrera and José Delgado Ocando have always been reliable chavistas – and for me, the biggest problem with believing the Unified Field Theory of Non-Fraud is that it requires you to believe that these people selected a CNE board that would not cheat.

Why is this so hard to swallow?

III. A short digression

Sectarianism has long been a distinguishing characteristic of the chavista experiment. Some weeks ago, TalCual ran a chilling piece on the purge of Venezuela’s foremost (in fact, only) expert on the preservation of rare historic books. He was fired from his long-held job as head of the National Library’s rare books division for, surprise surprise, signing in favor of the presidential recall referendum. A similar fate befell the Biblioteca Nacional’s longtime head of historic cartography. Both were replaced by reliable chavistas with no specialist training for the highly specialized jobs they were asked to perform.

Now, that’s only one story out of a very long list to show that Chavistas systematically demand diehard loyalty from every one of their appointees, even when quite minor positions are at stake. But if they will not trust a non-loyalist even to look after the nation’s collection of historic books, or maps, what sense could it possibly make that they would appoint a genuine non-loyalist to a post as sensitive as the key position within the one agency that could eject Chavez from power? Personally, I cannot make sense of that – and it remains the single biggest obstacle to my belief in the theory I’m about to put forward.

IV. Not as advertised

The CNE board appointed by Rincon, Cabrera and Delgado Ocando was a peculiar one. The way it was presented to the public was straightforward: the government would get two members (Jorge Rodríguez and Oscar Battaglini) the opposition would get two members (Ezequiel Zamora and Solbella Mejias), while the head of the council, Francisco Carrasquero, would remain neutral. Very quickly, though, it became apparent that Carrasquero was in no sense neutral – his statements and votes systematically sided with the government. The natural reaction in the opposition was to assume we’d been screwed, and had ended up with a 3-2 pro-Chavez council. Certainly, most key votes were decided along those lines, with Carrasquero, Rodríguez and Battaglini voting as a block, and always in favor of the government.

However, CNE watchers also started to notice another reality – while Carrasquero was the nominal head of the council, it was clear that day-to-day decision-making was not in his hands. Instead, it was Jorge Rodríguez who was calling the shots from his perch as head of the Junta National Electoral – the National Electoral Board – which could be described as the executive arm in charge of the day-to-day management of CNE.

The question of Jorge Rodríguez’s integrity soon became the burning issue in opposition circles, though it was not much disputed, to be sure. Almost everyone in the opposition just assumed he was a doctrinaire chavista paying lip-service to his independent status just to cover appearances. However, well placed sources close to the CNE (who would assassinate me if I named them) never bought this. Instead, they put forward an alternative interpretation of the CNE appointments that radically recast what the TSJ’s Constitutional Chamber had been up to.

V. The Padgett Hypothesis

The most complete retelling of this view in print came in this Time Magazine article by Tim Padgett. Tim is a tough reporter, skeptical and careful, and with enough distance from the Venezuelan situation to look at it with more objectivity than most of us can muster. His views, and those of the unnamed diplomats he cites, are so far removed to opposition Conventional Wisdom, that our immediate impulse is to assume he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I want to encourage my antichavista readers, though, to make the effort to suspend their disbelief – at least provisionally – to understand the implications of this interpretation. After all, we don’t own the truth – no one does.

According to the Padgett Hypothesis, CNE really was a 2-1-2 council. The reason most of us failed to see this is that the independent in the middle was not Carrasquero, as advertised, but instead Rodríguez. In this interpretation, Rodríguez was perhaps closer to the old IVth Republic model of an “independiente pro” – that is, someone with broad ideological sympathy for one side, but not actively controlled by it. Moreover, given that day-to-day managerial control of CNE was in the hands of the JNE, it made far more sense to have the one independent member as head of JNE rather than as chairman of CNE.

This, again, puts a different spin on the preponderance of 3-2 decisions in the council. From this new point of view, Rodríguez had enough ascendancy over Battaglini and Carrasquero to bring them on board on most decisions. But if Battaglini and Carrasquero were merely going along with decisions cooked up by a non-chavista JNE, then one starts to understand why the characterization of CNE as a fully-owned subsidiary of Miraflores might not hold water.

VI. Rethinking the Reparos

I’m sure my antichavista readers are banging their heads against their desks at this point, but there’s at least some evidence to lead us to believe that this interpretation could be the right one. Consider the decision to send about 1 million signatures to “reparos” all the way back in February.

At the time, the opposition saw this as a clear case of a pro-Chavez CNE conniving to stop the referendum. However, Padgett’s piece makes it clear that the “reparos” were not the chavistas’ preferred alternative. Instead, Battaglini and Carrasquero wanted to invalidate outright the 1,000,000 signatures they’d pegged as “planas” – which would have stopped the referendum process cold.

The reparos, which caused such unmitigated outrage in the opposition, seem to have been a compromise, hatched by Jorge Rodríguez, to keep the referendum process moving forward but with added checks. This is Padgett’s view, and sources inside CNE back it.

If the idea of Rincon/Cabrera/Delgado Ocando picking a true independent is the non-fraud theory’s single weakest point, then this is its strongest point: if, as claimed, CNE was merely an appendage of Miraflores, the referendum process would not have gotten past February – it simply would have died as the planas were declared invalid. The fact that CNE not only moved forward at that point but eventually agreed to a viable reparos process shows quite convincingly that Rodríguez was not simply devoted to derailing the referendum, as the opposition claimed. Instead, in a strange and roundabout way, CNE seemed to be doing what the opposition had always hoped it would – balancing the demands of both sides thanks to the leadership of someone that was controlled by neither.

In fact, it seems the closer people got to Rodríguez, the harder it was for them to dismiss him as a chavista stooge. While diplomats like Cesar Gaviria criticized the pattern of 3-2 decisions at CNE, after a year of close and difficult interactions with him they do not subscribe to a vision of Jorge Rodríguez as a cheat – as evidenced by their unambiguous acceptance of CNE’s results. Even Alberto Quirós Corradi, one of the CD’s two negotiators with CNE, accepted that Rodríguez had created conditions for tough but respectful negotiations, conditions he hints would not have been possible without him.

VII. Closer to Teo than to Marta

Quirós Corradi still sees Rodríguez as biased towards the government, but in a different way than Carrasquero and Battaglini. In this view, Jorge Rodríguez occupied a moderate position in the pro-government camp roughly analogous to Teodoro Petkoff’s in the opposition, while Battaglini and Carrasquero were closer to Marta Colomina’s extreme and uncompromising stance.

This is important because the decision on voting systems for the referendum was made more or less unilaterally by Jorge Rodríguez. As is well known, there was no public bidding process, and the SBC consortium was put together by JNE on its own. In the opposition’s standard frame of mind, where Rodríguez was just as much of a chavista extremist as Carrasquero and Battaglini, his decision on the voting system looks rotten indeed. But if Tim Padgett’s narrative is mostly right, Rodríguez’s choice of voting software can be seen in a quite different light: as a play to adopt a technology that makes fraud essentially impossible, in an environment were attempts to commit fraud seemed likely and claims of fraud would be almost inevitable from the losing side.

The debate over Jorge Rodríguez’s probity is important because if there was fraud, there can be little doubt that it had to have been orchestrated by Jorge Rodríguez himself. Similarly, if there was no fraud, it had to have been prevented by him. What you think about fraud will be determined largely by how you judge him.

If you think Rodríguez was just an undercover diehard chavista who committed a massive electronic fraud, you need to explain why it was that Rodríguez didn’t just stop the recall process back in February, when he clearly had the chance to, and, moreover, was under pressure from the government to do so. Conversely, if you think there was no fraud, then you have to explain how it is that the TSJ Constitutional Chamber’s diehard chavista majority suddenly, on this most sensitive of decisions, took a break from its systematic partisanship and appointed a real independent to be the de facto head of CNE.

There’s much that’s left out of this brief sketch. But it seems to me this kind of re-thinking of what happened over the last year will be necessary to make sense of the recall saga. The theory would have to be extended to cover the last-minute shifts in the electoral registry and the voting center staffing (who knows? perhaps there’s a perfectly innocent explanation for all that) as well as quite a number of other such puzzling episodes, from the failure of the hot audit to the refusal to open up contested ballot boxes. But experience has taught me that decisions that seem incomprehensible from one point of view can turn out to have quite straightforward explanations when looked at from another – so it’s very hard to be sure.

VIII. Final possibility

There is one final possibility, which I think is worth considering seriously: Jorge Rodríguez could be a psychopath, specifically a compensated psychopath. Perhaps the man is, like many with a psychopathic personality structure, just particularly shrewd, extraordinarily adept at lying, shorn of a normal sense of morality or a conscience, and possessed of a kind of special charisma that elicits uncommon loyalty. Compensated psychopaths can take almost anyone in – and those closest to them more than any others. At times, watching his press conferences, I had the distinct sense that I was listening to a psychopath. Unfortunately, I’m not a psychiatrist (he is!) so I’m in no position to judge this.

Yet, even as I write that, it’s hard for me to quite believe it. To this litany of extraordinary character traits, we’d have to add one more: Rodríguez would have to be superhumanly competent. One month out, and after every statistician in the country has poured over the data, the opposition has still been unable to prove fraud decisively. If there was fraud, it was as close to a Perfect Fraud as one could imagine. And pulling off a Perfect Fraud, wel…it’s not impossible…but close.

Me? I can’t really believe that you can steal an election in a way that’s impossible to demonstrate – so I have to swallow hard and accept, try to accept, that the Constitutional Chamber appointed a JNE head they could not control, and that the opposition has been wrong about him since the word go. It’s not a story that makes much sense to me, but for a long time attempts to come to an understanding of what happened on August 15th have come down to a judgement between the unlikely and the unlikelier. A perfect fraud seems like the least likely possibility out there. Sadly, a perfect fraud is what the opposition alleges.

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