This piece ran yesterday in El Nuevo Herald, which is the Miami Herald’s Spanish language sister paper. Thanks to reader mike for translating…

Chávez’s Favorite Pollster Passes Itself Off as American
by Gerardo Reyes

When high ranking members of the administration in Venezuela cite the North American Opinion Research (NAOR) polling firm, Hugo Chávez’s favorite, they note with a certain pride that the firm is from the United States, which apparently gives it an aura of independence and seriousness.

However, at the address that appears registered as the headquarters of NAOR in the United States, in southeast Miami, there’s an accountant’s office and they haven’t even heard of the company.

At the time it was entered into the corporate registry in Florida in March of 2004, at this address –1549 NE 123 St.—there was a health clinic operating there, according to the receptionist of the locale where the Certified Public Accountants’ office is now found.

One of the accountants, who identified himself as Jacobo Nae, told El Nuevo Herald that he has no idea what NAOR is, although he did say that one of he functions of his firm is to create dozens of companies each month.

El Nuevo Herald was able to verify last Friday that at the office on 1549 NE 123 ST in Miami, listed as the company’s main address, there are no analysts, statisticians, pollsters, nor polls. There were only clients waiting for help filing their tax.

The company has been questioned in Venezuela for what its critics consider a clear tendency to favor the government and for results inconsistent with major pollsters.

Carlos Sánchez, director of operations and spokesman for NAOR in Caracas, told El Nuevo Herald that he was not aware that the headquarters of the firm in the United States is an accountants’ office.

“I manage the part of Latin America,” said Sánchez. “I cannot answer for the United States.”

On Thursday, Sánchez offered to put one of our reporters in touch with the administrators of the company in the United States, but El Nuevo Herald received no call regarding the matter.

According to the corporate registries of Florida, the president of NAOR is Alirio Valbuena and the secretary of the company is Kaysa Makarem. According to several articles published in the press, Sánchez, President Chávez and other members of the Venezuelan government emphasize that “it is a North American company” when they want to highlight its independence.

In Peru, the firm also has made public controversial polls favoring nationalist presidential candidate Ollanta Humala, an admirer of Chávez.

This is not the first that that the seriousness and independence of the company has been placed in doubt. Academic investigators from the Central University of Venezuela and British reporter Aleksander Boyd have asked similar questions.

Recently, Boyd found that in the same offices where NAOR operates in Miami and in Caracas, the headquarters of Petrotulsa can also be found. Petrotulsa has been favored by state-owned PDVSA with contracts and projects.

On its website, Petrotulsa mentions as the company’s activities the cleaning of oil wells for PDVSA en the fields of Bares and Melones in Anzoátegui state.

The industry publication Oilgram News reported in 2002 that, along with Asea Brown, Petrotulsa proposed to the Ministry of Energy of Venezuela a project for the construction of a new refinery in Venezuela with a 130,000 barrels/day capacity worth $2 billion.

The announcement was made by Ricardo Valbuena, who introduced himself as the president of the company. The refinery has not been constructed.

Sánchez responded that he does not believe there exists any conflict of interest that puts the independence of the polling firm at risk due to the fact that the same office operates a petroleum company that is granted contracts by the government, or the fact that the directors of the companies are related.

“If we had something bad, we would be hiding and we are not hiding”, said Sánchez.

The manager refused to reveal the owners of the polling firm or the members of its Board of Directors.

In the corporate archives of Florida, Petrotulsa registered as its president Julio Makarem and as its secretary Kaysa Makarem. Kaysa is also the secretary of NAOR. The address of the petroleum company in the United States is the same as NAOR’s in Maimi.

Just as El Nuevo Herald reported in 2002, Petrotulsa was registered as a contributor to Chávez’s election campaign, according to the donor list that the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) declared in the period from August to December of 1998.

On of the most recent polls from NAOR (February) gives Chávez 66% of intended vtes for the presidential elections at the end of the year. But perhaps the most criticized of the polls is the one that predicted that on November 2 of 2005 the abstention rate for the election of deputies and governors would not exceed 13 percent. The abstention rate was more than 74 percent.

Sánchez explained that the rain on election day and the withdrawal of the opposition were unforeseeable factors that distorted the results.

“We are the only polling firm that goes into the hills [where poor people live]”, said Sánchez.

A group of academics led by professor Manuel Rodríguez Mena, former dean of the Social and Economics Sciences Faculty at the Central University of Venezuela, has followed closely that activities of NAOR for an investigative project entitled Manipulation of Venezuelan Social Expression from 2004-2005.

In a preliminary report, after reviewing results from the poll on abstention and other inconsistencies, the study suggests that the possibility that [NAOR] is an “incompetent company” or that “the company manipulates the expression of public opinion”.

“One of the worst aggressions that can be committed against a society”, expressed Rodríguez Mena, “is to manipulate its social expression. I have the impression that this is not a polling firm, but an unpollster.”