Tuesday, September 12, 2000

The August Enigma

The English translation can be found here and the Spanish post is here.

I dedicate this unimportant tale to all those that, in spite of the pitfalls, passionately used their knowledge, their means and their free time in a restless search for the truth.

This is a story that many Venezuelans lived on different ways. Some with anguish, others with joy, others with stress and others with surprise, but definitively, nobody with indifference. It is the story of another one of the riddles [1,2 ] that the Venezuelans have lived during the government of Chávez. This is my story.

I am truly amazed that the Venezuelans elected a caudillo, a putchist, a populist as a President. I never had to vote for him , but I would never have voted for him anyways. My idea of a country, with strong and democratic institutions, has nothing to do with the autocratic, clumsy and myopic conception that the obscure lieutenant colonel Chávez began to sell to the Venezuelans on February 4, 1992 when he accepted the defeat on TV after his failed coup d'état.

I never had to pronounce myself about Chávez because I have been living abroad for many years. I never had to deal with the destruction of the institutions, with the chavista divisionism, nor with the hatreds or the daily wearing down that the Chavismo introduced in the country. I never had to watch “Alo Presidente”. Chávez was five flying hours away from my life, and although I suffered of stellar tantrums when reading the news or talking with friends, I knew that I was so far away from the Chavism that, in practice, I did not have to live it.

I followed the “firmazos” (signature collection) and the trickiness and swings of the signature verifications. I prepared myself for any result in the Recall Referendum. My impression was that everything was possible and that I had to be ready for the possibility of a Chávez victory. But nothing could prepare me to which came later.

My brother, who lives in California, had come with his wife and their baby for a few days of vacation with me. By pure chance, his stay coincided with the Referendum.

I have two brothers. One is a lawyer that is quite funny and amusing. The other is a very serious and strict professor of statistics. Luck wanted that it was the statistician the one that accompanied me during the Referendum. I have always been amazed about the turns of life. If my brother had chosen another branch of mathematics when he decided his career, perhaps my perception of the Venezuelan situation nowadays would be different.

We pleasantly spent the Referendum day. In the dining room of my house, we installed our laptops and followed the news from heroic bloggers that were posting on-line from the voting centers. We also checked the mails from our Venezuelan friends. All reported monumental waiting lines, some had taken up to 9 hours to vote. The news were good, exits polls seemed to clearly favor the opposition. Before going to bed we watched on the web a press conference of the members of the opposition alliance “Coordinadora Democrática”. They were all smiles and had difficulty containing their joy, they implied that they had won, and easily. We also saw Jorge Rodriguez, from the CNE, giving declarations. He looked tired and serious. He had the body language and the expression of somebody that has been defeated.

We went to sleep but first we reminded ourselves that we should not celebrate yet because, with Chávez, one never knows.

We were goat mouth.

At six a.m. my husband woke us up with the incredible news that Chávez had won with exactly the opposite of the votes that were being predicted. We then read the stunning declarations given by Carrasquero, the president of the CNE, and followed all news that CNN could present. We later called some friends who confirmed the situation. They were scared because of the magnitude of what was happening. We could imagine how unclear the situation was in Caracas at that time.

We began then to systematically call all those that could provide us with information and data. We wanted to know the truth. We made no less than forty international calls in a few hours. It was not an easy task. I had cancelled my local long-distance service provider account a week before and now we had to dial seven extra digits every time we made a long-distance call. My brother loudly complained about my bad timing every single time he dialed, but in the end, we were able to contact statisticians, engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians and physics friends, all those that we thought could give us information or send data to us. The idea was to collect the data to analyze how large was really the discrepancy between exits polls and the official results.

Finally, my brother was sent the data of the exit polls from Súmate and Primero Justicia. The dining room of my house became then a true computing center. My brother and my sister-in-law (also a Statistics Professor), seated in front of their laptops and meticulously analyzed the data collected from the exits polls. They intensely worked whole days, for several days, despite the little baby that was crawling from the living room to the dining room and that cried sometimes to complain for being always among uncles and cousins.

My husband took care of checking up news on the Internet. I made telephone calls, checked my mail and prepared fast meals, in the style of a boot camp. My children played with the baby, made errands or were asked to go fetch reference books. Because of my engineering background, I was able to understand the results that my brother and my sister-in-law were obtaining. In most of the voting centers, there was a significant discrepancy between the exit poll results and the results published by the CNE, and that, for all the states. The differences could not be explained by factors such as the selection of the voting centers. My brother and my sister-in-law, with the professional rigour that characterizes both of them, repeated each analysis meticulously several times to make sure that there were no errors. The study that shows such discrepancies, appears in the report that I include below as a reference [ 3 ].

As for me, I had heard that there was going to be an audit based on a random sampling of boxes. The word “random" always rings an alarm in my mind. Those that work with stochastic simulations, know that randomness is an ephemeral concept that many people do not quite grasp. A random number generator is simply a formula that can be programmed. The formula produces a sequence of numbers that are generated from a seed. If the seed does not change, the outcome of the program will be the same sequence. Random generators have a period after which the sequence of numbers is repeated. That is why they are usually called pseudorandom generators. A good generator is distinguished from a bad one based on the length of the period and on how predictable are the numbers being generated. It is well known that many commercial generators, like the one in Excel, are far from being random.

When I knew of the audit, I tried to alert on the issues of the randomness of the ballot box numbers that were going to be generated. To whom? To whoever I thought should be alerted: I wrote mails, I made phone calls, I made posts in Venezuelan blogs. My colleagues made fun of me on that issue. How was I going to think that the Carter Center was not aware of that?

I had my doubts. To my knowledge, the Carter Center’s experience was in manual elections and is led mainly by social scientists. This was a problem of mathematics and computer science. I know computer scientists that often forget about the importance of the seed when they have to generate a random number.

I wanted to know what program they were going to use and how they were going to choose the seed.

My worries were useless. The opposition decided not to participate in the audit, that the Center Carter and the O.A.S. carried out with only the presence of CNE personnel.

During the days that followed, the scientific world related to Venezuela entered a state of effervescence. Several academics around the world began to produce studies on different aspects of the results obtained by the CNE. Many of those studies were thoroughly explained and analyzed in [ 4 ]. As for me, I mainly wanted to know how the seed of the generation in the last audit had been chosen. I wrote to the Carter Center and I received a cold but courteous answer indicating that since the opposition was not present in the audit and they considered themselves to be only observers, the seed had been chosen by the CNE.

I could not believe it. The only guarantee that Venezuelans had to make sure that the audit was indeed random, fell into the hands of the very institution whose transparency was in doubt!

I got infuriated with all the actors: with the opposition for not being present, with the Carter Center and the O.A.S. for letting that happen and with the CNE for accepting to have a leading role, when what was needed from them was to show their credibility.

Some time later, I read in the Carter Center report that even the computer and the program used in the audit came from the CNE. Also, in an email of one of the people involved with the audit, it was explained that the CNE program had to be used because the input data was not ready in the format required to use the Carter Center’s Excel based program. Some techies on the web cried out then that as everything had been run on the CNE’s computer, there was not even the need to know the seed beforehand since a script could have simulated that the program was running and could have produced as an output a pre-established sequence. As for me, I was rather scandalized that the Carter Center could even consider using an Excel program, that is one of the worse in matters of random generation.

The idea that crossed my mind then was the realization of how naïf can we be when facing well-known institutions and how, little by little, that naivety is disappearing. It reminded me of the time, when I was a little girl, when I used to think that technology was an invincible thing, created by infallible geniuses. Now that I know the limitations of people, systems, calculations and models, I ask myself, whenever I get into an airplane, how many errors were left in the design software and if the reliability experts really used a good seed when they ran the program to generate catastrophic events.

I no longer have blind confidences, my motto is now "The Devil is in the details".

In the days that followed, we saw with frustration and astonishment that the Center Carter and the O.A.S. accepted as finals the results of the audit and that the international community and the international press hurried, without asking any further questions, to spread the good news of the victory of Chávez.

At the end of one week of intense work, we all decided to go to St.Lambert, a municipality located South of the island of Montreal. It is a yuppie area, totally away from the cosmopolitan interests of a city like Montreal. We had lunch in an pleasant terrace and we decided to forget about Chávez, statistics and random numbers. We had already lost our family vacations in contacting, alerting, studying and compiling data and we thought we could spend a single day of relaxation. We took some pictures as tourists and slowly walked from the restaurant to the main street that, by chance, was closed for the town’s summer party. It was a languid party because there were not many people around. Hardly two clowns and a kiosk with music tried to animate the few that were present and that were taking advantage of an end-of-summer sunny day.

The music was not very good, but it animated a little. Suddenly we stopped in disbelief. The kiosk singer began to sing notes that we recognized immediately although the song was distorted by the incongruous Jazz type adaptation and the foreign accent of the singer. Astonished, we heard, as in a fair far far away from Venezuela and in an atmosphere also far away from cosmopolitan Montreal that the loudspeakers were screaming: "Yoooo, nací en esta rivera del Arauca vibrador..", it was the “Alma Llanera”, Venezuela’s informal national anthem. We waited for the song to finish and then we asked the singer why he had chosen that song.

"Because I like it", was his simple answer.

With superstition and optimism, I interpreted that as a positive sign. When I got back home, I rushed to my email to verify if there were some encouraging news.

I was mistaken. In spite of the skepticism of the Venezuelan people concerning the Referendum results, the CNE never opened the ballot boxes, and the international observers never forced it to do it either. To me, that was the most suspicious fact of all. It seemed to me unprecedented that, from a human point of view, faced with the mathematical and technical lucubrations of tens of statisticians, engineers, physicists and computer scientists, the CNE directors did not take advantage of the opportunity to open the boxes and shut us all up.

If I had been in the board of the CNE, I would have relished opening every single box and show every single vote to the army of nerds whose sophisticated models were showing discrepancies in the results. Frankly, I am still astonished that the directors of the CNE refused themselves such a satisfaction.

And, from the institutional point of view, not opening the boxes was the most dangerous gesture for democracy: a democratic institution in charge of the elections of a country must, before anything, provide the population with the certainty that the system works and that is right and transparent. By refusing to go beyond the audit in spite of the strong doubts that weighed on the results, the CNE sealed forever the box that contains the solution of the August enigma and condemned the Venezuelan people to a perpetual doubt on the validity of their democracy and their electoral system.

Everything was not negative. The experience made me appreciate the efficiency and the dedication of Venezuelans of great talent who put their knowledge, their reputation, their abilities and their time in the passionate search for an answer to the enigma of August.

So this is how, after a year of analysis, readings and memories, I have decided to embody my memory in this true story that ends with the Alma Llanera.

Unfortunately for democracy in Venezuela, it is a story that, for the time being, has just become an unimportant tale.

[1] S. La Fuente and A. Mesa. “El acertijo de Abril.- Relato periodístico de la breve caida de Hugo Chávez”.

[2] F. Toro. "Venezuela's 2002 Coup Revisited: The Evidence Two Years On" .

[3] R. Prado and B.Sansò, “The 2004 Presidential Recall Discrepancias Between Exit Polls and Oficial Results”. Technical report, AMS-2004-6.

[4] M. Octavio, “Venezuela Referendum Studies”. The Devil’s Excrement blog.

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