Soap Opera Propaganda in Venezuela

CARACAS – The last battle for power is on in Venezuela, with a new soap opera shedding a positive light on President Hugo Chávez and his cause, and conflicting opinion poll results regarding the outcome of the Aug. 15 presidential recall referendum.

Amores de Barrio Adentro (roughly translated as Love Inside the Neighborhood) is a new soap opera aired by the state-run TV station which depicts life and the political reality in a poor neighborhood.

The plot revolves around a love story between a young pro-Chávez – “Chavista” – woman and a young man who is politically neutral in today’s highly polarized Venezuela, which means he is neither with the government nor the opposition (“ni-ni” or neither-neither, as those who are neutral have been dubbed).

Over the past two decades, Venezuela has become a producer of “realistic” soap operas, and has even exported some of its productions, while several screenwriters and directors have come up with innovations that have caught on.

Two of them, Rodolfo Santana and Román Chalbaud, are involved in Amores, which critics say is likely to be popular.

Chalbaud, an icon of the filmmaking and theatre worlds in Venezuela, said the series “reflects on screen what everyone wants to see: the truth about the revolution and the lies of the opposition” – a reference to Chávez’s peaceful social revolution and the broad opposition movement that has worked hard to remove him.

The title of the program itself is similar to the name of the Barrio Adentro (Inside the Neighborhood) plan launched by Chávez in 2003 to bring primary health care to the slums and poor neighborhoods, in which some 10,000 Cuban doctors have taken part, living and tending to patients in the country’s shanty-towns.

“Chávez is doing the right thing, he’s reaching out to the ‘ni-ni’, while the opposition is paralyzed and is relying on the opinion polls,” said political analyst Jorge Olavarría, who is aligned with the opposition movement, made up of the traditional political parties that ruled Venezuela in the past, leading business and labor groups, and civil society organizations.

Hinterlaces, a local polling company that uses focus groups in its surveys, found in May that 51 percent of Venezuelans described themselves as “ni-ni,” compared to 33 percent who said they were Chavistas and 16 percent who identified with the opposition.

“Among the ‘ni-ni’ are the votes that will determine the outcome of the referendum,” Oscar Schémel, director of Hinterlaces, told IPS. “These are people who aren’t satisfied with the way things are today but don’t want to return to the past. They are looking for alternatives and leaders with whom they can identify.”

TV has played a key role in the political struggle in Venezuela. The four main private stations have openly campaigned against Chávez, who calls them “the four horsemen of the Apocalypse,” and complains that they manipulate public opinion.

On June 18, the president met with local media magnate Gustavo Cisneros (the owner of DirecTV and Venevisión, the most popular TV station), at the urging of former U.S. president Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), who brokered the meeting.

The president also accuses Cisneros of helping to finance and organize the coup d’etat that removed him from power for two days in April 2002, and of conspiring against him on other occasions.

After the meeting, the Atlanta-based Carter Center said in a statement that “There was a mutual commitment to honor constitutional processes and to support further discussions between the government of Venezuela and the country’s news media” to guarantee “an adequate climate” for the August recall referendum.

On the Carter Center’s invitation, Harvard University conflict resolution expert William Ury has met in Caracas with Chávez and the heads of the private TV stations to seek formulas for ensuring the cleanest possible campaign for the August vote.

“What lies ahead in Venezuela is the toughest and perhaps dirtiest campaign in our recent history, with all kinds of accusations and denunciations, because the two political blocs will go all out in this decisive battle for power,” historian Samuel Moncada, who backs the government, told IPS.

Both the ruling coalition and the opposition will try to present themselves as the winners from now till August, and opinion polls will form a central part of their strategy, said Moncada.

Luis León, with Datanálisis, the polling firm that is most highly respected by the private sector in Venezuela, said that according to its results from May – before the election board ruled on June 3 that a recall referendum would be held – 57 percent of respondents said they would vote for Chávez to step down, and 43 percent said they would vote for him to complete his term.

Venezuela has 12.5 million registered voters and normally has a turnout of between 60 and 65 percent, which means that “between eight and nine million people will vote,” said León, who is anti-Chávez.

“The 57-43 percent projection regarding the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ votes for Chávez’s removal would mean 4.76 million votes against the president and nearly 2.95 million in his favor,” he added.

To win, the opposition not only needs to obtain a majority of “yes” votes, but needs more than the 3.757 million votes with which Chávez was elected in July 2000.

In a recent press conference, ruling coalition parliamentary Deputy Tarek Saab said “Chávez’s backing stands at 43 percent,” adding “that is stronger than the support for the opposition.”

Information Minister Jesse Chacón dismissed the credibility of Datanálisis, because it is openly aligned with the opposition.

According to the government news agency Venpres, another opposition-affiliated polling company, Datos CA, found in its most recent survey that 51 percent of respondents believed Chávez would not be removed by the referendum, while 39 percent said he would.

Venpres said the Democratic Coordinator opposition coalition has refused to divulge the results of the Datos CA survey, because they indicate that Chávez would win the August vote.

The polling firm Indaga, aligned with the government, says the tendencies in favor of and against Chávez switched around in late 2003, and that this month 55 percent of those surveyed supported the president and 42 percent were against him.

Another pollster, Ivada, which had links to opposition parties in the past, published the partial results (from 11 of the country’s 24 provinces) of a survey carried out in May, according to which Chávez would win the referendum in 10 of 11 of the provinces.

When Hinterlaces asked respondents in May how they would vote in the referendum, 42 percent said in favor of Chávez, 39 percent against, and 19 percent said they did not know or would not vote.

But among voters who said they did not identify with either side – the “ni-ni” – Hinterlaces found that 49 percent were inclined to vote against the president and 21 percent in favor, while 30 percent did not answer or said they would not vote.

“If Chávez is able to polarize the country between himself and the past (when politics were dominated by the traditional parties), he could win, especially if the opposition fails to make an emotional connection with the popular sectors, because 70 percent of Venezuelans are poor,” said Hinterlaces’ Schémel.

León, on the other hand, recalled a maxim held by those who study public opinion, according to which “there is nothing more real than a sensation, and the sensation, nationally and internationally, is that the opposition is the majority, although the Chávez supporters make up the largest minority.”

“What we have is an x-ray of the electorate in May, before the opposition was triumphant in gathering the signatures it needed to trigger a referendum,” he told IPS.

“The opposition has the votes needed to remove Chávez. Turning that into a concrete victory in the referendum is another story,” León added.

The results of new opinion polls to be released this month will provide new weapons in the campaign.