Archive for August 19th, 2005

The August enigma by Brunilde Sansň

August 19, 2005

My good friend Bruni, whom I “met” via this blog ( We have never
seen each other live!), wrote this wonderful post in her website in Spanish
about her experiences with the Recall Referendum and its aftermath.
Talking to her, the idea came up of translating it, I am not sure who
suggested it, and I offered my blog to post it in that language. I
think it is a wonderful story as told from her point of view, even if
the ending is not what we all wished for. I am honored to have it
become part of my blog.

The August enigma

By
Brunilde Sansň


(The
original story appeared in Spanish in Cuentos
Intrascendentes
)

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 naďf 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.Sansň, “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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