The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Latin American governments are gaming their numbers

A group of Bolivians protest in support of Luis Fernando Camacho, the governor of Santa Cruz, on Feb. 23. (Juan Carlos Torrejon/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Late last year, Luis Fernando Camacho, governor of Santa Cruz province in Bolivia, was snatched from his car by police, reportedly beaten and knocked to the ground, then helicoptered to jail in La Paz, the national capital. The official charge against him was “terrorism,” an accusation as troubling as it was opaque. More concerning still is what happened in Camacho’s province a few months earlier.

Political protests and a crippling general strike had been roiling there since September in the wake of a decision by the central government, run by the left-wing Movement Toward Socialism party, to cancel the national census. The authorities pleaded financial constraints, but no one was fooled. Since the last census in 2012, Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s richest province, has seen its agriculture-based economy boom and its population soar — shifts that should entitle it to a larger share of tax revenue, more congressional seats and greater clout nationwide. Yet because Santa Cruz is also an opposition-party stronghold and Camacho a longtime government gadfly, La Paz pulled the plug. When angry crowds took to the streets, Congress relented, rescheduling the census for 2024. Camacho remains behind bars.

The imbroglio in Santa Cruz offers a glimpse of fresh democratic backsliding in Latin America. Last century’s strongmen used troops and tanks to impose their will and censors to muffle dissent. When dictatorship fell out of fashion, a new generation of caudillos and autocrats turned to stacking the courts, gaming elections, bankrupting independent media and weaponizing algorithms for disinformation. Now comes the war on data.

And here, census-taking is becoming the biggest target. During the pandemic, many governments postponed counting the population because of budget shortfalls and fears that surveyors going door to door could spread the virus. Increasingly, however, leaders are deliberately fiddling with or omitting their countries’ vital statistics.

For a region given to social upheaval, boom-and-bust economics, and huge flows of migrants, unreliable data can threaten lives and livelihoods. Latin America’s scramble to mitigate the coronavirus outbreak fell short in many countries due largely to outdated national registries, which failed to capture how many people were at risk and where to send emergency cash. “For a clear picture of electoral districts, the environment, inequality and social welfare, nations need to know the scope and scale of the problem,” said Byron Villacís, a former head of Ecuador’s census bureau and a co-founder of the Latin American Observatory of Population Censuses. Otherwise, he said, “governments are flying blind.”

Bolivia is hardly the only offender. In 2019, Lenín Moreno, then the president of Ecuador, downgraded the country’s census bureau from an autonomous institution to one that now answers to the executive branch. This move hobbled national record-keeping and led to a major population undercount in the 2022 census, forcing the government to order a redo, Villacís told me.

El Salvador’s millennial president, Nayib Bukele, went further, shutting down the national statistics bureau last year. Bukele called the agency “a waste of resources” and transferred national bookkeeping to the state-controlled central bank.

El Salvador, Ecuador and Bolivia are taking their cues from early 21st-century supremos and wannabes. Well before Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega went all-in on dictatorship and canceled scores of Nicaraguan citizens and NGOS, he dimmed the lights at the country’s statistics bureau. Nicaragua last published a census in 2005.

After cherry-picking the stats for years, Venezuelan autocrat Nicolás Maduro stopped publishing any meaningful data after 2016, turning all attempts to fathom one of Latin America’s biggest economic debacles into guesswork.

When inflation and poverty spiked early in her term, the Argentine populist Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (president from 2007 to 2015) bigfooted the country’s once-reputable statistics institute and threatened to punish economists who strayed from the officially sanctioned data — a move that helped her draw a red card from the International Monetary Fund.

Nor did Brazil’s celebrated statistics bureau escape a president’s meddling hand. No sooner did Jair Bolsonaro take office as president in 2019 than he sandbagged the 2020 census, grousing over survey questions on gender and identity. Brazil’s census is due to be published this year.

These maneuvers are a throwback to Latin American obscurantism. One of the early institutional milestones in the region was the late 19th century campaign to secularize record-keeping, traditionally the monopoly of the Catholic Church. Since then, accurate and transparent vital statistics have become an essential tool of state building. Countries that don’t count can’t plan. Sabotaging the census is not only anti-democratic, but foolish.