Census Day, Under House Arrest

The streets are quiet.

They haven’t been quiet since I arrived in Bolivia. All day every day there has been a steady backdrop of sound. Souped up engines, poorly tuned engines, and just plain old engines are a fact of life in Cochabamba. Water trucks ceaselessly trundle up and down the city’s roads, supplying neighbourhoods that lack indoor plumbing. At times, it seems like the car alarm is the unofficial anthem of the country. There are fruit sellers with megaphones, and propane deliverers clanging away on an empty canisters.

But not today. Today, the streets are quiet. It’s census day today, and the country is effectively shut down, paralyzed.

The changes began to show up yesterday. I received some advice from my Spanish teacher to be sure and get any groceries I needed before the stores closed for the night. The reason, she explained – to my incredulity – was that they would not be open tomorrow because no one would be allowed on the street.

“What do you mean, not allowed on the street?”

“If you go out, you could be arrested. Everyone without an official pass has to stay in their homes from midnight tonight, until midnight tomorrow. Tomorrow is census day, and they will be visiting every home in the country during the day.”

At first blush, it seemed far-fetched to me. The entire country stays home on threat of arrest, while enumerators visit every resident in Bolivia? It was like Santa Claus meets martial law.

Besides, Bolivia is in many ways a street-based culture. Tradespeople, venders, restaurants… much of Bolivian life takes place at curbside. Data collection and increased sample size are important, but the cost seemed prohibitive, even to a data-loving social scientist like myself.

Despite such doubts, I took my teacher’s advice, and on my way home I stopped in at the supermarket to pick up a few groceries.

As it turns out, the rest of the city had the same idea, and had gotten there ahead of me. Every cart and basket was in use; every register was open with a line of a dozen customers waiting their turn.

During my shop I noticed something else peculiar. Every aisle was packed with shoppers, except one. The wine, beer, and liquor section was deserted.  The reason, I learned, was that the state of Bolivia bans the sale of alcohol the day prior to census day: a sober census is a reliable census.

I got my groceries, ran the checkout line gauntlet, and headed home for the night.

And so today dawned. Quiet, peaceful, and serene — at least, until the kids downstairs woke up. Aside from them however, the only interruptions to the day were a quick visit from the census takers (who assured me that I could indeed be arrested if I ventured out into the street), the sound of music playing, and the noise of families together in nearby apartments. For Bolivia, it was day of familial togetherness, on pain of incarceration

Reports are that Bolivia Census Day 2012 was a success, though not without cost. By midday, reports were that more than 500 people had been arrested, and 400 cars impounded as individuals tested the restrictions on movement. President Evo Morales hailed it at as the country’s first sovereign census, undertaken by Bolivians, for Bolivians, rather than to meet the objectives of international organizations.

Data collection will continue for another couple of days in outlying regions, though as of midnight tonight the streets will once again be open. Then the analysis begins, with results expected to be published July next year.

One learns much about the diversity of life in Bolivia simply by examining the questions asked. Topics range from the type of residence, to the fuel used for cooking (answers include piped natural gas, propane tanks, electric, solar, charcoal, firewood, guano, dung, and droppings, and none of the above), to the destination of toilet/latrine sewage (answers include a sewer, a septic tank, a cesspool, the street, a creek, a river, a lake, or a pond). Even without knowing the results, the fact that such questions are asked in such terms serves as a reminder of the gap between rich and poor in a developing country.

Ultimately, the loss of a day feels like a high price for data, though one Bolivians by and large seem willing enough to pay, albeit with some grumbling. It is, moreover, not without its recompenses.  The empiricist in me is left wondering whether a sampling strategy would provide the same insight without a day of civic paralysis and lost wages, but perhaps there is value from ensuring that every citizen is included in the counting, particularly since the census results will be used to determine regional revenue shares and legislative seating in coming years. In a country where every decision is debatable and debated, where in the past the relationship between the state and some citizens has been extremely distant, it is perhaps appropriate that every citizen is counted.

It’s 11:59 PM, and I hear the first car engine in 24 hours. Census Day 2012 is over, it seems.

Photo by Fernando Cartagena via La Razon.

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