Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

Argentine Census to Count Blacks for First Time in a Century

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Oct 25 2010 (IPS) - Wednesday is census day in Argentina, and an army of census-takers will be knocking on doors to collect data on, among other things, the number of blacks and indigenous people, and same-sex couples, in the country. But it is happening under a cloud of controversy and distrust.

A total of 600,000 census workers will visit homes, hospitals, prisons and residences for the elderly in every province in the country on Wednesday, Oct. 27, from 08:00 to 20:00 hours. Everything will be closed, because the day has been declared a public holiday.

The 2010 census on population and households in Argentina coincides with the regular 10-year population counts in 70 countries. The last census was carried out in 2001 and gave a total population figure of 36.2 million, an increase of 11 percent on the result for 1991.

For the first time since the late 19th century, the census will count people of African descent, a small minority that has been invisible in the statistics since then.

But the census is surrounded by controversy. Campaigns on online social networking sites, email messages and articles in the press have created a climate of distrust, fear and rejection.

Fears have been spread that the census may be an opportunity for criminals who pass themselves off as census takers to get inside homes and steal. The government of President Cristina Fernández has promised tighter security on the streets on Wednesday, and said the census officials will carry credentials that cannot be falsified.

“Fear and Suspicion Threaten Census” was one of the headlines in the conservative daily La Nación, which has roused and amplified concerns. The newspaper launched its own survey with the question, “Will you open your door to a census taker?”

These misgivings add fuel to the controversy that first broke out when the government took over the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses (INDEC) in early 2007, sacking a large number of INDEC experts and officials.

Since the government intervention of the internationally prestigious INDEC, official monthly figures on inflation, employment, poverty and extreme poverty have been viewed, in some quarters, as suspect due to possible manipulation.

Just before the census takers hit the streets, INDEC statisticians who oppose the government intervention, but are still employed by the institute, published a critical report titled “Censo 2010: Lo que no se va a poder contar” (roughly, 2010 Census: What Won’t Be Counted/Told).

“The national population census is marred by serious failings, all of which originate from the policy of dismantling the institute, carried out by the intervention authorities since January 2007,” the experts argue.

According to the authors, preparatory work for the census was interrupted and many experts were removed and replaced by poorly qualified personnel, with the result that everything the institute has published since then “has lost credibility.”

The report says that pilot trials were too few and too rushed, and warns that information about internal and international migration will be greatly diminished compared to previous censuses. Changes to the questionnaires, claimed as improvements, are at best of little benefit, it adds.

For instance, the count of members of indigenous communities and the disabled, which the government has presented as an innovation that will make the census more inclusive, was already carried out in the 2001 census, the authors say.

The experts maintain that the 2010 census will measure these populations in “less depth”, and only in 10 percent of households.

There are two types of census questionnaires, a short form and a long one. The long form contains the questions about indigenous people, Afro-descendants and the disabled, but will only be applied to 10 percent of households.

“In our view, the census organised by the intervention authorities is headed directly toward failure,” Raúl Llaneza, an INDEC employee and member of the Technical Commission of the Association of State Workers (ATE) that published the report, told IPS.

Economist Víctor Beker, a professor at the private University of Belgrano and formerly director of INDEC, said he understood the misgivings, but was confident the data collected would be useful if they were properly processed.

Beker told IPS “conditions are not ideal for a census because of the strong distrust the population rightly has, of all information processed by INDEC.”

“There are a lot of doubts” about the census, he said, adding that in his view it would be preferable to normalise the situation in the institute first. However, he said he hoped the data collected on Wednesday “will be recovered once INDEC is normalised” and be useful.

The goal of the census is to “discover the main facts about housing conditions while collecting demographic, economic and social data about the entire population at one moment in time,” according to the official web site.

Economy Minister Amado Boudou, the highest-ranking official in charge of INDEC, said the census “is not an action taken by the government, but a matter of state,” and urged people to open their doors to the census takers, most of whom are teachers.

Meanwhile, the Afro-descendant community is looking forward to being included again in the count. The last census to count the black population in Argentina was in 1895. Since then, the myth has grown up that Afro-Argentines no longer exist.

The yellow fever epidemic of 1871 and the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870) against Paraguay had wiped them out, it was said. However, although many of them no longer have the dark skin and kinky hair associated with black stereotypes, there are an estimated two million people of African descent in Argentina.

“It’s a good thing for this variable to be considered, and it is a testimony to the social organisations’ sustained work for the visibility of Afro-descendants,” Ernesto Robledo, of the Afrocultural Movement in Buenos Aires, told IPS.

“For 10 years, we have fought against the racist prejudice that spread the idea that there are no more black people in this country,” he said.

But Robledo expressed the fear that many respondents might prefer not to claim their African ancestry, which still bears a stigma in society because of lack of sensitivity and awareness, he said.

“Counting all of us, so we know how many we are, is a good start, especially to counter the wrong-headed idea that there are no black people. But the real challenge will be the actions we take later on, on the basis of those figures,” said Robledo.

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