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National Population Census Begins Under Police State in Nicaragua

More than 8,700 census takers will visit every Nicaraguan home. Social researchers warn "there is distrust in the population."

Carlos F. Chamorro

30 de abril 2024


On April 30, more than 8,700 census takers hired by the National Institute of Development Information (INIDE) began visiting all Nicaraguan households. They will continue during the month of May to collect information for the national population and household census. 

This census is being carried out nine years after it should have been done. The most recent one was conducted in 2005 under the government of Enrique Bolaños. According to technical recommendations, the next one should have been conducted 10 years later, in 2015, under the regime of Daniel Ortega.

Social researcher Juan Carlos Gutierrez explained that "there are technical problems that affect the credibility of the census with regards to the quality of the information that will be collected and about the results that will be generated." Gutierrez says the information should be subject to an audit, although there is no guarantee there will be access to the databases. This census will be carried out with the government's own funds and "there is distrust both in the population and in the international organizations that have previously supported censuses," according to the sociologist. 

For his part, economist Douglas Castro highlighted the importance of the information that the census could yield on mortality during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was concealed by the regime, and on the migratory flow that has occurred as a result of the national crisis since 2018.  

Castro says that the government "has a dilemma because it is quite hard to disguise demographic data. It will be important to compare the numbers from the Central Bank's pre-census, CELADE's [Latin American and Caribbean Demographic Center] estimates, and the results of the [national] census, and then see what the explanation will be. Because if we end up discovering that there are 800,000 fewer people, the regime has to explain the fact that people are leaving and are voting with their feet."  

Castro warned that during the census "pilot tests" last week, the pollsters who visited homes were accompanied by police and political secretaries of the FSLN. The police proximity to the pollsters causes "people to be more intimidated, but it also benefits the regime by forcing people to answer, because [the regime's] great fear is that people will not open their doors and that they will not talk to the census takers," said Castro. 

However, if the pollsters are accompanied by police, the census cannot be considered professional. "It's clear, but they [the regime] prefer to assume that cost, rather than pay the cost of people not opening their doors and not answering them because they are afraid," according to Castro.

censos en Nicaragua
Surveyors from the National Institute of Development Information (Inide), during field work. Photo: Inide

Census is nine years behind schedule

To what do you attribute the long time interval between the last census in 2005 and this one in 2024? It's been 19 years, 18 of which have elapsed during Daniel Ortega's three consecutive terms in office. 

Douglas Castro: The only possible answer is that it's due to incompetence. They had enough time to prepare for the stipulated 2015 census, having come to power in 2007. But their priorities have never been serious public policies, or carrying out a census that has to be done because it's time to do it. 

In those times –in 2015–, they were more concerned with issues related to the 2016 elections. Then they had another excuse starting in 2018 with the mess the country has experienced due to the political crisis, and then COVID. So there have been a number of factors, but they should not be an excuse. That is, they have had plenty of time. 

How important is it for the country to have an updated population and household census for the design of government public policies and the evaluation of policy impact? 

Juan Carlos Gutierrez: Censuses are key to being able to estimate the population, and from these estimates they can define social policies, public policies, make calculations for tax rates, geographic distributions and geographic organization. In some countries, the census is even used as a basis for the distribution of municipal governments, legislative representations, etc. The results change the national statistics for the national accounts. Having updated statistics makes it possible to have a picture of the country's macroeconomic situation, social policies, public policies and political geography. 

The credibility of the information

Under Daniel Ortega's dictatorship, all independent analysis centers for collecting information on socioeconomic indicators, poverty, health or education surveys have been eliminated. What level of credibility exists today with regards to the national statistics system, socioeconomic indicators, and the censuses themselves? 

Douglas Castro: Credibility is always questioned, even if they do tell the truth, because it is difficult to believe that the regime is telling the truth when it has lied and committed crimes against humanity. But, in demographics, it's harder to disguise data or attempt to manipulate it, because when those databases are released, in theory that information would also have to be audited by ECLAC [UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean], by CELAC [Community of Latin American and Caribbean States], and by the United Nations Population Fund. 

So the regime would be taking a great risk if it tries to manipulate that information. But I believe that the shadow of distrust, of the lack of credibility they have, will always be over them. It will be necessary to analyze the data when they release it, if they do in fact release it. 

This is the first census to be carried out with government funds. That is, it's not a census funded by the United Nations Population Fund. The 2005 census was financed by a Japanese donation. [Government funding] may be a factor that prevents the dictatorship from being forced to release the information, which will make it more difficult to have the data be auditable. But doing a census without making the database available so that people can analyze it, would make it lose all meaning.

Is it possible to estimate the population in this census, based on the projections of the last census taken in 2005? 

Douglas Castro: According to CELADE, which makes projections based on the previous census, in theory this year we should have 7,140,000 Nicaraguans. However, these are projections based on a census that was done 19 years ago and every year a margin of error is added to the projections. Last year the Central Bank did a pre-census, which reports that there are more or less 1.6 million households in Nicaragua. Each household has about 4.3 persons per dwelling, and they more or less estimate that this could mean around 6.8 million people. That is to say, a difference of more or less 300,000 people between the two estimates. 

However, there are other things we need to analyze, like the migration issue. We do not really know how many have left. Many people talk about 700,000 or 800,000, almost 10% of the population. But that is very difficult to measure because there are people who went first to Costa Rica, then to the United States, or they went to Spain, and then returned. So, when we look at the gap between what the Central Bank says, which should be the same as the initial projections of CELADE –this 7,140,000 number–, and what the census ends up giving us, that's where I think the hardcore analysis is going to have to be done. 

These 8,700 census takers who have been hired by INIDE are going to visit every Nicaraguan home to carry out this great governmental survey that is the census. Is there any factor of distrust in the population, due to the fact that Nicaragua lives under a police state and a system of surveillance? 

Juan Carlos Gutiérrez: There's distrust by both the population and by international organizations that have supported censuses in the past. This is the first one that is financed through an agreement of the Central Bank, without any required technical vetting. Censuses should be planned at least three years in advance –five in some other countries–, and in less than eight months they are already preparing a census with cartography and everything. So technically there are already serious problems. 

Even if the data is published, it won't go through the kind of exhaustive analysis of the quality of the census that happened in 2005, when there had to be an audit due to a problem of stolen ballots in the INIDE warehouse. In this case, no one will have the ability to enter. Since 2010, the Population Fund and other development agencies have offered technical and budgetary support to carry out the census, but it's fallen on deaf ears. Now, the regime is doing it on its own. They're going to handle their own methodology, their own cartography, their own collection of information, and their own manipulation of the information. 

So, technically there are serious problems for the credibility of the quality of the information that will be collected and what will be generated as a result. 

And there's the same problem with the population. I was talking to people around the time of the announcement [of the census], and almost all of them, in different places, told me that they were going to try to avoid answering, that they weren't going to answer the knock on the door or give information that would reveal their situation. Because there's also fear around the use of data. The data can be used both for national appraisals and to know who can be taxed more. So people are also afraid of that. 

Covid-19 mortality and migration

Foto: Inide

Douglas Castro: The issue of excess mortality with COVID-19 deaths. Let's remember that research in The Lancet, also the WHO, said that there was severe over mortality in Nicaragua of between 12,000 and 16,000, which was one of the highest in the world. 

That is to say, for every death reported by the regime, it could have been 40 or 50 times more. So that tells you how little credibility they have when it comes to something as basic as deaths due to COVID-19. This is going to have an impact on the population number that this census is going to yield. 

Who are the census enumerators that INIDE has hired to carry out the census? Are they professionals with experience in this area? We also do not know the content of the census questionnaire, except for a few questions.

Douglas Castro: Three or four months ago there was a problem because they still needed to finish recruiting the almost 9000 workers that the census enumerators will need. The only requirement is that they are of legal age, know how to read and write, and can handle a tablet. The other new factor in this census is that it’s not a ballot, but it will rather be digital, and in theory that reduces costs. That's why this census costs a lot less than the 2005 census and there are benefits of doing it digitally. 

They had difficulties recruiting (personnel). It’s paradoxical that, in a country with very high unemployment, people don't want to work or don't come to an opportunity like this, when before it was the opposite. In 2005, people were lining up to become a pollster. So, the suspicion that people have, and there is always a mantle of suspicion in this regime, is that many of these people are militants, they are people who have no qualifications, who have no experience whatsoever, and who have been recruited in the Mayor's Office with a mainly political criterion. 

Among the few questions that are known to be asked, there is one on how the garbage is handled in the houses and another one on whether they have relatives abroad and whether they receive remittances from abroad. What new information can originate from this answer regarding migration, remittances, and their distribution in the municipalities? 

Juan Carlos Gutiérrez: What this should reflect is the weight that remittances have in the consumption economy of the population and what this means in terms of the population's expenses. Also, to have a calculation base that allows lowering the Economically Active Population (EAP) in terms of national accounts, they could manipulate the statistics around the employed population. 

This time no one knows the entire content of the survey, and questions like these raise doubts about its use. It could be used to manipulate the national statistics and establish an image of efficiency, which is what they need for internal campaigns and the management of resources before international organisms in loan issues. Migration and how it’s reflected in the survey results will be an important issue, as part of the expenditure and consumption of the population. 

You mentioned earlier the issue of over-mortality and the opacity of information during the COVID-19 pandemic. What can we expect from the census information on COVID mortality and migration? 

Douglas Castro: For me, there is a dilemma, because it is quite difficult to disguise figures, especially in demographic issues, so what we have to see are those population differentials. What the Central Bank's pre-census and what the CELADE estimates say, compared with what ends up resulting and what the [official] explanation will be. 

Because if we end up realizing that there are 800,000 fewer people, what explanation can the regime give about people leaving [Nicaragua] and voting with their feet? 

Politically, this data will have a brutal impact, because, in the statistics of the regime itself, it is demonstrated that people have had no other option but to leave, when they [the regime] have said that they are generating employment and prosperity. 

This differential is mainly due to a migration issue, but also the issue of excess mortality, that is,16,000 people died in the context of the COVID-19 crisis. 

They did not want to tell the truth during the pandemic and tried to hide this data which is now being discovered, because it is difficult to lie with that type of statistics. I can't imagine what will happen with the census. This is regrettable because the country needs to have this type of data and they have always been carried out, even in the worst dictatorships, all of them do a census. They at least have that efficiency. This regime has not even had that, the a delay of 19 years is brutal. 

The Agricultural Census

In addition to the Population and Housing Census, another agricultural census will be carried out this year. What is the most important information, the most relevant indicators, and the usefulness that can be obtained from this instrument? 

Juan Carlos Gutiérrez: This information is important to identify land use management, agricultural inventory, and types of production. All this is also of fundamental importance to develop financing policies in normal countries – not in dictatorship as in Nicaragua – to address reforestation issues or the expansion of the agricultural frontier. 

But in our country, the issue is how they are going to show data that evidences an expansion of the agricultural frontier when the regime itself incites settlers to cut down and enter biological reserves. In the case of data, I believe that when the dictatorship falls and we rebuild Nicaragua, a new population, agricultural, and housing census will be required, because the data we may have now would lack accuracy and credibility.

Douglas Castro: The other important data has to do with the concentration of land and property according to agricultural holdings because we could realize what we have suspected, that there are people who have lost their properties, either because they have been displaced, or because they have entered into economic crisis and that there are economic power groups linked to the regime that have accumulated this land. This is one of the things that should be brought to our attention with the agricultural census if it is reflected in the data. That is why it is necessary to carry out a new data survey in the future.

This week they began to pilot the census because they were in training, and what people say is that they are conducting the surveys but police and political secretaries are close to those who are collecting the data. This intimidates people but simultaneously benefits the regime because it forces people to answer. Their great fear is that people would not open their doors and would not attend to their pollsters.

But a survey that is carried out accompanied by police officers is not a professional instrument. 

Douglas Castro: No, that is clear, but they prefer to assume that cost rather than pay the cost of people not opening their doors and not answering. So, between having a large number of people who do not answer their census, or that they answer because they are afraid, because behind them there is the whole apparatus of repression, they choose the latter.

This article was published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff. To get the most relevant news from our English coverage delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to The Dispatch.


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Carlos F. Chamorro

Carlos F. Chamorro

Periodista nicaragüense, exiliado en Costa Rica. Fundador y director de Confidencial y Esta Semana. Miembro del Consejo Rector de la Fundación Gabo. Ha sido Knight Fellow en la Universidad de Stanford (1997-1998) y profesor visitante en la Maestría de Periodismo de la Universidad de Berkeley, California (1998-1999). En mayo 2009, obtuvo el Premio a la Libertad de Expresión en Iberoamérica, de Casa América Cataluña (España). En octubre de 2010 recibió el Premio Maria Moors Cabot de la Escuela de Periodismo de la Universidad de Columbia en Nueva York. En 2021 obtuvo el Premio Ortega y Gasset por su trayectoria periodística.