Two smiling young people explain in a TV commercial the advantages of the 2012 Population and Housing Census. They speak of the need to have updated and reliable statistics about our society. To end the brief spot, they chant in chorus a phrase where they claim that, “Between September 15th and 24th we will count everyone.” Which immediately leads the viewer to reflect that it’s not the same for them to count us as to count on us. But beyond the “Freudian slips” that are evident in the official language, concern takes us down another path. Cubans don’t trust inspections, we have a strong suspicion of counts and inquiries within our homes. We divide our existence between the legal — and public — zone, and the other, plagued with illegalities in order to survive. This is the main explanation for why we don’t always greet polls with pleasure.
Under other conditions, a census shouldn’t worry us but rather please us. Because it’s a statistical tool that provides the citizenry with data about itself. The number of houses, how many inhabitants of one gender or the other, the growth rate of the population… and so many other figures that reveal the achievements and shortcomings of a nation. However, in the case of our country, it is very difficult to separate a simple inventory from the consequent State control it generates. Impossible to unlink an inquiry — however ingenuous and anonymous it seems — from its most feared counterpart: surveillance. Especially with regards to all the objects and resources of “doubtful provenance” that underpin our daily existence. Thus, a good share of Cubans will end up lying on various questions posed by the enumerators, and others will refuse to participate in the census altogether. The final results, then, will be a mix of the approximations, omissions and falsehoods offered by many of the respondents to avoid revealing the reality of who they are or what they possess.
After inquiring of several friends and neighbors, I corroborated that people are not disposed to confess everything that the National Office of Statistics wants to know. One friend, who has been able to repair her house from the profits of illegally selling clothes, explained to me, without embarrassment, “I’ll put the flat-screen TV in the bedroom and tell my son to hide his laptop.” She immediately added, “When they ask what we live on, I’ll tell them the 420 Cuban pesos (less than $20 U.S.) my husband earns each month.” And then, “Ahh… and if they inquire about the brand of my refrigerator, I’ll lie to their faces and tell them it’s a Chinese Haier… even though from the living room you can see the South Korean LG logo.” But most complicated for her will be if they ask about her brother, his wife and their little girl, who will try to not be at home when the census takers come because they are living illegally in Havana. When the enumerators leave her house they will surely have a very different idea of the standard of living and way of life of my astute friend. And that is precisely what she wants, that they think black is white, up is down, and today is tomorrow. Because from the time she was a little girl she was taught that to tell the truth is to single yourself out and to give information to the State is self-incrimination.
7 September 2012