Chile's Botched Census Is Major Black Mark On Its Global Reputation

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SANTIAGO — The fallout from the failed 2012 population census in Chile is huge, even though the country has yet to grasp its full impact. A recent report from an investigating committee advises that the results shouldn’t be used for official figures, and recommends that the census be repeated correctly in 2015.

Though the government characterized it as “the best census in the history of Chile,” it left almost 10% of the country’s inhabitants (more than a million people) unaccounted for. The number of errors was so high that, when the National Institute of Statistics (INE) started to process the data, the professionals tasked with producing the results immediately voiced their complaints. Their dissatisfaction reached the ears of the press, and the scandal has snowballed ever since.

INE’s director was forced to resign, and was subsequently appointed to the investigating committee that has advised the country to start the whole process all over again, throwing the results of the 2012 census — which cost $33 million — out with the garbage.

In practical terms, this means that Chile has no official population figures for the time being. When it comes to budget allocations that are assigned proportionally according to regional, provincial or municipality population, estimated figures will have to be used based on updated versions of the 2002 census. What’s more, there will have to be some agreement on which estimates to use.

The census catastrophe also means that Chile’s per capita income is completely unknown. If actual population figures matched those from the disputed 2012 census, per capita income would be hovering around the $20,000 mark. If, however, the real population is closer to pre-census predictions, per capita income of $18,000 would be more accurate.

The significance of a census that provides unsound information is clear: If a country uses these erroneous figures to assign resources, it will do so incorrectly. But in Chile’s case, the national disaster that is the 2012 census will have much more serious consequences. At a local level, it calls into question all the INE’s figures, such as inflation and unemployment rates. And internationally, it throws a veil of mistrust over all the country’s data.

Reputation “shattered”

Within Latin America, Chile has traditionally been seen as a trustworthy country with solid institutions, a stable regulatory framework and meticulous national accounting. Its statistics have always been, as far back as most can remember, one of the pillars upon which this reputation of stability was based.

As statisticians well know, statistics require an act of faith or, in the best-case scenario, social consensus. The methodology is defined, the steps carried out, and the result delivered as an approximation accompanied by established margins of error. And society accepts that result because it trusts that proper methodology has been used and the investigations have been carried out in the best way possible. There are inevitably inaccuracies in population figures, unemployment and poverty rates, and inflation, but society agrees to use the figures available because it trusts that as inaccurate as they may be, there are no better ones available.

That social consensus has been shattered in Chile. And, tragically, it was shattered not because the INE tried to alter the statistics to give Chilean President Sebastian Piñera’s government a political advantage — nothing of the sort. Instead, Chile lost its credibility because, in an act of arrogance, INE authorities decided that the methodology used for previous censuses was faulty and changed to what they supposed would be a better one.

But the outcome of the so-called best census in Chile’s history has been a loss of faith in the national statistics, which at the end of the day amounts to a loss of faith in Chile.

To regain its credibility at this stage of the game, the only option left to Chile is to eat some serious humble pie, throw the results of its 2012 census away, and redo it all over again.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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