Tropical Depression in Cuba
(Page 2 of 7)
Sit down with most medical professionals in Cuba and they will assure you that suicide is rare. However, in most years, a higher percentage of Cubans commit suicide than citizens of any other Latin American country.
Since written histories of Cuba have existed, Cubans have killed themselves in record numbers as a form of social protest. At the dawn of its conquest, according to University of North Carolina historian Louis A. Pérez Jr., as many as one-third of the island’s native inhabitants committed suicide to avoid living under Spanish rule. As the independent nation grew, more and more Cubans turned to suicide: peasants in the time of unemployment after the sugar harvest, wives escaping violent husbands, the working class suffering economic crises, young leftists facing jail under dictator Fulgencio Batista, and thousands disillusioned by Fidel Castro’s transformation of Cuban society after the 1959 revolution.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the island fell into its own Great Depression, which Castro euphemistically dubbed “the Special Period in Times of Peace,” and suicides spiked to more than double the already-high rate of 1959, becoming the second-leading cause of death for Cubans ages 15 to 49. (Defected Ministry of Public Health workers claim that the official tallies heavily underreport suicides, with the government recategorizing many as accidental deaths.)
The impact of the Special Period on the Cuban psyche is difficult to overstate. Once, on a visit to Havana several years ago, I asked a friend when exactly the Special Period had ended. He laughed, dryly. “Has it?” While the worst of the 1990s is past, Cubans have become accustomed to levels of uncertainty and scarcity inconceivable to outsiders, and, on the whole, they remain subtly traumatized.
Since the handover of power from Fidel to his brother Raúl, much has been made in the international press of reforms on the island, but there has been no change in the basic, untenable chemistry of the nation. Cubans still cannot express themselves without fear of punishment or leave their country freely; there is still no free press, and the government remains rabid in cracking down on dissidents. Owning DVD players and cell phones is now allowed, yet precious few can afford such luxuries.
In an attempt to revive the economy during the Special Period, the government legalized the use of dollars and then set up a network of stores to sell Cubans everyday goods—at U.S. prices. This has created a reality that for ordinary citizens simply does not compute: Cubans—doctors, teachers, and custodians alike—earn an average of 250 to 300 Cuban pesos, or $10 to $12, a month. But once their monthly rations run out, usually after two weeks, they must buy almost everything with a dollar-like currency, the CUC, or Cuban convertible peso. On a $10 monthly salary, a $200 cell phone looks like reform only from the outside.
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