Cuba’s renowned health care system has a blind spot: It is failing people with mental illness. The island nation has the highest rates of suicide and depression in the Americas. Writing for the Virginia Quarterly Review, Lygia Navarro skillfully weaves the stories of individual Cubans with a broader perspective on the government’s refusal to acknowledge the dramatic suicide rates and the prevalent prescription drug abuse. She exposes secretive lives without exploitation and pays homage to the setting with telling descriptions.
After days of talking about mental health and black-market meds, one afternoon Mirta stops me midconversation. She can tell from my questioning that Cuba’s passion for sedatives is something of an anomaly. Do Americans take sleeping pills? she asks. I do not want to offend her, and say carefully that it isn’t as common there, and is stigmatized by the stereotype of unhappy housewives downing bottles of Valium. Mirta laughs. The possibility of falling over the precipice is all around her—almost everyone she knows takes sedatives. “Because people know that they have to get up and start all over again. This has been going on for so long here in Cuba that if someone doesn’t take sleeping pills, that’s abnormal.” Both she and Alejandro are uneasy about their underground pharmacist’s corruption in profiting off people like them. But they keep buying.
The more I talk with health workers and Cubans hooked on sedatives, the more I am convinced that the government has strategic reasons for making meprobamate available primarily on the black market. With no aboveground market or statistics, who knows how many tablets are produced or how many Cubans consume them? If meprobamate were conveniently available in pharmacies—and more affordable than on the black market—how many more Cubans would rush to drug themselves? And, the question ultimately is, how afraid is Havana of its citizens unsedated?
(Thanks, Untold Stories.)