Study: Suicide epidemic exists under Castro
Dade exiles fare better than Cubans on island
By JUAN O. TAMAYO
Miami Herald Staff Writer
Cubans on the island have the highest rate of suicide in Latin America. But Cubans in Miami-Dade County kill themselves less often than other Miamians, and Cuban-born women in Miami commit suicide least of all, according to a study.
And although Cubans on the island average one death per three attempts serious enough to require hospital treatment, Communist Party members commit one suicide per attempt, the study says. If suicide is truly an act of desperation, then the just-published study,
Suicide in Cuba and Miami, shows that Cubans are dreadfully miserable in one place and far less so in the other.
``The difference between the two places reflects different societal, political and economic outlooks,'' said Maida Donate-Armada, one of the two Cuba-educated academics now living in Miami who wrote the study, published by
the Cuban American National Council. The catalyst Using statistics from the Cuban Health Ministry and Donate-Armada's own study of suicides in 1984, when she was working for the Health Ministry, the study argues that the island's people have been emotionally shattered since the failure of President Fidel Castro's plans for a record 10 million ton sugar harvest in 1970.
``It was the first break in the collective conscience regarding the revolution's ability to provide coherent answers to economic problems,'' said Donate-Armada, a psychologist who left Cuba in 1993. The island's suicide rate nearly tripled after that catastrophe, from 8 per 100,000 people in 1969 to 23.2 per 100,000 in 1982, the study reported. So bad was the crisis that in 1979 the government classified suicide statistics as state secrets, the study added, and began hiding them under other categories like ``violent deaths'' or ``other unclassified physiological illnesses.''
Highest in Latin America
Donate-Armada estimates Cuba's current suicide rate at more than 20 per 100,000 -- about 2,500 deaths a year among 11 million people. That would put the island well ahead of the average in Latin America, where the rates of
suicide hover between 8 and 12 per 100,000, Donate-Armada said. ``A level of 20 is already an epidemic. In Cuba, anything higher would almost be a mass suicide,'' she said. Donate-Armada's co-author in the 1984 study was Zoila Macias, a physician who was director of national statistics at the Cuban Health Ministry from 1991 to 1994.
Their study showed that suicides in Cuba, as in most countries, often involve people with family problems, low education levels and low or no incomes. But the similarities appear to end there. Cuban women kill themselves significantly more often than their foreign counterparts, the study showed. While the world average is one woman for every three men, the island's ratio is nearly 1-1. That probably means that Cuban women have the highest suicide rate in the world, the study said.
More successful attempts
Suicide attempts by Cubans are also more often successful. The world average is 10 attempts per death, but Cuba's is 3-1. And Communist Party members, Donate-Armada added, succeeded nearly every time they staged a suicide
attempt serious enough to require notifying a hospital. The study said the higher death-per-attempt rate showed not only deeper desperation but perhaps also a lack of effective medical care for those who try to take their lives.
Cuba's suicide rates have clearly swung with history: From 2.2 per 100,000 in 1907, soon after Cuba won independence from Spain, it rose to 13.1 in 1957, in the thick of Castro's guerrilla war against President Fulgencio Batista.
With hopes riding on the fledgling Castro revolution, suicides plummeted in the 1960s and averaged 8 to 10 per 100,000 people, Donate-Armada said. But after 1970 harvest failure, the rate rose, peaking at 23.2 in 1982 -- two
years after the crisis unleashed by the Mariel boatlift. That figure made Cuba fourth in the world at the time, behind Hungary, Denmark and Austria.
That grim picture of Cuba contrasts sharply with the study's findings on suicides among Cuban-born residents of Miami-Dade County as reported by public health officials in 1980, 1989, 1990 and 1991.
In the most statistically significant difference, Cuban women in Miami are ar less likely to kill themselves than their male counterparts. There is one female suicide for every five male suicides in Miami, compared with nearly 1-1 in Cuba.
``It seems the Cuban woman is quicker to adapt to and assimilate the new values of North American culture, the study said. And although Cuban-born Miamians still lead all other Hispanic groups in suicide, they kill themselves less often than the average Miamian: They make up 29.1 percent of Miami-Dade's population, but only 25 percent of the 300
Miamians who kill themselves each year, the study showed.
The county's overall rate was 16.2 suicides per 100,000 people in 1991, and the rate has tended to fall in the last couple of years, the study indicated, for both Cubans and the rest of the population.
``Cubans are very normal in Miami, in terms of their suicide patterns, Donate-Armada said. ``It would seem their social, economic and political conditions here are to their liking.