In The Country of Scarcity, Rum Is Never Lacking

Cultural tolerance of alcohol has contributed to alarming levels of rising consumption for decades.  (Luz Escobar)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 23 December 2019 — In spite of the economic crisis, which makes it hard to put some traditional foods on the Christmas table, something will not be missing in Cuba at the end of this year: Alcohol.

The figures from the World Health Organization (OMS) cite Cuba as the 15th country for alcohol consumption in Latin America and the Caribbean, but what seems a relatively optimistic position may hide a worse reality due to the lack of transparency with which authorities manage the data.

The Government redoubles warnings around this time to prevent an increase in road accidents linked to alcohol consumption, but among the people there exists a very relaxed perception about the problems that drinking this type of beverage causes.  “Without rum there is no country,” you hear many regular drinkers say, and they are not wrong.

Latin America is the region with the second highest level of consumption, with Chile standing out with per capital consumption of 9.6 liters of pure alcohol, Argentina with 9.3 liters, and Venezuela with 8.9 liters.  Beer is the preferred beverage on the continent and accounts for 55% of the total alcohol consumed.  Vodka and whiskey follow with 30% and wine with 12%.

In Cuba, as it could not be otherwise, rum consumption stands out, with the Island the second greatest worldwide consumer according to a study carried out several years ago by the British magazine, The Economist, and the first in per capita consumption at 4.9 liters per person annually. The figure is five times the amount in liters that each person drinks in nine of the 10 countries that drink the most rum, ahead of the Dominican Republic, which follows the Island at 3.3 liters per year per person.

The initiation of alcohol consumption begins very early in Cuba, where pressure is still placed on boys from childhood to prove their virility in this way.  Almost as a game, the father himself gives the boy a taste of rum at a family party in order to show that “he can take it” and will be “a man who fears nothing.”

A study carried out by the National Unit for Promotion of Health and Disease Prevention concluded that more than 45% of those older than 15 years consume spirits in Cuba, especially between ages 15 and 44 years, and the majority of alcoholics are between 25 and 42 years of age.

The same survey determined that the beginning of alcohol consumption is increasingly early and also that the differences between the sexes are blurring, and men and women drink similar amounts, especially in the big cities, like Havana.  In the capital and center of the country, 53% consume alcohol, the highest concentration of drinkers.

Better educated women drink alcohol (24%) at a higher rate than the less educated.  Among men, the highest percentage of consumers is found among those without education or who have only reached the primary level, according to the survey.

The data about differences between the sexes clashed with the Conglomerated Multiple Indicators Survey of 2014 which showed that the proportion of men who drink alcohol is higher than that of women, especially among those younger than 15 years.  Some 11 percent of males and 3 percent of females among total consumers are younger than that age

The sale of alcoholic beverages, in spite of being regulated and prohibited to minors, often is carried out in a lax manner and without great control.  In recent years beer vending machines were placed in several tourist areas, and they dispensed their merchandise without any control.  Several of them were withdrawn after complaints and denunciations presented by worried parents, but others continue in service.

Alcohol is sold in most cafes and food venues, especially beer and rum, in areas widely occupied by children.  Children are exposed from a very young age to this harmful substance and to the dangers associated with its consumption, because often the adults in those places get drunk, fight, and spew profanity under the effects of alcohol.

The arrival in the market a decade ago of the mini-bottles of rum also has contributed to the expansion of consumption among the young.  With 200 millilitres and at a price that does not exceed 1 CUC, the consumption of this product is very widespread among teens and youths who do not have the resources to buy more expensive drinks.

In Cuba’s interior, especially in the small towns, alcoholism is reaching alarming levels. With very few opportunities for wholesome recreation, a stagnant economy, and few expectations for the future, the provincial youth regularly drink alcohol at parties, reunions, and in their daily lives.  In the sugarcane communities, the product can be very easy to acquire due to the diversion of resources from the sugar mills.

There is also a long tradition of clandestine stills where alcohol from the public health system is often distilled.  On the Island several “drinks of necessity” have been created such as the infamous “Train Spark,” but there is also an extensive black market that increases during these festive days for rum extracted from the state factories, with the consequent dangers of an often-adulterated product.

Official Cuba has also contributed to the public and unbridled consumption of alcohol.  In order to massively attract participants to official events and celebrations of some historic date, it has become common to locate points of sale of beer and rum in bulk.  Although lower quality than the bottled beverage, these products are very cheap and attract lower-income people.

The 2018 World Report on Alcohol and Health published by the OMS says that there are more than three million deaths worldwide caused by alcohol, 28% by injuries (traffic accidents, self-inflicted wounds, and violence); 21% by digestive disorders; 19% by cardiovascular illnesses, and the rest infectious, cancerous, mental, and other illnesses.

In addition, it cites 237 million men and 46 million women who suffer alcohol consumption disorders, the majority in Europe (14.8% and 3.5%) and the Americas (11.5% and 5.1%), with special incidence in high-income countries.

Translated by Mary Lou Keel


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