Suicide in Cuba: A Drama Without Repercussions

From 1962-1970 the suicide rate on the island ranged between 10.5 and 12.6 per 100,000 inhabitants. Back in the 80s, the rate of self-destruction among Cubans exceeded 21 suicides per 100,000 inhabitants. According to the PanAmerican Health Organization, Cuba has the highest suicide rate in the hemisphere, with 18.1 per 100,000 population, followed by Uruguay (15.9).

Figures from the Ministry of Public Health tell us that for every 2000 patients seen in GPs’ offices, at least one commits suicide during the first two years of being seen, 10 attempt suicide each year and about 50 are suicidal.

It is rare that in a neighborhood for its residents not to know dramatic anecdotes of suicide. From an old man hanging himself naked in his home or a young woman who burns herself up, to politicians loyal to the regime who committed suicide by shooting themselves, as did Eddy Sunol, Osvaldo Dorticós and Haydee Santamaria.

In 1964, after Fidel Castro dismissed him as Minister of Labor and accused him of corruption, the commander Augusto Martinez Sanchez, then at 41, attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest. He never returned to public life. In 2010 they allowed him to visit his eldest son in Miami. He died in Havana on February 2, 2013, at age 90.

In June, the independent attorney Veizant Boloy wrote in Cubanet that “suicide was the cause of death of at least 5 people between April and May 2013 in the municipality of Palma Soriano, Santiago de Cuba.” The most common methods were hanging, jumping into space from a high place, catching fire, poisoning with drugs and gun shots, “mainly young men who are forced, against their will, to do their military service.”

Several interviewees told Boloy that the situation the eastern provinces found themselves in after Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, which left more than 100,000 houses partially or totally destroyed, has been one of the causes of the increase in non-natural deaths in Palma Soriano.

Also in June 2013, but in Havana, independent journalist Carlos Ríos reported the suicide of the former police captain Romerico Berenguer, 69, who hanged himself at his home in Santos Suarez. The motive  would have been that after four decades of service in the Interior Ministry, they retired him with 211 pesos per month ($9). Later they increased his pension to 300 pesos ($12), but it still wasn’t enough to live on. Ríos finished his Cubanet note clarifying that in less than a year, in that same block, there had been three more suicides, all men over 60.

In Mujeres (Women), a revolutionary rag, in a report published in October in Worldcrunch, Felina, one of the interviewees, told the journalist, “Last week a friend of mine burned herself up. She was a whore, like me. Her daughter said that she was watching television and suddenly her mother kissed her and went to the bathroom. She came out running, burning like a live torch. I think about suicide every day. But I don’t like to suffer. If I do it, I’m going to jump off the balcony.

After these terrifying tales, one question comes to mind: if the official media assures us that Cuba is perceived as the greatest paradise for workers, why is the suicide rate so high?

A medical specialist consulted said that the causes of suicide are varied. “From the persistent economic crisis and the lack of prospects, to mental breakdown. Many young people don’t see any prospects for their lives. They don’t persevere when they face their professional future. Personal problems overwhelm them. The same thing happens with adults and the elderly when there has been a family, political or social breakdown. There have been months when I’ve seen up to 20 cases of potential suicides.”

Suicide is a global phenomenon. It is the second cause of death after traffic accidents. Not even the experts agree on the causes that push an apparently sane person to self-destruct. In his book Anatomy of Melancholia, Robert Burton (1577-1640) defined suicide as an expression of a severe depressive state. Pierre de Boismont, in 1856, tried to be more exact: “The suicide is wretchedly unhappy or crazy.”

This concept was later refined by Sigmund Freud from the point of view of psychoanalysis, defining it as a manifestation of the soul induced by the context or of the individual. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim in his work The Suicide (1897) notes that suicides are individual phenomena essentially responding to social causes. If we give credence to these arguments, suicide is a social fact.

It’s clear that economic, personal, romantic, family or health crises often become the trigger that sets off a suicide. The Cuban government, which is proud of its achievements in social, educational or health matters, finds it difficult to digest how the frustration of a segment of the population leads them to want to end their existence.

Behind the statistics of suicides on the island are hidden stories of people who for one reason or another, consider sacrificing themselves to evade the uncertain future, broken families or a life of weakly applauding the cheats.

The regime handles the suicide statistics with tweezers. They have become a state secret.

20 October 2013