Probably my saddest memories of Cuba are centered around suicide. Statistics about almost every health problem and cause of death in Cuba are easy to come by since the Cuban government is very proud of its accomplishments in health care and very anxious to improve further. But there is almost total official silence on the suicide rate. I did read elsewhere that the Pan American Health Service reported that Cuba had the highest suicide rate in Latin America, and certainly my own experience as a journalist tended to bear that out. Apart from the people whom I knew personally who committed suicide, there was the comparatively large number of people who would consult with doctors privately because they were struggling with very strong temptations to take their own lives. And often they were people of faith. Usually it was not a temptation toward suicide because of a terrible moment of crisis. Rather people would tell me that the day-to-day problems of the Cuban reality were just wearing them down further and further, until they felt that death would be a relief.
The people were keenly aware of the tragic problem, even though there was almost no public reporting of it. Just about everyone had experienced suicide among their friends or family members. And sometimes when a prominent person died the word spread that it had been a suicide, even though there was no official public comment on it. I always found that when I visited the church at Mass, the people were very attentive. They really wanted to hear what the priest had to say about the Gospel, and about life in the light of the Gospel. But any time he spoke about the topic of suicide, there was absolute stillness. A priest in Cuba has to take into account that in an average Sunday congregation there will almost certainly be some people present who are, or have been, seriously thinking of suicide, and the majority of the others have known the sadness of suicide among family or friends.
Another sad memory that comes readily to mind when I think of those years in Cuba is the explosion in prostitution. Prostitution had been greatly reduced by programs introduced to help women after the success of the Revolution, but with the influx of the Special Period, tourists and the circulation of the super-powerful dollar it had gotten worse in recent years than it had ever been. In small cities it was not so evident, as fewer tourists visited these, but it was truly ugly in Havana. I would only take the train to Havana a few times a year for meetings or errands, but it became a more and more unpleasant place to walk. If you looked anything like a foreign tourist you would be approached repeatedly by prostitutes or their pimps, especially near the big hotels or the dollar stores. And while hitchhiking was an important mode of transportation for everyone, you would often see strikingly dressed young women at the corners ignoring any offers of a ride in the normal beat-up cars and waiting for the tourist cars or taxis. Year by year the age of the prostitutes got younger and younger into early high school age.
Child prostitution was spreading as well, although the government would loudly denounce it and promise to stamp it out. I recall a journalist from Spain who stopped in to see me one day. He told me that he had never seen such blatant child prostitution anywhere as he had seen in Havana, where adults would approach him on the streets offering their own kid.
The buying power of the dollar is tremendous in the Cuban economy. A prostitute could make in one night what a surgeon made in a month. By the time I left, more and more foreign groups were organizing sex tours to Cuba. #World Politics