Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean

HEALTH-CUBA: Alcoholism Alive and Well

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Nov 6 2000 (IPS) - Many Cubans turn to the bottle to celebrate a new romantic relationship, mourn a lost loved one or simply to have fun — a trend that is threatening the health statistics of this Caribbean island nation, which are among the best in Latin America.

Studies indicate that 49 percent of Cuba’s more than 11 million people drink, while seven to nine percent are regular drinkers. But there are regions where alcoholism is particularly prevalent.

“There are towns where 70 percent of the population drinks,” pointed out psychiatrist Armando García. “In eastern Cuba, meanwhile, the average is 20 percent, compared to an average of 10 to 15 percent in the western and central parts of the island.”

In the municipality of Caimanera, 970 kms east of Havana, a full 97 percent — 98.6 percent of the men and 95.8 percent of the women — of the 1,057 people interviewed in a regional study on alcoholism admitted that they were regular drinkers.

In the case of the men, 32 percent were found to be “problem drinkers,” compared to 5.6 percent of the women. Most of those classified as having a drinking problem were between the ages of 21 and 30.

Experts with the national rehabilitation and prevention programme for alcoholics say there is a considerable segment of the population at risk of drinking problems, while a large number of accidents are caused by people driving under the influence.

A police report recently cited by the government-monopolised press noted that traces of alcohol were found in the blood of one of every three victims of traffic accidents or street fights that ended up in the hands of forensic medicine at the city morgues.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 40 percent of regular drinkers suffer from digestive problems, gastrointestinal ulcers, cirrhosis, endocrinological disorders, early ageing or sexual dysfunction.

The WHO also reports that at least 70 percent of the world population drink some kind of liquor, whether homemade or industrial-scale, while around 10 percent develop an addiction at some point in their lives.

Cubans are well-known for enjoying their rum, but health professionals warn that social drinking often leads to addiction.

“When I was young I never missed a party at the weekend, and there was always plenty of beer or rum to go around,” says Juan Valdés, a 68-year-old retiree who does not consider himself an alcoholic. “My father was also a hearty drinker, and I soon became one, and still am.”

A young man, Tomasito, told IPS that “I would get drunk, do outrageous things, and afterwards I wouldn’t remember anything. I had these huge mental gaps.” The only reason he didn’t lose his job, he said, was because his workmates frequently covered for him.

But Tomasito has not had a drink since 1994, when someone took him to Cuba’s first group of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), set up a year earlier. “That saved my life,” he says today, underlining that the only requirement to join AA is a real desire to stop drinking, and the willingness to take the first step — admitting that you are an alcoholic.

Today there are more than 120 AA groups around the country, with a combined total of around 1,200 members helping each other stay sober.

“Here we find human warmth, friendship, love — emotions that we have lost,” said Ramón, 33, who turned to AA on the recommendation of one of the professionals who treated him, who hoped to keep the young man from suffering another relapse after two bouts of psychiatric treatment.

Health professionals and authorities are alarmed at the increasingly early ages at which youngsters start drinking in Cuba.

“No one thinks it strange to see groups of youngsters passing around a bottle of rum in the street, something that is illegal and can lead to arrest in other countries,” said a doctor whose clinic is located a few blocks from the “malecón”, the walkway lining the coast in Havana.

Many teenagers admit that sometimes they drink too much when they are partying.”I have more fun this way,” said an 18-year- old who preferred to remain anonymous. He also said he felt shy with the girls when he was only armed with a soft drink, rather than something stronger.

Last year, the Ministry of Interior Commerce banned the sale of liquor to youngsters under 16 by any state or private commercial establishment.

It also banned the sale of liquor in parks or stadiums, on the street or other places where “social co-existence” could be affected, after stands selling rum, homemade wine or beer had become a routine sight in Cuba’s public spaces.

The bans were aimed at reverting the soaring sales of cigarettes and rum — at high prices — by the state, which resulted when the government lifted limitations on sales of those items in a bid to remove excess pesos circulating in Cuba in the early 1990s, after the fall of the east European socialist bloc.

The money supply was tightened from 13 to nine billion pesos by 1998, partly as a result of sales of rum and cigarettes.

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