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EDITORIALS & OPINION
Cuba's Long Lie Expectancy
Media: Communist regimes are known to falsify and distort statistics, but they rarely get away with it unless Western media play along. They scored a big hit recently with data about Cuba's storied life expectancy.
In a widely distributed news story, the Associated Press last week explained why Cubans were living such long, healthy lives under their 47-year totalitarian dictatorship. Taking the word of Cuban officials, it credited the island's "mild climate," "free medical care" and "low-stress Caribbean lifestyle." Right on cue, CBS gave "thanks to the socialist island state's free health-care system" that's there so "fortunately."
But media claims that socialism lets Cubans live longer makes no sense. Cuba's living conditions portend anything but a long life. The media reports, moreover, often misinterpret the data. "The average Joe reading these stories doesn't have all the background, and can be fooled by propaganda," says Cuban author Humberto Fontova.
Life expectancy at birth, as defined by Oxford University demographers, is how many years a baby would live if patterns of mortality at the time of his birth remain steady through his lifetime. It correlates closely with infant mortality, because the longer a person lives, the longer he can expect to advance past the average.
According to 2007 CIA World Factbook cited by AP, Cubans live an average of 77.08 years, with men at 74.85 and women at 79.43. But in its praise-filled report, the AP missed that this actually represents a decline in life expectancy. The year before, the average was 77.41 with men at 75.11 and women at 79.89.
This may reflect that Cubans aren't living in steady conditions through their lifetimes. With a 1990 cutoff of aid from the Soviet Union, there has been a huge decline in living standards, according to University of Pittsburgh professor Carmelo Mesa-Lagos, who is recognized as a leader in Cuban demographics.
In an interview with IBD, he explained that Cubans often do live long lives, but not because of balmy weather, good health care or any other reasons cited by Cuba's propagandists.
From sanitation to housing, "Cubans have experienced deterioration in all health indicators," Mesa-Lagos said. As a result, Cubans have seen an uptick in diseases such as hepatitis and acute diarrhea. The increase of water-borne diseases does not correlate with long life spans anywhere else in the world, he said.
Food and critical vitamin shortages, meanwhile, were also major problems in Cuba, notes Andy S. Gomez, assistant provost of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. "A deficit of Vitamin C and a lack of appropriate diet has caused Cubans to suffer eye diseases," he said.
Mesa-Lagos agreed, saying that a few years ago, elderly Cubans experienced an epidemic of sudden blindness due to vitamin shortages. Worse yet, a third of Cuban doctors had been shipped to Venezuela, leaving many with no access to any health care at all, he added.
The only area in which Cuba's data are in line with the rest of the world is infant mortality, Mesa-Lagos said. Low readings there normally correlate with longevity, and Cubans' long average life span is technically in line with its low infant mortality, he said.
"But how do you achieve this?" Mesa-Lagos asks. Countries differ, for example, in how they count births. If a newborn doesn't live more than 24 hours, it often doesn't show up in infant mortality statistics. The figure is depressed even further by abortion, he said, noting that Cubans are often pressured into abortions if there is a chance a baby might require extra medical care.
At seven in 10 pregnancies, Cuba's abortion rate is Latin America's highest, said Fontova. Cuba also has one of the world's highest suicide rates, which also doesn't show up in expectancy data.
Gomez said Cuba's sunny life span numbers seem to conceal a larger issue — the country's rapidly aging population. It has 11.2 million people, and only 2.2 million were born after 1992. If its young people emigrate, Cuba's statistical average life expectancy could be even higher, he said. And that's nothing to brag about.