Story Publication logo June 1, 2009

Tropical Depression


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Six months after Fidel Castro's exit, Lygia Navarro explores the hidden epidemic of depression in...


Cuba has the highest rate of depression and suicide in the New World. So why does Castro's vaunted health care system deny the very existence of mental illness on the island?

HAVANA -- August in Havana is a mounting wave of heat—so consuming, the sun so piercing, it can warp your sense of reason. Tempt you to surrender. Make you flirt with insanity. The pained faces around you are covered in grimy sweat, a haze of resignation in the eyes. Here or there a woman fans herself, perhaps with some ladylike, store-bought thing, but more often with a stray scrap of cardboard. Inside, heat radiates from every surface, the temperature rising as the torridity soaks deeper into the concrete walls. Outside is worse. Few dare venture into the scorching light.

And there is nowhere else to go. Havana, for most inhabitants, is an enclosed island within an island—just as she was when the Spaniards built wall after wall of stone to keep out the English and the pirates and all others drawn by the siren song of that wild tropical mirage of women and rum and gambling. To the north is the water, of course, but it is accessible only by climbing down the Malecón seawall and a ring of perilous cliffs. A trip to the beaches east of the city involves hours of waiting in line, then standing for the long ride on an overstuffed bus with no air-conditioning.

In every other direction is green jungle. Even Havana's neighborhoods explode with the products of sun, water, and the island's intense fertility: the delicate orange flowers of the outstretched framboyán shade trees, bougainvillea in twists of magenta and purple, squash blossoms peeking from the weeds encircling decrepit mansions now housing handfuls of families, and the red mar pacíficos, or hibiscus, which curl in their blossoms every afternoon.

On a lucky day, this occurs just as the rains come in. The horizon goes from partly cloudy to gray and foreboding, the sky exuding a brilliant, otherworldly yellow. Lightning jags, in white and orange, hover on the horizon, above the imploding buildings. Threatening. Then the aguacero comes down: angry, gigantic drops beating into the ground in long flashes of light. Few Cubans can afford umbrellas, and they resign themselves to the deluges, like so many daily realities—the uncertainty, the drenching, the clumps of clay dirt caught in the torrents turning everything a washy red.

As August goes on, the rains become scarce, and the temperature rises. Walking down the street, visiting with friends, riding the bus—everywhere people lament the unrelenting heat. Will September bring relief? Or will the hurricanes start? Even when the sun sets, temperatures never fall more than a few degrees. Across the city, habaneros (residents of Havana) pray for nights free of blackouts, so their electric fans will not rattle to a stop, so the suffocating heat will be staved off one more night. Then, in the morning, the cycle begins again.

It is in August's crescendo of waiting and suffering that Cubans often give up on life. But few people in Cuba talk openly about losing one's mind, much less about suicide. So when, one viscous August afternoon, a woman named Mirta tells me that her nephew killed himself, she does so without speaking. ...

This article also appeared in UTNE Reader on April 24, 2009.


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