Study: Economic Crisis Improved Cuba’s Health

During the devastating downturn of the 1990s, a new report shows, the average Cuban lost 11 pounds and was far less likely to be diagnosed with diabetes.

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Enrique De La Osa / REUTERS

A Cuban flag is seen on a wall as a man rides his bicycle in Havana December 31, 2012.

The devastating economic crisis that gripped Cuba in the 1990s led to a marked improvement in the nation’s health, researchers have found.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union — and the subsequent termination of Soviet aid — and amid the tightening of the U.S. embargo, Cuba’s government was forced to implement tight rationing of food and fuel. But it also introduced  policies like commercial neighborhood gardens and the use of animals in farming in place of machinery. Cuba imported 1.5 million bicycles from China, and produced half a million more.

By looking at health statistics from that time—known in Cuba as the “Special Period”—researchers could see if such wholesale changes in dietary and exercise habits, across the population, made a difference to the nation’s health.

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Cuba has a long tradition of public health and cardiovascular research, and the researchers — from Spain, Cuba and the U.S. — were able to examine detailed data about body mass changes and diabetes cases between 1980 and 2010. The results, published in the British Medical Journal, show that during the crisis the average Cuban lost up to 11 pounds, and the country saw a rapid decline in death rates from diabetes and coronary heart disease.

But when the economic crisis ended in 1996,people in Cuba started to get heavier again, notes the study: although physical activity levels only declined slightly, by 2002 Cubans were enjoying their country’s sustained economic growth, consuming more food and drink than they were before the crisis, and putting on an average of around 20 lbs each between 1995 and 2010.

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“By 2011, the Cuban population has regained enough weight to almost triple the obesity rates of 1995,” write the researchers, noting that they also saw a surge in diabetes cases.

Manuel Franco an associate professor at the University of Alcalá in Madrid who led the study, said in a video presenting the team’s results that top-down efforts to bring down the weight of whole populations—as opposed to leaving it up to individuals—can have real benefits. But he also notes that so far, no country has managed to reduce  obesity through public health campaigns or targeted mass treatment programs.

As for whether, in health terms, the Cuba economic crisis can be compared to the current financial situation in Europe, Dr Franco says such a comparison is problematic: while residents of communist Cuba live in broadly similar social and economic conditions, people across Europe differ greatly in their diet and level of exercise.

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