Blogs > Cliopatria > Is Cuba's infant mortality rate really better than ours?

Jan 12, 2005 8:33 pm

Is Cuba's infant mortality rate really better than ours?

Maybe. In today's NYT, Nicholas Kristof cites that as fact from a CDC report.

But I have two follow-up questions:

1) What reason do we have to believe Cuban (and Chinese) statistics? Authoritarian governments are notorious liars, especially in raw data presentation.

2) Are the comparative data controlled for what I presume to be much higher premie survival rates in the United States?

U.S. infant mortality rates are indeed shamefully high. I'm not sure they're really trending higher, though, or whether that's function of premie survival. But before we start lauding Castro and Hu, a little skepticism would be ... well, healthy.

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Richard Henry Morgan - 1/14/2005

Ms. Casanova, you seem to have already started your reacquaintance with reality that comes with reading Valladares. If I could be so bold, I would also suggest the works of Jaime Suchlicki, as well as Carlos Franqui's Family Portrait with Fidel, and Reinaldo Arenas' Before Night Falls.

Having read Valladares, then you are no doubt familiar with the Epilogue, where Castro denies that there has ever been torture in his Cuba. My next favorite invention is Castro's interview with Tomas Borge, where Castro denies he has ever discriminated against homosexuals (you can find it easily on the web, though the search for his condemnation of homosexuality as criminal from the '60's, as it appeared in the Cuban armed forces paper Olivo Verde, is considerably harder to find). Good luck in your studies on Cuba. I'm rather sure that Franqui and Arenas were never on your college reading lists.

Richard Henry Morgan - 1/14/2005

Here's an interesting paper from Princeton which looks at some of these qustions. Seems some of the discrepancy with other industrialized nations stems from definitional differences, and some from a greater proportion of American births occurring in the higher age-groups of under 20 and over 39. There are, of course, other factors. In any case, here's the paper:

Lisa Marie Casanova - 1/13/2005

Dr. Catsam,
I certainly did not intend to indict the integrity of all professors, and I apologize that it came across as such. What I meant to convey is that although I have taken only a few courses on the subject and am by no means an expert, some of Mr. Kristof's comments reminded me of the general tone of instruction, where the supposedly great achievements of Cuban socialism were highlighted (and portrayed almost as something we should aspire to) and Castro's human rights record glossed over and minimized. I should have made it clear that I was speaking of my particular experience with a few academics I have interacted with. I read Valladares after finishing these courses (on the recommendation of someone unaffiliated with my university), and I came off with a feeling like my professors had lied to me, or at least deliberately left out a very important part of the truth that might have really affected what they were telling their students about Cuba and socialism. I feel that I see a great deal of that when it comes to the subject of Cuba and the doings of socialist governments in general. Perhaps that skews my perception of the issue. Certainly I do not mean to attack academics in general, and my admittedly narrow experience has perhaps made me more cynical than it should have.

Derek Charles Catsam - 1/13/2005

Lisa --
While youre sense of outrage is palpable, and while you might even generally be on the mark here, might it not take more than a couple of grad classes under your belt before you start indicting the integrity of all professors, as implied in your parenthetical? You've got the right to criticize. I'm not sure you've earned the right, however, to dismiss professors in toto. Actually, I'm sure you haven't.

David Lion Salmanson - 1/13/2005

OK, throw out the Cuba and China stats. Are Singapore's stats unreliable or Sweden's or the EUs? Even if you throw out the unreliable countries, it is still pretty appalling how far down the list the US is. This country does a bad job protecting its most vulnerable citizens both from abuse and malnutrition.

Lisa Marie Casanova - 1/13/2005

Personally, I would give this ZERO credibility. Having been through a couple of grad classes on Latin America, I wish I had a dime for every time someone just had to point out how absolutely wonderful health care in Cuba is! In fact, it's so wonderful, it makes up for whatever little teeny human rights abuses might go on there, but we don't talk about those, because the Cubans have free health care and education, and it's wonderful!!!!!! Actually, I've read Valladares, and after I did, every time someone cites a stat like this I wished I had one of those airline vomit bags instead of a dime. If you believe "official" statistics (and professors), no one knew how to read or survived childhood in Cuba before the revolution. Their health care is supposedly so wonderful it makes you wonder why all the US-Cuba migration seems to go in one direction- here.

Sherman Jay Dorn - 1/12/2005

Occasionally, you can capture a better sense of reality by using advanced demographic indirect methods, essentially "looking behind the curtain." (I still have my Manual X from grad-school days, and the textbook coauthored by Sam Preston describes standard indirect techniques well.) I don't remember who's done this with the millions of deaths during China's "Great Leap Forward," but I do recall my impression of incredible cleverness on the part of the researcher(s).

Generally, though, you can only capture life expectancy above a certain age with these techniques. Infant mortality is going to be much, much harder to get an independent sense of.

Richard Henry Morgan - 1/12/2005

You ask interesting questions. Generally speaking, the statistics from such countries are rather unreliable -- witness the volumes of Soviet economic statistics put out by the Webbs during their fellow-travelling love affair (received from the Soviet Union). Or, consider the current South African leader who, until recently, considered AIDS a fiction.

Captured upon the invasion of Grenada were instructions from Cuba to their Grenadine friends on how to cook the books for presentation to the World Bank. You might also consult Armando Valladares' book Against All Hope. Valladares reports the systematic fabrication of Cuban health statistics.

Infant mortality comparisons are tricky, particularly given the preemie question. It is also hard to rationalize statistics given different definitions of infant mortality from country to country. I doubt that the CDC has a really good handle on what is happening within Cuba, or within other countries, and are merely parroting WHO numbers (self-reported). In fact, the WHO recognizes the problems with such comparisons, and has suggested a standardized reporting method that would only iclude live births of 1 kg or more. I don't know if the CDC or Kristof's reporting takes these problems into account.

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