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  • Writer's pictureJeff Matthews

Of Toilet Paper and Misleading Statistics: Is Cuba Next?

You did not read about it in the New York Times—which prefers op-ed pieces extolling the virtues of Cuba’s health care system to wasting ink exposing the rot and decay beneath the surface of El Maximo Lider’s dictatorship—but for the first time in 46 years there was, last week, a gathering in Havana of dissidents working to undermine the dictatorship of Fidel Castro.

Typically, Cuba tried to keep things under control by barring European legislators, of the recently-freed countries Czech Republic and Poland, from attending the rally. While disappointing behavior for a dictatorship which for some bizarre reason enthralls so much of the Hollywood treat-Saddam-nicely crowd, it’s a lot better than the beatings Cuban citizens get when they try to protest in public.

In any event, Times let the modest gathering of Cuban dissidents pass without comment, which is too bad, because it might be the sign of something happening that could have terrific consequences, not only for human rights, but for investors as well.

I have a theory that much of the good will towards Castro is based entirely on the fact that Cuba’s infant mortality rate is lower than the United States’ infant mortality rate.

It’s true: the U.S. rate of infant mortality is 7 per 1,000 live births; Cuba’s is 6. Cuba touts the number every chance it gets, because it’s really about the only good news coming out of Fidel’s 46 years of oppressive rule.

And it is a damning statistic, given our country’s great wealth and vast resources, on the surface.

However, anyone who has looked at the data knows that the U.S. suffers an even greater deficiency in comparison to every fully-developed nation in the world. Austria, Belgium, Finland and France—just to go down the list alphabetically—each have 4 infant deaths per 1,000. Sweden has 3. The U.K. has 5.

Why the gap between the U.S. and the others? The key is immigration and diversity of population.

The U.S. has a far higher immigration rate than any comparable country, and is, consequently, a more heterogeneous population than any of its Western European peers (despite looming immigration pressures in France, Holland and the U.K.). And Cuba is about as homogeneous as a country can get.

Heterogeneous populations, as might be expected, have widely varying infant health care patterns related to different ethnic groups and their living standards. Infant mortality rates in New York City, for example, averaged 6 per 1,000 live births in recent statistics. However, “children born to black non-Hispanic mothers have an infant mortality rate of 10.0, more than twice the rate of those born to white non-Hispanic mothers (4.2),” according to the New York Department of Health and Hygiene.

That’s a despicable gap—two to one, black to white. But given that gap, is the fact that Cuba (population 11 million) has an infant mortality rate equivalent to New York City (population 8 million), really all that special?

There are, after all, no immigrants going to Cuba. In fact, Cuba’s population growth is negative 0.1%, despite a modest 0.1% rate of natural growth. The difference, of course, being people fleeing on boats.

Why bother at all, here, with Cuba’s infant mortality rate and its modest, barely-noticed gathering of dissidents? Two reasons: the first is personal, the second is business.

For starters, I know one of the Cubans who fled the country. His name is Manny, he lives a block away from us, and he is quite an amazing guy. He came to America in 1978 on a boat, speaking no English; he settled in our town, met a girl and married her and now runs a hair salon. Manny’s a home-owner, a tax-payer, and an employer.

Over the years, Manny has helped several of his brothers escape Cuba—although one died in the straits off Florida. Our daughters grew up together. Manny’s house is a mad, wonderful cacophony of Cuban English and Cuban Spanish, with food cooking and kids running in and out, and—every time a new relative flees Cuba—a young Cuban refugee looking for work and adjusting to a new life in America.

Manny roasts a pig in the back yard on special days—such as the day his daughter, Jeanette, graduated from high school. I helped Manny invest his savings for Jeanette’s college education when she was in second grade. Jeanette will graduate from college next year.

Tell Manny about Castro’s great health care system, as reported in the January New York Times op-ed blather by non-Cuban-health-care-system-user Nicholas Kristof, and Manny will snort and ask why, if it’s so great, does his wife have to bring toilet paper with her when she visits his family in Cuba? (Manny is not allowed back to see his relatives.)

It’s a great question, but you won’t see it asked in the Times, and I suspect—like the atrocities in Iraq—the bad news of Castro’s rule will not be fully revealed until he is gone.

The second reason I bother with Cuba relates to making money. Specifically, what happens if Castro goes?

It’s only 112 miles across the Florida Straits to Cuba. Cruise ships, casinos, home builders, construction material companies—all would likely benefit if Castro goes.

It’s worth thinking about, worth asking companies in those businesses what they might be planning, and worth putting together a list.

After many years of speculation on the end of Castro’s regime, the time may be coming sooner rather than later.

Manny, for one, certainly hopes so.

Jeff Matthews I Am Not Making This Up

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