Cancer in Cuba: Population Aging vs. Carcinogens

Erasmo Calzadilla

HAVANA TIMES — In 2012, after an impressive race, cancer took the lead as Cuba’s first cause of death. Today, it continues to get ahead of other conditions and is claiming lives with unchecked voracity. Our country has “risen” to third place among Latin American countries most severely affected by the condition, and not very far from first place.

In light of such an emergency, one would expect the Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP) to act in a decisive and committed way, conducting a profound study and informing the population of the situation adequately. This would be the only way of slowing down the spread of the deadliest of our ills.

Does such a study exist, or is it underway?

After a long search, I have only come across scattered and outdated pieces that are entirely out of the step with the circumstances.

The same holds for the “communicative” aspect of this process. Experts have confused people, not by explaining things in a language that’s overly technical, but, rather, false. What could the aim of this? We’ll see shortly.

They insist, for instance – and in disregard of statistics – that the spread of the condition is only relative, linked to a decrease in the number of deaths caused by cardiovascular conditions (another falsity).

When they mention the culprits, MINSAP officials place emphasis on bad habits and foreign agents they can do nothing against, such as the depletion of the ozone layer and population aging. There isn’t a single mention of the State’s responsibility for the spread of this new Cuban Plague.

I have written several posts aimed at refuting these claims and commenting on the carcinogenic agents that are being spread across our surroundings unchecked. These include:

  • Diesel smoke (which spews out of the exhaust pipes of cars and floods our streets).
  • Asbestos, with which the State builds roofs and water tanks, fragments of which are scattered across the entire city.
  • Heavy metals. These are abundant in foods grown in over-exploited soils (such as those around the capital) and urban vegetable gardens (possibly because of the water used).
  • Glyphosate, a maturing agent sprayed on sugar cane that has contaminated high-demand food products, such as transgenic soy yogurt.
  • Processed meats, used in the “healthy diet” of school children.
  • Dioxins and furanes, produced during the burning of garbage, a very common practice at the main dumpsites in Havana.

Of all the hypotheses advanced by MINSAP officials, the most solid one concerns population aging (PA). This process is certainly one of the causes behind the rapid spread of cancer, but it is not the only one and far less the main one.

Is there a way to determine how much can be chalked up to PA and how much to other factors, such as increased concentrations of carcinogens in the environment?

Yes, there are several ways to do this. In a previous post, I demonstrated mathematically that “aging” accounts for less than 40 % of the total number of yearly deaths caused by cancer. This post seeks to address this same issue with the aid of another statistical tool, the correlation coefficient (CC).

The CC determines how strong (or weak) the link between two events is. In this case, we’ll be finding out the correlation that exists between cancer-related mortality rates and the number of individuals who are already over 60. To do this, we will use up-to-date information from each of the country’s provinces.

Then, we will calculate the correlation between cancer-related mortality and the percentage of people who live in urban areas.

Comparing these results will allow us to clarify which of these events (being over 60 or living in urbanized areas) is more directly connected to the rise in cancer incidence today.

Below is a graph illustrating this data.

The three variables behave in a similar manner: values are relatively low in green Pinar del Rio, shoot up as we approach the country’s capital and central provinces (more heavily urbanized and industrialized), and gradually decrease as we move towards east-laying departments.

Now, let’s see what the math says.

tabla 1

In 2014, the correlation between cancer-related mortality and the percentage of the population over 60 was 69 %. Qualitatively, we could say there is moderate link between these two events.

However, the correlation between deaths caused by a malign tumor and the percentage of the population living in urban environments in each province was of 87 %. In this case, we are in the presence of a good or strong correlation.

To put it in clearer terms: where cancer is concerned, it is more dangerous to live in a capital, even a provincial one, than to be over 60. So, anyone concerned over a cancer-related death should consider moving to the countryside, preferably Pinar del Rio, Granma or Guantanamo.

If additional confirmation that the current cancer epidemic doesn’t affect only the elderly is needed, I suggest having a look at a graph plotting Years of Potential Life Lost (YPLL).

grafico 2


Among the main causes of death in Cuba, it seems cancer is the one that prefers us young and fresh.


Demonstrating the current virulence of cancer in Cuba is closely linked to environmental agents whose spread is avoidable is not only a scientific or public health issue, but a political one as well.

As I see it, the concrete political circumstances of our country stand in the way of a responsible response and make the situation worse. Here’s why:

The State is the one chiefly responsible for the dumping of and lack of control over carcinogenic substances. This is the reason it shows no interest in studying or divulging the situation. MINSAP officials cater to the State’s interests with near-homicidal complicity, and people have no means of protecting themselves from this powerful mafia family that the apparatus is becoming or has always been.

The Cuban State devotes many resources to caring for cancer patients, and it announces this everywhere to come off as the hero in this film. Many lives and plenty of money would be saved if more was destined to prevention and information, but State interests keep this sound idea from falling within the visual range of decision-makers. The same holds for dengue and small dumpsites at the neighborhood level.

Population aging is pretty much inevitable but measures can be taken against diesel smoke and the other horsemen of the apocalypse – or they could be, if we had a well-informed civil society capable of steering government policy.



  • Data on population distribution were taken from the yearly demographic report recently published by the National Statistics Bureau (ONE).
  • Up-to-date information on cancer trends was taken from the yearly health report published in 2015, containing data up to 2014.
  • The correlation coefficients and graphs were calculated and plotted with the aid of an Excel spreadsheet.
  • The YPLL gives us a sense of how many young lives are claimed by a given illness.


Erasmo Calzadilla

Erasmo Calzadilla: I find it difficult to introduce myself in public. I've tried many times but it doesn’t flow. I’m more less how I appear in my posts, add some unpresentable qualities and stir; that should do for a first approach. If you want to dig a little deeper, ask me for an appointment and wait for a reply.

One thought on “Cancer in Cuba: Population Aging vs. Carcinogens

  • You can compare Cuba with the statistics for the whole world:
    That infections and parasites don’t kill many Cubans is probably due to science-based health care. In the wealthiest nations, cardiovascular diseases tend to be #1 on the list of causes of death. That this is not the case in Cuba may be due to the exercise that Cubans get, voluntarily or involuntarily, due to the few cars in comparison with Europe, Canada or the USA. Working at a desk in a sitting position for eight hours a day also tends to be a killer. In my own country, death by cancer has been reduced in recent years, probably because many Danes have given up smoking. I don’t think that you should not count out smoking as a major cause of death (lung cancer) in Cuba.
    I don’t mean to say that diesel smoke is healthy, and it’s definitely a nuisance in many areas, e.g. in Habana Centro or Vedado.

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