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Reflections: Social Work Research Program Delegation to Cuba

I have had an ongoing interest and curiosity about Cuba since watching via television coverage, Fidel Castro fighting in a guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra Mountains in the late 1950s against the country’s dictator, Fulgencio Batistia. I was totally inspired by the notion that an old capitalist, sexist, racist society could be transformed into a nation of new women and men progressing together not because of the color of their skin or pedigree, but according to their individual need and ability. Since then the motivation and desire to visit Cuba was as intense and as intoxicating as the fragrance of her national flower, the mariposa.

Beginning with the aerial view of the Island, my first impressions were viscerally based. There was at first a feeling of sadness for what appeared to be a deterioration of buildings and a lack of natural beauty. Perhaps I was expecting a more picturesque, exotic view.

As our delegation moved into the interior of the Island, I experienced a rush of excitement and nostalgia; especially in seeing the large number of cars from the 1950s, currently used, for the most part, as taxis. This rush of excitement was coupled with the wish to have been able to communicate in Spanish, the language of our host country.

A shift in my awareness occurred as we began making person to person contacts with faculty colleagues from the University of Havana, agency representatives, and service consumers. I

found all of the visits and exchanges not only interesting and informative, but equally thought provoking. These contacts confirmed a point made by our lecturer who spoke on Cuba social and economic issues that one cannot begin to understand Cuba without knowing the context. I contend that this is especially true for outsiders or visitors to the island. In my opinion, the need for understanding context was evident during our entire visit. Two visits will be used to illustrate. The first is the Las Terrazas-eco-community that had its beginnings in the 1980s. It appears that an understanding of the historical as well as the current organizational structure is necessary to gain an appreciation of the current structure and ongoing dynamics of this extraordinary sustainable community. There appear to be some hesitancy in sharing information about structure and function. The second illustration involves an unexpected observation at a community center.

The center was organized in 2003 as an outgrowth of a concepts from the

work of Paulo Freire such as “Transformation of the World”, “Empowerment”, and “Liberatory Education”. Freire, a Brizilian educator, argued for a system of education that emphasizes learning as an act of culture and freedom. The community group from the center spoke of empowerment specifically as one of their goals in terms of Black women. They also spoke indirectly about racism and racialized responses based on skin pigmentation and the texture of one’s hair. We did not explore the implications of what was meant by the empowerment of Black women. The ambiance of this group reflected the concepts found in Freire’s teachings.

The community as well as the services delivered by this community centered program was described as diverse in terms of color (black and dark-skinned multiracial) and service specializations. The general tone and ethnic representation within this group made me think of a descriptive statement I read that was used to describe the so-called Afro-Cubans in Cuba: A

powerless (though I do not intent to suggest that this group viewed or would describe themselves as powerless) majority in their own country. Available data suggests that Afro-Cubans comprise approximately 62% of the island populations with over 80% incarcerated.

When I saw the arts and crafts at the craft markets that were produced by the Afro-Cuban community, I was reminded of the arts and crafts market in West Africa, most especially Ghana. The community center mentioned earlier also provided an amazing model of community engaged social work practice. According to the group, their mission is to comprehensively transform the community in physical, social, economic, cultural and environmental ways with the participation of the population, organizations and institutions, and by taking advantage of the potentialities of the neighborhood and the help of the municipal, provincial and national governments.

This community center was staffed by two profesionals employed by the state: a director and a social worker. The paid staff are supported by a cadre of diverse, passionate and committed people from the community who are described as consultants. These consultants serve the missi贸n of the center as volunteers.

The contacts with the University of Havana Sociology and Social Work faculty and the President of the Cuban Social Workers in Health Care provided and insightful and interesting perspective of the historical and current evolution of social work in Cuba. It appears that social work in Cuba

has an interesting beginning, evolution and current status. Essentially social work appears to be community based, but closely aligned with the health care system. I agree with our group’s consensus that it is more important to contextually understand social work in Cuba rather than to compare and contrast it in terms how it is practiced in the United States. The interaction with the social work community may be characterized as warm and welcoming. There was an openness and curiosity. It seems apparent that a solid potential exist for building strong and collaborative exchanges.

Overall, this experience has shown me how little I know about the Republic of Cuba. It is, therefore, my intention to research and learn about Cuba from an historical as well as current perspective. Additionally, I would like to know more about the quality of life and well-being of the families and children that constitute Cuba’s 20% living below the poverty level. I am also interested in learning more about the implications of race, identity and justice issues in Cuba. Finally, I would like to build an ongoing relationship with the community center described in this reflection and to collaborate on ways to address the women empowerment issues.

In addition to the incredible friendliness of the people, my essentials take away from this experience is that the experience was much like my experience of visiting other developing parts of the world. Although the Cuban Republic is only one hour away by air transport or 90 to 100 miles away from the mainland of the United States, it felt like I was visiting a forbidden place in a faraway country. Despite the economic, political, and social struggles experienced by the majority of the people on the island, I see tremendous potential for change and development.

However, I am also left with the troubling question of whether finding ways around the US embargo of Cuba to ease travel to the island as well as the increase of remittance flows (which supposedly only benefits certain segments of the population) will accelerate or retard the transition to a freer and socially equal Cuba. I also wonder deeply about the perception of and how the Cuban government’s definition of problems will impact the education, training and the role of future social workers.

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