The trip was packed with visits to agencies and organizations, formal and informal meetings with community members and leaders, tours and observations of local community development projects, informal gatherings and even a few parties in our honor. We spent most of our time in Havana and a few days in Pinar del Rio, a far eastern rural tobacco growing region. We traveled by air-conditioned minivan and were accompanied by our most dedicated and tireless guide and translator Amircal (Cal) who is a bi-cultural/bi-lingual teacher of English and an endless resource in helping us process all that we observed and discussed.
With such a full agenda it is difficult to select what specific experiences are useful to share in this brief piece so I have selected vignettes that typify some of the uniqueness of Cuba to give you a sense of the diversity of our encounters. One evening we were invited to a coming together of villagers for an evening of shared song, art, and poetry where appreciation of each other’s talents was not bound by what occupational roles people played during the day. We had lunch at the home of Jose Fuster, a world renowned artist who, with the help of his neighbors, has used his neighborhood as a pallet reminiscent of The Heidelberg Project. We visited a rural planned community where farmers were provided with housing, schools, healthcare, jobs, and other services in a community setting where prior they had been living in isolation and on subsistence. We visited a community mental health center where psychiatrists and social workers shared how they work intimately with the community and all of its formal and informal institutions, and how integrated their physical and behavioral health care is; We met with the historian for Old Havana and had a walking tour of the city and learned that all services are planned to be as local as possible. We visited healthcare facilities and learned that primary prevention and primary care are of critical importance to keeping the Cuban healthcare system sustainable. We visited a school where teenage artists demonstrating their art technique were defined by their talent and not by being born with Down’s syndrome. We met with people from the Center for Gender Research and Sexual Education who have overarching responsibility for facilitating local efforts in education, policy development, and support for LGBTH efforts for full equality in Cuba. We met with workers at a local community center who help neighborhood residents grow produce in backyard gardens and share their bounty with each other as well as sell produce.
The theme that runs through all of these projects is the promotion of local solutions to community problems. Whether the issues being addressed are domestic violence, gender inequity, or environmental hazards, community members through the myriad of local organizations are helped to give voice to solutions that would work in their community. To assist community members in being able to be full participants, popular education strategies are used to engage community members on all issues of concern to members. To invest people in solutions to problems in the community, problem solving is always done in a way that promotes culture and highlights the history and values of the people. Community members themselves are used as the educators, and depending on the topic and who the target audience is, the age and gender of the “educators” is tailored to relate to that group, so teens, elders, mothers, and sometimes even young children become the promoters.
It does take a cultural shift to appreciate how Cuba works. One must first believe that egalitarianism is the highest value to accept that a doctor and maid make the same salary. One must first believe that we have collective responsibility for each other before we would be willing to forego large bounties for some in exchange for less, but adequate amounts for all. These are hard values to live by when what one has to share is so little. Life is hard for the Cuban people, they have few resources, in a large part due to the 50 year old US embargo which not only keeps US good, but most of the world’s goods away from Cuba. Amazingly, they keep their revolutionary project going and in it provide us with a glimpse of a humanistic, efficacious, and cost effective human services system.
This was my third trip to Cuba and each time I am there I experience the same sense of wonderment and excitement in observing the richness of the Cuban culture, the warmth of the Cuban people, and the embrace of a community that cares about its people. It is very hard not to do comparisons when you are in Cuba. You walk around and see the depravation and all of the annoying inconveniences that remind you that you are in a third world country – the toilets don’t always flush, the internet is sporadic, you can only drink bottled water - and wonder how they are able to do what they do when they have nothing, and yet we have so much and still children are suffering from malnutrition, much of our population cannot read, people are dying because of lack of healthcare, homeless people are sleeping on the street, etc., etc., etc. So, I am mostly in awe of a seeing what it means for a government to put its priorities on the health and education of its citizens and it makes me sad to think of what our potential is to do the same!
Marjorie Ziefert, LMSW, ACSW is a past Board President of the NASW Michigan Chapter.