Cuba and Cuban Social Work at a Time of Change

5/4/2015

by David Strug (strug@yu.edu), professor emeritus of social work, Yeshiva University

May 4, 2015

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David Strug (center) with the 2012 CSWE Social Work Delegation in Cuba

A historic change is occurring in the relationship between Cuba and the United States, and the Cuban welfare state is weakening. These changes are relevant to the American academic social work community concerned with global social work issues at a time when all eyes are on Cuba (Hayden, 2015), a country located only 90 miles off the U.S. mainland. President Obama and President Raúl Castro began the process of normalizing diplomatic relationships last December, ending more than 50 years of official hostility between our two countries. This has resulted in the reestablishment of diplomatic relations; a significant rise in the allowance for remittances by Cuban Americans to their relatives in Cuba; a sharp reduction in the paperwork needed for U.S. visitors to travel to the island; and, as is expected to happen soon, the removal of Cuba from the U.S. government’s official list of state sponsors of terror.* This is a necessary step in the direction of lifting the United States trade embargo on Cuba, which has been an enduring source of hostility between our two countries for more than 50 years. These changes will make it possible for the American and Cuban social work communities to interact with one another in the future in new and more productive ways.

The American public has expressed great interest in Cuba since the process of normalizing diplomatic relations began last December. American travel to the island is soaring. Improved relations with Cuba increase the opportunity of the American social work community to enter into meaningful exchanges with their Cuban counterparts, which can result in social work research opportunities for American social work academics in Cuba and in faculty and student exchange programs between Cuba and the United States, which were nearly impossible before the thaw in the Cuba–United States relationship began. It is noteworthy that the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) took the initiative, through its Council on Global Learning, Research, and Practice and its Katherine A. Kendall Institute for International Social Work Education, to sponsor three faculty development programs in Havana led by David Strug in 2011, 2012, and 2013 (Strug, 2014), even before the thaw in relations started. Hopefully, the CSWE will continue to build on the professional relationships established by these faculty development programs as the normalization process continues. The CSWE has invited the president of the Cuban Society of Social Workers in Health Care to attend the 2015 Annual Program Meeting in Denver, Colorado.

Challenges Facing Cuban Social Work Economic Reforms and a Weakened Welfare State

Cuban social work faces serious challenges related to economic changes occurring on the island. These changes have had a direct and perhaps negative impact on the professional development of social work in Cuba. In 2008 Raúl Castro announced a series of major economic and social policy guidelines that continue in force to this day, which are meant to reform or update an anemic Cuban economy. The goal of these reforms is to make the economy more efficient and sustainable by establishing microcredit, bank accounts, cooperatives, and wholesale markets for the nonstate sector. It is encouraging workers to move from state to private sector employment and has issued almost 500,000 licenses for individuals to start small businesses in the private sector.

The updating of socialism has had an impact on Cuban social welfare policy and on the social work profession. It has weakened the welfare state, has had a negative effect on vulnerable populations such as older persons who depend on the state for fixed pensions that are too small to live on, has reduced subsidized food rations and spending on health care, and has affected other social benefits. Economic reforms and a depleted Cuban economy have generated new social inequalities, have increased poverty, and threaten to produce conflicts and differentiation of interests. An antiegalitarian trend has emerged that undercuts equity-based policies, which puts women, Blacks, and mixed-race people at a disadvantage. Raúl Castro noted that socialism means social justice and equality, but he has indicated that equality is not egalitarianism. He has acknowledged that income equality may grow in the short run as a result of economic reform measures now underway. These reforms allow some individuals with the resources to start businesses, whereas those lacking the resources may not have the same opportunity. The ongoing economic crisis has also challenged the country’s ability to maintain universal access to social services. The government proposes concentrating scarce state resources to provide services for those persons with the greatest needs. All of these changes present challenges for social workers on the island at a time when Cuban social work remains fragmented.

The Golden Years of Cuban Social Work

At the end of the 1990s Cuba had developed a vibrant community-oriented social work teaching and practice program in response to emerging social problems resulting from the withdrawal of economic support of Cuba by the former Soviet Union. The government created a number of schools of social work run by the University of Havana for the rapid training of social workers (Strug, 2006). This social work initiative was a national priority and was well-financed. The program trained young Cuban social work students to become agents of community transformation and providers of services for at-risk populations living in poor communities. Agent of community transformation in the Cuban context refers to the social worker’s role in assessing the service needs of vulnerable groups and mobilizing community members to address their problems. It targeted diverse populations, including children with educational problems, dysfunctional families, and families with limited economic and material resources. Cuba’s national social work program trained close to 50,000 social workers through 2008 before the government closed the program and its social work schools.

The Cuban social work practice model is interdisciplinary and multisectoral, community-oriented and dynamic. Social workers coordinate their practice with community members and their leaders, family doctors, health-care centers, municipal and regional authorities, and professionals from different ministries to support community-oriented interventions. Working inside the community allows social workers to focus their attention on the problems in the community and on the available resources for addressing those problems.

The Negative Impact of the Economic Reforms on Cuban Social Work

The economic reform process begun in 2008 prioritized funding to support education in the hard sciences and reduced funding in the social sciences except for economics, including social work. The government determined it had trained enough social workers to address the needs of its population. This was a major reason the University of Havana was forced in 2008 to end its social work training program. It has also discontinued a baccalaureate social work concentration program in the Department of Sociology at the University of Havana. The social work initiative created by the government at the end of the 1990s appears to have fallen victim to the economic reform policies that Raúl Castro began in 2008.

Cuba’s Ministry of Work and Social Security is today in charge of social work in Cuba, and it works with the Ministry of Education to train new social workers who are “technicians in social work” (técnicos medios). The Ministry of Public Health trains its own public health social workers. Social work education is no longer a national priority as it was in the 1990s, and social work practice is fragmented. The fragmentation in social work practice and the fact that the promotion of social work education is no longer a national priority may be ill-timed and problematic given the weakening of the welfare state and the increased vulnerability that certain sectors of society are experiencing as the economy becomes more market-oriented.

The Opportunity for Collaboration

The increased contact that the American social work community will have with our Cuban counterparts as relations continue to improve between Cuba and the United States can be of mutual benefit. The Cuban social work community may benefit from increased contact with their American counterparts who can share with them advances in American social work education, evaluation, and practice. This may be especially helpful at a time when social work on the island remains fragmented and is at a professional crossroads. Social work educational leaders visiting Cuba 2 years ago expressed interest in an increased exchange with the American social work community and, in particular, in learning about individual and group work approaches and the supervisory process. American social workers may want to learn about the multisectoral and community-oriented approach Cuban social workers have used to coordinate practice with community members and leaders, grassroots organizations, and regional and municipal authorities.

*The Obama administration removed Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism May 29, 2015, which was an important step toward normalizing ties between Washington and Havana. On July 1, 2015, President Barack Obama reestablished diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.

References

Hayden, T. (2015). Listen Yankee! Why Cuba matters. New York, NY: Seven Stories Press.
Strug, D. (2006). Community-oriented social work in Cuba:  Government response to emerging social problems. Social Work Education, 25, 749–763.
Strug D. (2014). A faculty development program in Cuba for American social workers [Special issue]. Journal of Human Behavior and Social Environment, 25(1), 3–13.