Social work doors open as U.S.-Cuba relations evolve

social work educators pose at Revolution Square The long and complicated relationship between the United States and Cuba has been slowly improving since President Barack Obama took office in 2008 and Raul Castro became president of Cuba.

David Strug, front center, and 13 social work educators pose at Revolution Square (Plaza de la Revolucion) in Havana, Cuba. The group traveled to Havana last summer to observe Cuban social work practices.

Late last year, the two leaders announced the beginning of a process to normalize the relationship between their countries, which could open diplomatic relations that have been nonexistent since 1961. On April 11, Obama and Castro met at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, which Obama called an “historic meeting.”

“I think we are now in a position to move on a path towards the future, and leave behind some of the circumstances of the past that have made it so difficult, I think, for our countries to communicate,” Obama said.

Part of this future includes learning more from each other about how social work is practiced in each country, said NASW member David Strug, who has been traveling to Cuba since 2001 for social work-based purposes.

For the last few years, Strug has led social work faculty development trips to Cuba as part of the Council on Social Work Education’s Global Education Initiative/ Katherine A. Kendall Institute for International Social Work Education.

“The two main purposes of these trips are to establish contacts with social work faculty in Cuba, and learn about Cuban social work,” said Strug, a licensed clinical social worker in New York City and professor emeritus at the Yeshiva University Wurzweiler School of Social Work.

Last June, he and 13 social work educators went to Havana to learn about the unique ways social work functions in a communist society.

“Things are changing now, and after the conversations between Obama and Castro, travel to Cuba for Americans may become easier,” Strug said. “Social work in Cuba is integrated within the community, much like the way social work was in the U.S. in the 1960s. American social workers can learn a lot from the focus Cuban social workers have on this integration.”

Mary Beth Vogel-Ferguson, a research associate professor at the College of Social Work, University of Utah, said she has an interest in economic systems and how poverty and economic systems interplay. She also attended the June 2014 Havana trip, and said she was fascinated to see how the socialist culture worked.

“There is an egalitarian sense of everyone’s role in society as a whole,” Vogel-Ferguson said. “The role of the street sweeper and a doctor is all seen as important in society. On a policy level, with Cuba starting to open up, it will be interesting to see if and how those ideals possibly change.”

Cindy Hunter, associate professor and director of field placement at the Department of Social Work at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., noted the low birth rate in Cuba, the low rates of those living with HIV, and the number of highly educated women.

The Cuban medical system also has a high number of doctors, and Cuban social workers don’t necessarily practice in a specialized way, she said. For example, they don’t focus on a practice area like substance abuse or child welfare.

“They cover all of that,” Hunter said. “Each social worker is assigned a neighborhood, or block. A lot of them work in the same neighborhood they grew up in, so they know everyone really well. Their focus is more generalized and prevention based.”

Cuban social workers are part of a team, Strug said, and there are some important aspects to this that American social workers may find helpful.

“They don’t work alone in isolation, they work alongside doctors, nurses, psychiatrists,” he said. “It’s all community-oriented social work. We in the U.S. should pay attention to this community-oriented approach.”

NASW also sponsored two professional research trips to Cuba in 2011, with NASW Social Work Policy Institute Director Joan Levy Zlotnik and NASW Senior Practice Associate Chris Herman leading one of the trips.

Zlotnik said with Cuba and U.S. relations changing, Cuba — and Cuban social work — will also change.

“Social work is evolving in Cuba, and as more people visit, the way of practicing could change as social workers there become exposed to different perspectives,” Zlotnik said. “And there are things we can learn from Cuba’s focus on prevention.”

Strug says one thing will probably remain the same in both countries, and that is how American and Cuban social workers feel about the work they do. He references a quote from Odalys Gonzalez Juban, president of the Society of Cuban Social Workers in Healthcare, as summing it up.

“Social work gives me so much personally,” Juban said. “It gives me knowledge and the ability to understand people and to imagine myself in their situation. Even when I can’t necessarily offer a client material help at least I can help them spiritually by listening to them talk about their problems. This listening and helping is also a form of healing ourselves as social workers.”

Get more information on the CSWE Global Education Initiative/Katherine A. Kendall Institute for International Social Work Education faculty development trips to Cuba.