Spring 2017
Cover Story

Social Issues in Cuba

A Unique Study Abroad Course Highlights the Social Justice Parallels Between the U.S. and Cuba

Flanked by U.S. and Cuban flags and wearing a gray suit, white shirt, and black necktie reminiscent of 1950s elegance, then-President Barack Obama stood onstage in the auditorium of the Gran Teatro de la Habana in Cuba and made history.

“As the decades rolled by, our governments settled into a seemingly endless confrontation, fighting battles through proxies,” he told a packed house of 1,500 Cubans on March 22, 2016. “In a world that remade itself time and again, one constant was the conflict between the United States and Cuba. I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas. I have come here to extend the hand of friend- ship to the Cuban people.”

Although a ban on casual tourism for U.S. citizens and an official economic embargo remain in place, the olive branch extended a year ago by Obama after 18 months of secret communication and negotiation included the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana and other efforts to normalize relations that began deteriorating during the Cuban revolution in the 1950s.

While U.S. citizens still must meet one of 12 visa categories to qualify for travel to the island nation 90 miles south of Florida—and a trip there is something most Americans have never experienced—the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work has cultivated an educational connection with the University of Havana for years. Beginning in 2010, graduate students in the school’s study abroad course, now titled Cuban Social Policy Issues, have traveled to Cuba’s capital city to study the formulation and effects of social policy and the delivery and impact of social services. In addition to meeting with key officials, they take field trips to various social ser- vice organizations that provide programs ranging from after-school opportunities for students to vocational training for the deaf.

After returning to Pittsburgh, students draw on their research, firsthand observations, and course materials to write a final paper about a chosen social policy issue. Topics covered in the past have ranged from public health and gender concerns to education and social security. The papers, like the course, are informed by the social justice aspect of social work.

The program is one of the best examples of collaborations between Pitt and the University of Havana that go back 50 years, says Ariel Armony, director of Pitt’s University Center for International Studies (UCIS).

“Dean Larry Davis and his faculty have been instrumental in developing a truly unique study abroad offering, and we appreciate their commitment to bringing Pitt to the world and the world to Pitt,” Armony says.

The program, offered in conjunction with the University’s Center on Race and Social Problems (CRSP), is a trailblazer among university study abroad programs, notes Jeffrey Whitehead, director of the Pitt Study Abroad Office. It was one of the first that Pitt began offering during spring break; Pitt’s first study abroad program designed specifically for graduate students; the first short-term study abroad program offered by a U.S. university in Cuba; and among the first, he notes, “to use experiential learning as its primary focus, allowing students to complement traditional classroom-based experience with field experience.”

Pitt works directly with the University of Havana rather than through a third-party agent to provide the academic content and logistics. The result is a unique experience, one enhanced by Davis’ routine participation in both the class- room and trip experiences. “He is highly involved,” Whitehead says, “using his expertise in race relations to guide academic content and making a point to accompany the students when he can. It is rare for a dean to be this involved with a study abroad program, and we are grateful for it.”

Residents of Matanzas, Cuba, play several rounds of dominoes in a parklet to pass the time. Davis, who also is CRSP director, traces his fascination with Cuba back to his high school years and his inability to reconcile television images of White Cubans in Miami, Fla.’s, Little Havana community with those of dark-skinned athletes dominating Cuba’s delegations to the Olympics.

His curiosity about how race influences Cuba continued into his adult years and professional life as he saw connections between Black civil rights militants in America and Cuba and its longtime leader, Fidel Castro. Davis became more interested in how race affects social services and social policies there, and the spring break study abroad program was born.

“I wanted Pitt to be one of the first schools to start a real research beachhead there,” says Davis. “I had taken scholars there for cross-cultural research efforts years ago. At that time, Cubans had difficulty coming here. The whole social work thing kind of doesn’t go along with socialism. Socialism was supposed to have cured social problems, but they have all the problems America has. So this is a challenge to their ideology.”

Cassie Hourlland, a Master of Social Work (MSW) student, of Mifflinburg, Pa., was one of the 10 Pitt students who traveled with several faculty members to Cuba in March. Her paper focused on the evolution and possible future of the Cuban government: a Communist-flavored one-party Socialist state.

“It was a very centering experience for me that I didn’t realize I needed,” she says. “As a social worker, it is important to become culturally competent and to pass that knowledge on to others. The trip taught me so much about Cuba that I was unaware of. I think that as a social worker, I can inform individuals of things happening in Cuba and try to tie them into work happening in the United States. I am fully committed to social work, but now I have a different lens to work through.”

As students compare and contrast U.S. and Cuban social policies and practices, Whitehead says, their “primary lens” is race relations. The issues of race and color are as complex in Cuba as they are in the United States, but the Cuban perspective reveals itself differently than that of the capitalist democracy.

A Ripe Research Field

On a warm morning in early March, day breaks in Havana as people make their way to school and work, walking briskly, waiting at bus stops, trying to flag down a taxi or a ride with a sympathetic motorist. A gentle but steady ocean breeze sweeps away the exhaust fumes of vintage American-made cars as drivers zip to and fro along narrow streets, the rumble of heavy metal accompanied by the cautionary toots of horns, the zoom of mopeds and motorbikes, and the rhythmic rattle of biker-pedaled rickshaws.

The nation of more than 11 million people, with complexions ranging from latte to black licorice, may be the most enigmatic and misunderstood country in the Caribbean. Surrounded by the Straits of Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Caribbean Sea, Cuba was established as a Spanish colony in 1492. Its dramatic history mirrors that of the United States in ways that make it a ripe research field for social workers interested in issues such as public health, child welfare, and elder care.

For example, Cuba boasts one of the most effective health care systems in the world, with 60,000 doctors caring for approximately 99 percent of the population. They usually live in the communities they serve and typically earn about $70 a month. The Cuban government spends less per capita than the United States on health care, yet infant mortality and life expectancy rates there are slightly better than in the United States. Like no other nation, Cuba for decades has trained doctors and other medical professionals from around the world with the hope that they will return to their respective countries and serve areas most in need.

At the same time, matters of race and color may be more comparable and compelling. Both countries have a history of slavery of Africans. As a result of the Haitian revolution of 1778, upwards of 800,000 African slaves were brought to Cuba to work on hundreds of plantations that were created to meet a worldwide demand for sugar once supplied predominantly by Haiti. Cuba abolished slavery in 1886, 21 years after the United States did so. Later, government-orchestrated entry of thousands of White immigrants intentionally shifted the racial demographics, and today, so-called “Afro Cubans”—a term that those individuals themselves do not use—compose only about 9 percent of the population.

Cuba’s revolution from 1953 to 1959 saw the rise to power of a young revolutionary named Fidel Castro, who would serve as prime minister and then president from 1959 to 2008. The Cuban government, once on friendly terms with the United States, nationalized all U.S. companies operating in Cuba, and relations deteriorated as Cuba and the Soviet Union became allies. The United States initiated a decades-long economic embargo that sought to isolate and cripple Cuba, succeeding in the latter.

Castro, who was succeeded in 2008 by his brother Raul and died in November, famously declared after Cuba’s revolution that socialism would end racism in his beloved country. Institutional racism was ended, but colorism has proved to be much more intractable.

The Reality of Colorism

According to Cuba’s 2012 census figures, nearly two-thirds of Cubans are White. Mixed-race individuals, also known as mestizo and mulatto, constitute about 26 percent of the population, while Black Cubans make up a little more than 9 percent. Black Cubans have been labeled Afro Cuban—again, a term they themselves do not use. They, like their fellow citizens, regardless of color, self-identify by nationality rather than race, unlike Black Americans. To Cubans of every shade and hue, they are first and foremost Cubans. Asked publicly or privately about racism, few Cubans will say that it exists. They tend to be reticent about racial differences and disparities.

Some Black Cubans, often young adults, acknowledge colorism. Although the free education and free health care that were introduced postrevolution have helped to improve the quality of life for all Cubans—especially the poorest, who are disproportionately Black—it is not difficult to discern differences that coincide with skin color.

“The color line is real,” says Valire Carr Copeland, associate dean of academic affairs at the School of Social Work. She participates as an instructor in the study abroad program, and this most recent trip was her third visit to Cuba. “The party line is one thing,” she adds, “but in practice and reality, there are differences based on skin tone.”

There are, for example, visible differences in standard of living. The darker the skin, the more likely an individual is to be poor. Meanwhile, lighter-skinned and White Cubans generally occupy more prominent and profitable positions in everything from restaurants and taxi services to the hospitality industry and government jobs. They are far more likely than Black Cubans to have relatives living and working overseas and sending back money— called repatriations or remittances—to support a higher quality of life for their relatives in Cuba. The tens of thousands of Cubans who fled the country during the revolution and immigrated to the United States and elsewhere left partly because they could afford to do so, and they were overwhelmingly White.

“You see lots of things happening in Cuba from a racial and economic and social justice perspective similar to what is happening here, especially racial,” Copeland continues. “As we teach and prepare students, the narratives about Cuba from scholars suggest that race is not an issue. ‘There is no Black or White Cuban. Everybody is a Cuban.’ If you focus on that narrative, you don’t have to focus on the inequalities based on skin tone. But once you get to Cuba, it’s very difficult, it’s almost impossible, not to see similar trends that you would see in the U.S. in terms of what you would see if you go to a very nice restaurant. So in terms of racial justice and skin tones, you see similarities to the U.S.”

Colorism in Cuba negatively affects the quality of life of darker-skinned citizens. Though Castro’s regime promoted antiracism, colorism crept in as foreign companies doing business in Cuba, specifically other Latin American and European countries, gave hiring preference to White and lighter-skinned Cubans. The practice has continued and worsened as Cuba has yielded to free-market forces, observes Larry Glasco, an associate professor of history at Pitt who has visited Cuba regularly since the 1990s.

Glasco, who specializes in interracial group relationships, notes that Black middle-class Cubans had achieved parity with the White middle class by the 1990s. But because many Blacks entered medical and technical professions that paid with pesos rather than tourism- related jobs dominated by Whites and paid with higher-value foreign dollars, income and wealth gaps persisted.

In fact, the socioeconomic status of Black Cubans “has gone downhill,” says Glasco. “If you don’t have access to foreign currency—hard currency, as they call it—dollars and euros—you’re sunk. To buy anything decent, you must pay dollars. And most [Black Cubans] don’t have access to dollars, so they are more shut out than ever.”

Glasco predicts that future free-market benefits to Cuba’s economy will help Cubans already holding an economic advantage and will hurt the disadvan- taged, essentially widening the economic gap between White and lighter-skinned Cubans on one side and poor and Black Cubans on the other. It also, Glasco con- tends, will accelerate a trend he observes toward increased economic, social, and racial inequalities.

“If there’s an opening between the U.S. and Cuba and some optimistic-sounding things happen, it’s not going to benefit much the average Cuban on the street,” says Glasco. “The advantages will go to those with connections, those already with some money. Poor and Black Cubans will not really benefit. This is sad to think about, but it will probably hurt them as the economy moves more toward a free market.”

American companies are more sensitive about race and cultural diversity and could help to promote parity, Glasco says, but they are “way behind” the free-market wave that has already arrived at Cuba’s shores.

“It could be disastrous for poor Blacks, the growing inequality and growing frustration,” says Glasco.

Davis agrees.

“Cuba has done away with institutional forms of racism,” he says. “But Cuba has wound up with a two-tier economic system caused partly by repatriations from White Cubans in Florida. Now limits have been lifted on how much money can be sent back to Cuba and how much one can buy. So Cuba will end up looking like it did before.”

That would suggest an increased need for social workers who can help to address social, economic, and racial inequities.

Hearing the Other Side

Copeland is not surprised when students return from Cuba with a decidedly different opinion of the country. It’s a matter of facts dispelling myths.

“I’m interested mostly in them coming back and realizing that Cuba is not as bad as people have said that it was,” she says. “They only heard the U.S. story. They never heard the Cuban story. And when they went to Cuba, they heard the Cuban side.”

Whitehead expects the program to be a University fixture well into the future.

“We anticipate that student demand will remain similar to its current levels,” he says. “While students are attracted to Cuba, it is really the dean and the school’s commitment to high-quality academics that keep it going. It is unclear what the future will hold with regard to relations with Cuba, and we are hopeful that a warming of relations will encourage additional participation.”

A man stands on the curb during the evening hours in Havana, Cuba. On the left is the half-closed gate of a stand that sells fresh fruit and vegetables.

A man stands on the curb during the evening hours in Havana, Cuba. On the left is the half-closed gate of a stand that sells fresh fruit and vegetables.