[Cover article* in Social Work Today,
September 2, 2002.
The issue focused on social work in Latin America.
Can be ordered from: http://www.socialworktoday.com
A Spanish and MS Word versions available below.
Directions in Cuban Social Work Education:
Can We Learn?
By David Strug, PhD, and Walter Teague,
work students and teachers with Professor Lourdes Pérez Montalvo
musical and dance troupe entertains both tourists and local children on weekends
in the historic district, Armas in front of the Museo de
la Ciudad in the fine Baroque Palacio de losCapitanesGenerales.
improvement project in the Plaza Vieja section of Havana, where most of the historic
buildings have already been restored.
say they oppose U.S. charges that the Cuban pharmaceutical
industry is a threat and support their country’s social programs. *
Facing intractable social problems in the 1990s, Cuban leaders
responded by creating new social work educational opportunities for
both longer-term, comprehensive training at the graduate level as well
as short-term, rapid schooling for youths known as emergentes-trained
to respond to serious emergent social problems.
Why has Cuban President Fidel Castro become so interested in Cuban social work
(Radio Havana Cuba,
2001)?Why did he address 500 young students at Cuba’s
new school of social work outside Havana?
Why did Jimmy Carter also visit this same school during his well-publicized trip
to Cuba in May
2002? Most Cubans know about their country’s advances in social work. Why is it
now receiving so much attention, both from government officials and from thousands
of academics, students, and program directors? We spoke with Cuban social work
educators and professionals in Havana
to find answers to these questions.
A history of hardship
are a number of reasons for the advancement of social work education in Cuba
and for the overall attention the social work profession is now receiving. Major
socioeconomic problems developed in Cuba
in the 1990s that require new and comprehensive solutions. Today, Cuba
is involved in a number of key programs to overcome these problems, just as in
1961 when Cuba
created a comprehensive and innovative campaign to eradicate illiteracy. New approaches
to social work education and training are among these programs.
Cuba’s post revolutionary government did not initially recognize the
need for a cadre of highly trained professional social workers to address
The collapse of the
former Soviet Union and its subsequent withdrawal of economic assistance
to Cuba following the dissolution of the eastern bloc (1989 to 1991), the
the U.S. embargo, and Cuba’s increased participation in the global economy
contributed to growing social and economic crises throughout the 1990s
(Cole, 2001). Income
disparity worsened in some sectors due to the influx of foreign capital,
and remittances from families abroad. Poverty and unemployment grew,
economic class differences deepened, and social alienation increased among
unemployed and disaffected youth. Housing and roads deteriorated, and
Cuban cities became
increasingly overcrowded. “[Socioeconomic] disparities were further exacerbated
by historical factors and social inequalities that linger in society
efforts to achieve equality and general social well-being,” according to
Professor Lourdes Pérez Montalvo, a professor at the
of Havana (2002). Those Cubans most
effected by the worsening economic conditions, such as those with disabilities,
prisoners and ex-prisoners, pregnant teenagers and single mothers, senior citizens,
children, and the increasing numbers of out-of-school and unemployed youths, became
the priority for outreach and development of new social welfare projects (2002).
postrevolutionary government did not initially recognize the need for a cadre
of highly trained professional social workers to address social ills. Instead,
social workers were trained by separate technical training institutions at facilities
where they worked, such as at the Cuban Ministry of Public Health. There was no
integrated social work profession. Social problems in the community were addressed
primarily by other professionals, including doctors and nurses, psychologists,
and educators, along with local political leaders and representatives of Cuba’s
“mass organizations” (eg, the Federation of Cuban Women
and Committees for the Defense of the Revolution). Thus, social work did not emerge
as a professional discipline with an identity of its own.
It was the emerging and intractable social problems in the 1990s that
convinced leaders Cuba needed a more integrated social work profession.
It was the emerging and intractable
social problems in the 1990s that convinced leaders Cuba
needed a more integrated social work profession. Highly trained and qualified
social workers were needed who could join other professionals and government representatives
in creating new programs to address the worsening problems of increased poverty,
growing class difference, and lack of material resources. However, it was not
until the late 1990s—when Cuba
recovered from the worst of its economic crises—that it was in a position to dedicate
material and human resources to support the social work education and training
programs described below.
Two-Pronged Social Work Initiative
developed a two-pronged social work initiative in response to the social ills
related to economic hardship. This initiative comprised the creation of (1) a
university-level program (UP) or educating more advanced social workers and (2)
the formation of schools of social work (SSW) that offer rapid social work training
programs for Cuban youth who return to their communities as social workers after
finishing this training.
The first Cuban school of social
work was established at the University
of Havana in 1943. It was not a university
degree program and ended when the university closed its doors in 1956 due to social
turmoil leading up to the Cuban Revolution in 1959. In 1971, the Cuban government
began to train social workers at technical training institutes (técnicos medios,
or TMs), the first of which was located at the Cuban Ministry of Public Health.
These TMs taught fundamental, focused social work and case management skills to
a generation of workers who provided specialized social work services in Cuba’s
clinics and hospitals, in housing and social security offices, and in other social
and healthcare service settings. A dozen such TMs exist today. Most of Cuba’s
technical social workers, including more than 2000 in healthcare, were trained
at such TMs.
The University Social Work Program in Cuba
the late 1990s, government leaders, educators, and social workers agreed that
Cuba needed to
advance the educational training of Cuban social workers beyond that offered by
TMs. In 1997, the Cuban Ministry of Education asked the Sociology Department at
the University of Havana
to implement a degree program in sociology with a concentration in social work
to provide more advanced training for Cuban social workers. The university’s six-year
degree program began at the University
of Havana in 1998. Two years later,
the University of the Oriente in Santiago, Cuba,
started a similar UP. Both offer the licenciatura degree (roughly equivalent to
a master’s degree in the United States)
in sociology with a concentration in social work.
students must be high school graduates, and the majority are
part-time students with full-time jobs as healthcare social workers. Every 21
days, they receive time off from their jobs to attend classes at the university
and to study for exams. They receive their regular income while they are students.
Currently, there are approximately 100 students enrolled in the University
of Havana’s UP alone, which is now
in its fifth year of existence.
The UP’s goal is to advance
Cuban social work education and training by teaching students how to integrate
social work practice skills with theory. The hope is that this will not only increase
their practice skills, but also enhance their understanding of their role aschange agents and elevate their professional status in the wider society.
Sociology Department spent considerable time and effort developing a curriculum
based on those of other Latin American countries and Spain,
according to one of the UP’s organizers. The UP curriculum integrates sociological
theory and social work practice. Two introductory courses in the first year are
Introduction to Sociology and Theory and Practice in Social Work. First year students
also take classes in philosophy, political economy, and the history of the Americas.
They study demography, sociological methods, and statistics in their second year.
In years , students take
Social Work I (community intervention), Social Work II (intervention with groups,
organizations, and institutions), and Social Work III (interventions with individuals
and families), which is similar to casework in U.S.
schools of social work. Students also study the history of social work,
political sociology, anthropology, sociology and health, and sociology and the
family. Much of the sixth year is devoted to writing a professional thesis. Students
attend a research workshop every semester starting in their first year in which
they examine their on-the-job practice. This workshop is an important source of
supervision for these students because, at present, there are no social workers
with advanced training to supervise them where they work.
Schools for Youth
In September 2000, the Cuban government
opened its first school of social work in Cojimar on the outskirts of Havana
for young people aged 16 to 22. Three other SSW now exist
in Villa Clara, Holguín, and Santiago.
Two thousand students attend each of these schools, with eight thousand social
work students graduating last year. This social work educational initiative, like
the UP in Havana and Santiago,
represents an emergency response by the government to addressing social problems
in Cuba. Students
at the SSW are known as emergentes because they are trained to respond to serious
emergent social problems.
The purpose of these social
work training schools is to provide a short-term (initially six and increasing
to 12 months next year), concentrated social work learning experience for these
youths, combining classroom experience with field practice. “Cuba
does not have the luxury of waiting to solve its economic problems. It is experiencing
a difficult economic time, but the idea is to not leave young people behind and
uneducated,” according to one of the school’s founding faculty members, Lourdes
de Urrutia, a professor at the University of Havana: “The idea [of emergentes]
is to educate young people who can then go out and help other young people,” she
Many SSW faculty members are advanced social work
students studying for their licenciatura in the sociology and social work degree
program described earlier. They are not reimbursed for their teaching because
they are on paid leave from their regular jobs. The academic program for emergentes
integrates courses from various fields into a unified curriculum. In addition
to studying sociology, social work, psychology, law, and other disciplines, emergentes
also take courses in the historical development of social work in Cuba,
the United States
and elsewhere in the world, adolescence, the family, community social work, and
social intervention techniques. To graduate, emergentes must pass exams in each
disciplinary subspecialty. The required field work, directed by a multidisciplinary
faculty team, involves interviewing youths from poor neighborhoods to determine
the prevalence of problems among them and to assess their level of need for services.
Emergentes also participate in government social projects, such as Cuba’s
campaign to eradicate the mosquito-carrying dengue fever, which was an important
public health campaign in Cuba
After their training is completed, emergentes
are guaranteed social work jobs where they must live in the communities and work
with youth and other groups at risk such as children and senior citizens. They
receive a salary of 300 pesos a month, which is considered to be a good salary
for young Cuban workers.
Emergentes also have the opportunity
to study for their licenciatura on a part-time basis in any of eight university
degree programs, including the UP program in sociology, social work, social communication,
psychology, and law. While currently, most SSW graduates do not choose social
work, they are expected to remain with their community-based social work jobs
if they decide to subsequently study on a part-time basis at one of these eight
university degree programs.
Lessons from Cuban Social Work Education
extent to which Cuba’s
social work initiative will be successful in the long run is unknown. The Cuban
government’s ability to sustain this program is an important factor in determining
its future success. However, Cuba’s
effort to elevate social work education is noteworthy for many reasons, regardless
of its long-term outcome, and deserves the attention and the support of the international
social work community. Its innovative core curricula integrating social work practice
skills with political sociology and political economy is a strong model for social
work training in other developing countries to address social problems related
to national economic difficulties.
The SSW model may
be used for the quick training of large numbers of young social workers to participate
in local and nationwide public health and educational campaigns, such as Honduras’
ongoing effort to fight an outbreak of hemorrhagic dengue fever (The New York
Times, 2002). The Cuban government’s expectation that emergentes make a commitment
to remain on their jobs for a 10-year period after graduation may seem unusual
to members of the U.S.
social work community. However, this expectation reflects a degree of professional
sacrifice that the Cuban government has come to expect from its professionals
in an effort to sustain the social ideals of the Cuban Revolution.
international social work community can learn from what Cuba
has already accomplished with limited resources and is encouraged to exchange
information and human resources with Cuba
to advance social work education and practice.
of the high travel costs and U.S.-imposed travel restrictions, it is difficult
for members of the Cuban social work community to travel to the United
States to attend conferences and exchange ideas
with theircounterparts. We recommend, therefore, that the National Association
of Social Workers advocate for an easier exchange of Cuban and North American
social work professionals. Cuban social work is of special relevance to the U.S.
social work community because of Cuba’s
close proximity to the U.S.
mainland and high numbers of Hispanic immigrants, including Cubans, who reside
in the U.S. urban
and suburban areas (Spuro, 2002).Additionally important are the lessons
the U.S. social
work community can learn from Cuba’s
social work education and training initiatives.Which
of the Cuban strategies to increase its number of social workers could work to
address the growing shortage of social workers in the United
States, especially in under served impoverished
urban settings? (Strug & Mason, in press).
David Strug, PhD, is associate professor of social work
at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University in New
York City. [*He has carried out ethnographic research
in the field of HIV/AIDS and substance abuse in the United
States and has done anthropological field
work in Latin America.]
Walter Teague, MSW, is a clinical social worker and psychotherapist
in private practice since 1981 in Washington, DC and Maryland. [*He has been
a community organizer and social justice activist for human and disability
rights for more than 40 years.]
K. Cuba (2001):The process of socialist development.
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Fidel Castro attends
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y práctica de trabajo social en Cuba y
en los Estados Unidos).Washington,
D.C.: Cuban American Alliance
and Education Fund 2002. Retrieved June
10, 2002, from http://wteague.com/Cuba/Social_Work/
in Honduras. (2002, July 27). The New York Times, p.
Spuro, R. Latino growth in metropolitan America:
Changing patterns, new locations. Washington,
Audrey S. Singer, and BrookingsInstitutionCenter on Urban and Metropolitan Policy.
Retrieved August 1, 2002, from http://www.pewhispanic.org/
D. & Mason, S. (in press). Social service needs of Hispanic immigrants:
An exploratory study of the WashingtonHeights community. Journal of Ethnic Diversity & Cultural Diversity in Social Work.
* There are a few small changes in the final published article.
* Photos by Walter Teague.
* Over one million demonstrated in Havana
on 6/12/02 in support of Cuba’s
social gains and against Bush’s charges that Cuba’s
pharmaceutical industry was connected with terrorism and his call for an end to