James Madison University

Cindy Hunter, Social Work Professor, Travels to Cuba

By: Lori News
Posted: October 10, 2014

Each morning as Cindy Hunter left her hotel in Havana to begin her day spent learning about social work education; she traveled down a beautiful coastal boulevard lined with old, colorful buildings and picturesque scenery.

As a member of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the accrediting agency for social work education in the country, Cindy Hunter spent 10 days in Havana, Cuba participating social work education research as well as exploring potential partnerships.

Hunter and 12 other social work educators from the United States met with social work faculty from the University of Havana, social workers in diverse government programs, and the Cuban Society of Social Workers in Health Care. They also visited research centers and community development programs.

“Cuba has always been interesting to me,” Hunter explained. “Social work is relatively new to Cuba and at the moment they are not teaching [it].”

To understand the differences between the U.S. social work system and Cuba’s, Hunter provided some historical background she learned on her trip.

After the revolution in 1959,  Hunter explained, Cuba was supported by the Soviet Union, who bought their sugar for really high prices and sold them gas for really low prices. In turn, Cuba had enough money to support social programs because of their dependence on Russian revenue. However, when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1989, Cuba’s economy plummeted and that’s how the need for social work came about.

The Cuban economy then began to suffer. “They call that the ‘Special Period’ when people had to really tighten their belts,” Hunter explained. “The rations weren’t enough, there was not enough food, fuel, and people were on really hard times.”

Because the economy wasn’t what it used to be, a lot of younger people who had just finished high school were jobless. The government decided to train these young people for about six months and then pay them to stay in communities and collect information so the government could see what they needed to change based on the problems surrounding the Cuban people. This started the School of Social Work.

“Cuba has only had social workers had social workers for the last 16 years and then they decided they had enough of them and they didn’t need to train them anymore, so they stopped the School of Social Work,” Hunter said.

Although Hunter and her fellow educators stuck to a structured agenda traveling to and learning about the different social work agencies, she also experienced another level of education.

“The person I roomed with was a researcher so we had many intense conversations about what we were observing,” Hunter said. “It was a really diverse group of culturally and racially diverse people and that turned out to add an amazing level of education to the trip itself. I didn’t expect that piece of the trip and it was a really pleasant surprise.”

She also observed the differences between social work education in the U.S. and Cuba. She explains that social work in the U.S. involves educating students for practice in agencies and government systems- usually with a specific population. Cuba’s social work field is more community based, generalized, prevention-oriented and not bound by what a specific agency does.  Cuban social workers are more likely assigned to work for a community, not an agency.

Hunter also noted that U.S. programs educate the students to work in an agency to develop their skills. However, in Cuba they would train people for only six months before sending them into different communities to see what needs improvement and then students continue their education while they are practicing.

Although the trip focused on learning more about Cuba’s social work, there was an opportunity to form future collaborations. After hearing about a Latin America Studies Association conference that is popular with Cuban colleagues, Hunter put together a panel of five speakers including two social work educators from Cuba and two from Puerto Rico to potentially participate in the conference. She is currently waiting to hear back if the panel will be selected. The conference will be held in late May 2015 in Puerto Rico.

Hunter says she intends to bring what she learned form her in time in Cuba to her classroom as well.

“It helped me bring…new ideas about how field education can be done and that to me is really stimulating, she said. “I can also expose the students to new ideas.”