Social Work Experience in Cuba

by Professor Lourdes Pérez Montalvo

School of Philosophy and Social Science

University of Havana

swfba-lourdes.jpgProfessor Lourdes Pérez Montalvo

Background – Organizations                                                             

            Social work in Cuba today is conceptualized as a process in which social and economic concerns are fully integrated. For over 40 years it has been a primary interest of national organizations that represent wide sectors of society – families, women, children, workers, campesinos (farmers), students, and the disabled.  

            The following organizations stand out for their promotion of social work practice, study and research in Cuba:


                      The Cuban Federation of Women (FMC, Federación de Mujeres Cubanas) -- founded in 1960, represents women’s interests along with the interests of their families and children;


                      The Union of Cuban Workers (CTC, Central de Trabajadores Cubanos) – has

a rich history in the struggle for worker’s rights since 1939;


                      The Federation of University Students (FEU, Federación Estudiantil Universitaria) – has played an active role since 1922 on behalf of students for social, educational and political reforms;


                      The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR, Comités de Defensa de la Revolución) – founded in 1960 on the heels of the Cuban Revolution, performs routine functions in immunization projects, civil defense and neighborhood safety;


                      The National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP, Asociación Nacional de Pequeños Agricultores) – founded in the early 1960's, gives voice and representation to campesinos and the problems faced by people living in rural areas; and


                      The Associations for the Physically Disabled, (ACLIFIM, Asociación Cubana de Limitados Físico-Motores) – a national network with close to 50,000 members and chapters in each of the 14 provinces of Cuba. Since the early 1980's it promotes the best interests of people with disabilities, including access to education and employment.

            These organizations have a rich history of political and social activism on behalf of their various constituents, and are also bound in efforts of wide global outreach in crafting programs for economic growth, social improvement, and cultural development for society as a whole.


            Through their multiple tasks, they strive to:


                      Eliminate shortcomings in the educational system;


                      Incorporate every child into the school system;


                      Incorporate out-of-work adults into the labor force;


                      Eliminate prostitution and criminal behavior; and


                      Eradicate unhealthy situations in neighborhoods in an effort to improve living conditions.

Social Work Precursors

            For over 40 years, The Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) has been at the forefront of education and prevention work with women and their families in urban and rural areas throughout Cuba. They have trained up to 80,000 social workers, dispersed through various levels and sectors of Cuban society. The Federation, cognizant of their valuable impact on society, proposed that social workers be given a more thorough education and training – not only in practice but with a theoretical foundation and solid scientific methodologies. The FMC has been a forceful voice for the creation of Social Work Studies at the university level.

            Schooling and training of social workers were proposed by other organizations as well, which placed in evidence the outreach potential and relevance of social work as a vehicle for the enhancement of general well-being in the population. Furthermore, prevention and social care commissions have played a decisive role in the expansion of social work practice and training at the community level. These commissions consist of teams of social activists, organizations, entities and institutions that search for causes of delinquency and antisocial conduct while at the same time they attempt to persuade and reeducate those involved in behavior deemed destructive.

            During the 1980's, a new element in social work action emerged in the area of preventive care as a result of advances in primary health care and medical attention delivery. At that time Cuba instituted “The Family-Doctor and Nurse system.” These doctors and nurses practiced medicine, making house calls whenever needed, in the neighborhood where they lived and worked, and as such became intimately aware of particular social and health problems in their communities. This knowledge permitted them, not only to dispense medical care, but to also educate neighborhood residents on good hygiene practices and habits for healthy living.

            The Cuban economic crisis of the 1990's, brought about by the fall of the socialist camp together with a renewed tightening of the U.S. economic embargo against the island, placed in evidence Cuba’s lack of material and energy resources. As a result of the crisis, factories closed, migration increased, job opportunities decreased, unemployment rose, housing conditions worsen, food and medicine were in short supply while demands for social services increased, criminal behavior escalated together with changes in social values and the emergence of new manifestations of social indiscipline. Social differences also climbed as a result of measures taken to ameliorate the economic crisis. Moreover, these disparities were further exacerbated by historical factors and the remains of social inequalities, which linger in society, despite long-term efforts to achieve equality and general social well-being.


Support and Priorities

            The development of emergency programs to combat the economic crisis together with information gleaned through academic research about Cuba’s reality were pivotal in the design of programs for social work practice and training. Plans to address the emergent social conditions began with a careful account of living conditions and the identification of particular problems confronted by neighborhood residents. The following social sectors were prioritized for outreach and development of social welfare projects:


                      Social groups with poor living conditions;


                      Persons with disabilities;


                      Incarcerated persons and ex-prisoners;


                      Pregnant teenagers and single mothers;


                      Persons who practice prostitution;


                      Senior citizens; and


                      Children and youth, particularly out-of-school youth and those of working-age,

not gainfully employed.

            These emergency programs were based on the Cubans’ ideal of “social justice with equal opportunities for all” together with a solid foundation in scientific studies and research about people’s social needs. These programs were supported by institutions that emphasize prevention and nurturing over punishment and incarceration. The programs relied on the following institutions:


                      the school as a center for sociocultural intervention in the community;


                      the family as the fundamental cell of society and social unit where communication and cohesion are intensely developed; and


                      the social grassroots organizations that mobilize and coalesce various sectors of society to carry out specific programs and tasks.


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