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Discovering Cuba

Home/Children Voice/Discovering Cuba

Published in Children’s Voice, Volume 25, Number 1
by Todd A. Landry

In late September 2015, CWLA CEO Christine James- Brown led a delegation of 11 member organizations on an information-sharing trip to Cuba, meeting with some of the country’s leading child care, health care, and education providers. Though Cuba does not have a formal child welfare system, the country has long practiced a communal approach to raising children and helping them reach their full potential; the delegation learned about this structure, its challenges and successes, and the resiliency of the families and communities that operate within it.

The following are excerpts from “Six Days in Cuba,” first published on the website of Lena Pope, a Texas-based CWLA member organization that focuses on counseling and educational services for children and families.

Day One
After an overnight stay in Miami, we started our day of travel to Cuba. Though our destination was roughly 200 miles away, the total travel time was nine hours … After landing in an overcast and rainy Havana, we waited on the plane for an hour before officials had us de-board and walk the 100 yards to the airport terminal. After we got out of the rain, the immigration and customs process went fairly smoothly, and soon enough, we were outside again and getting our first glimpse of life in Havana.

Once on our bus, the drive through the city told a more complete story of Havana. There was no new construction to be seen. Buildings were old, and most were just bones of what they used to be. The dreary weather seemed to match the mood of the city as we drove to the hotel.

Interesting facts about Cuba:

  • Cuba has 11 million inhabitants, and about 2 million live in the Havana area.
  • Virtually all hospitals, schools, and other buildings were built pre-revolution (1960).
  • The Cuban political leadership offices are well known, but their homes are carefully guarded locations for their protection.
  • Cuba has a concerning “age crisis”––the population is aging, and the number of children and young adults is shrinking.
  • Despite challenges, Cuba has maintained a fairly well-appointed medical system––the country has 22 medical schools.
  • 28,000 students attend the University of Havana, which is free to all residents.
  • Infrastructure is the most obvious deficit.
  • The city is home to a number of urban gardens that began in the 1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba had to find new ways to survive. The resulting “Special Period” meant a time of severe austerity––citizens often lived off slices of tomatoes grown in the urban gardens.

Day Two
After breakfast at the hotel, the delegation made its first stop of the day at the Cuban Maternal Health Clinic–– what the Cubans call a “Maternity Home.” The visit highlighted both the overall healthcare system in Cuba and the specific ways the country serves what they consider to be high-risk pregnancies.

The healthcare system in this socialized country is a source of pride for its residents. With an overall focus on prevention and a low ratio of physicians to residents, the country points to its low child mortality rate, relatively long life expectancies (77 years for men, 81 years for women), and a vaccine for lung cancer as areas of great success…

[The Maternity Home is a] hospital-like facility [that] serves women determined to have high-risk pregnancies, such as teenage pregnancy, twins, or diabetic pregnancy complications. The facility (like other Maternity Homes in the country) provides testing and residential care for up to 50 women. Women can stay up to four months in the facility in rooms with four women each and no air conditioning. Care appears to be good and thorough.

For all pregnancies (not only those considered high-risk), genetic testing is common. Women are provided ongoing testing, including in vitro testing and ultrasounds on a routine basis. If abnormalities are found, women are provided the option of terminating the pregnancy or continuing.

Cuba has one of the world’s highest abortion rates … This likely has less to do with any medical reasons than the choices that families are making. Given the economic hardships and the severe housing crisis, a logical conclusion is that families are choosing to have fewer children.

The Cuban birthrate is shockingly low and has been on the decline since at least 1960. This “graying” of Cuba is a major concern among many people we spoke to. Economically, this aging of the population could cause serious negative impacts in the future as fewer citizens of working ages are able to support the seniors who will need substantial care and support. Just last year, Cuba’s government announced changes to spur more births, including assisted reproduction.

Day Three[We attended] a presentation by a representative of the Ministry of Education on preschool and early education. The similarities to the United States were striking in this arena. About 12 percent of children aged 1–6 attend organized daycare/preschool due to a lack of available spaces. Another 18 percent attend preschool at an elementary school. The remaining 68 percent are stay-at-home children. To accommodate them, an “Educate Your Child” program exists in nearly every community to prepare them academically and socially.

A word about the Cuban education system. School is mandatory up to the 9th grade. Primary (elementary) schools serve children in pre-K through about 5th grade, and secondary school through the 9th grade. After 9th grade, students can choose to attend technical/vocational school or “pre-university” or high school. Both groups are eligible to attend university. All education is at no charge.

Given the debate in the United States on mandatory testing, it is worth noting that the Cuban system also has mandatory tests, and certain ones are required to matriculate to the next grade.

Earlier in the day, I visited the neighborhood primary school located across the street from the hotel. After a significant amount of negotiation, I was allowed in. I was able to view a preschool and a 2nd and 3rd grade classroom. Students were in uniform, and the classrooms were reminiscent of American classrooms from about 20–30 years ago. Technology was severely limited, and chalk was reportedly in short supply. The classrooms were not air conditioned and in very poor construction condition, but the children seemed attentive to their teachers. Cuban school children wear a uniform of a white shirt with varying colors of pants/shorts (red for primary school, yellow/tan for secondary school, and so on).

One of the challenges in Cuba is that there are too many professionals and not enough trade craftsmen. Largely, this is due to the no-cost aspect of higher education. One result is many highly educated professionals are in trade or tourism related areas, such as driving taxis.

After lunch, we visited what was categorized as an “orphanage” but also called a “children’s home.” About 14 children were in the home we visited, but some have populations as large as 40. These are very similar to group homes in the United States. Living conditions are challenging, which is typical for Cuba. However, at least in this home, the children (aged 6–11) seemed happy and well cared for. In many ways, the home reminded us of the group homes in the United States of about 30 years ago.

An interesting note about the child welfare system: Very few children are ever adopted. In general, if parents cannot care for the children and no relatives are suitable, the children will grow up in group homes and are emancipated at 18. From what we are told, though, significant efforts are made to support parent contact, including the possibility of incarcerated parents visitation and strong efforts to keep siblings together.

After the third day, it was striking in that there appeared to be more similarities than differences in our early learning, education, and child welfare systems. Despite the embargo (or “blockade” as the Cubans refer to it), our systems have developed along essentially the same course.

Day Four
After lunch, we visited a home for children and adults with severe developmental or intellectual disabilities. Once again, the facilities were sorely lacking. When I used the restroom in the education building, there was no water to flush the toilets, much less wash hands. However, the interactions between the caregivers and the residents demonstrated obvious care and attention. While the facility could never pass even basic American standards, the care and education were clearly very good.

That evening, part of our group returned to Habana Vieja [the historic “Old Havana”]. While quite beautiful during the day, the old part of the city really comes to life at night. Music, dancing, and children playing in the streets made for a festive party atmosphere.

As our day drew to a close, I reflected that it was becoming more difficult to describe Havana and Cuba easily. While clearly a city in need of help, the spirit of its people was alive and well. And I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a country where I felt more welcomed. It was evident how much the average Havana citizen wanted more Americans to visit his or her city. Politics aside, the people are quite clearly ready, willing, and eager to welcome Americans back.

Day Five
The sunshine on Thursday was perfect for our visit to Universidad de Habana. Havana University was founded in the 1700s as the Royal and Pontifical University. While it started in Old Havana, it was moved its current location, in the Vedado district, as the campus expanded.

About 28,000 students attend the university at no cost. The school offers 28 degrees in a variety of areas. Similar to the United States, the student population is mostly female––about 60 percent. To gain admittance, three tests are required: math, Spanish, and Cuban history. Prospective students list up to 10 preferences for degree programs and, depending on test scores and the perceived need in the country, are accepted into one of them. For example, our tour guide was admitted to his 8th preference.

Unlike the four-year undergraduate timetable in the United States, the Cuban system is based on five years. However, college dropout rates are roughly equal––about 50 percent do not complete their degrees.

About 1,000 of the university students are from foreign countries, including the United States, and pay 28,000 Cuban Convertible Pesos (roughly equivalent to U.S. dollars before the Cuban tax) for the full five-year program of study.

Day Six
Our last full day in Cuba started with a visit to Casa de Los Ninos y Las Ninas. This community-based center for children and youth is located in Centro Habana (Central Havana)–– the most overpopulated part of the city with more than 158,000 people living in just 1.5 square miles. The center provides after school services and enrichment for children in the community, including art, music, dancing, and other activities. We met with a group of 15 elementary students who participate in the center’s activities. In many ways, this program mirrors what is being done in U.S. after-school programs.

Following our visit to Casa, our group toured the Callejon de Hamal––an eclectic mix of Afro-Cuban art in an alleyway in Havana. Filled with murals, sculptures, and shrines, the alley is also home to music and dancing with a nod to the region’s unique combination of Catholicism and Santeria (a religion developed by West African descendants who merged old customs with aspects of Roman Catholicism).

The beautiful area is a site of local heritage and pride. Originally frowned upon by the Cuban government when started more than 20 years ago, Callejon de Hamal is now tolerated by the authorities and widely supported by many.

In the afternoon, we met with a representative of the Cuban Federation of Women, which is the entity that supports most of the women’s, family, and children’s programs created in 1960 as part of the Revolution effort. Virtually all women in Cuba older than 14 years belong to the Federation and pay three Cuban pesos annually to fund the programs across the country. The program calls itself a non-government organization, but seems to operate as essentially a government-run program. For example, the upper levels of the Federation are government employees and ensure that all programs are in line with government mandates. At the community level, the Federation is largely staffed with community volunteers.

Final Thoughts
As I reconnected with the world via smartphone and devices, I began to struggle with how to properly describe what I had seen in Havana over the past six days. I was struck by a few final thoughts and conclusions.

Despite the country’s crumbling infrastructure, its people have somehow managed to not only survive but, in some ways, thrive through their commitment to one another. As one example, the care provided by the staffers at the children’s shelter was as warm and loving as anyone could imagine. It made me wonder just how excellent the care could be if the housing conditions, water, and food were of the same quality.

From a U.S. citizen’s perspective, I believe it to be in our best interests to normalize relations. I realize this argument is fraught with political disagreement, but… put simply, it’s in our national interests to be in Cuba.

And, finally, I continue to replay images of the people of Havana who repeatedly genuinely said how much they love the United States and want us to be there. The Cuban people need the United States, and, in some ways, I think we need them as well. We have so much in common. It seems to me like it’s the right time to move forward.

Todd A. Landry is the Executive Director of Lena Pope in Fort Worth, Texas

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