INSIDE Chico State
0 April 26, 2001
Volume 31 Number 15
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Person to Person in Cuba

Paul Spear, Psychology, snapped this shot during a February trip to Cuba of a group of Young Pioneers leaning out of a rural school window.
Paul Spear, Psychology, snapped this shot during a February trip to Cuba of a group of Young Pioneers leaning out of a rural school window.

(Photo by Paul Spear)

Paul Spear stands outside a rural school in Cuba.
Paul Spear stands outside a rural school in Cuba.

(Photo courtesy Paul Spear)

Paul Spear, Psychology, fulfilled a dream when he toured Cuba in February. He was a delegate with the People to People Ambassador Program on a week-long tour of Cuba's child development and educational system. He brought back lasting impressions of warmth and friendliness, of a culture rich with art and music, and of a people who've adapted resourcefully to impoverished conditions.

Travel to Cuba has been restricted since Fidel Castro came into power in 1959 and the United States instituted travel and trade embargoes. Groups such as People to People can apply for a U.S. official license to travel, and Spear was eager to join them to see the results of Cuba's 42-year experiment with a centralized economy and social policies.

The People to People Program, started by President Eisenhower and endorsed by presidents since, defines its mission as "Joining common interests in uncommon places through journeys that enrich the world, one person at a time." Spear's trip was supported by the Offices of the President and Provost, the International Studies program, and the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences.

The purpose of the trip was to visit child development and early childhood education centers. The delegation visited a public school, the National Museum for Alfabetizacion (Castro's nationwide program to increase literacy), a one-room rural school, a day care facility, a rural physician's clinic, a cultural center for children including those with behavior difficulties, and an orthopedic hospital.

"The rural school, which was very small, was painted in bright, lively colors. Inside, however, it was barren," said Spear. That seemed to be true of many places they visited -- they were told the buildings were being renovated. Some places they were asked not to take pictures, but, noted Spear, "the rules were flexible, and depended on the circumstances."

The day care school had no toys except the ones they made with papier-mâché, said Spear. "Their refrigerator had gone bad, so they couldn't even keep milk or yogurt for the young kids, which they have to have for them. So we took a collection and raised money for a refrigerator and for $100 in toys."

Spear and others in the delegation brought supplies as gifts. "Faculty and staff at CSU, Chico were very generous, so I came with a whole suitcase full of supplies such as aspirin, vitamins, toothpaste, crayons, books, markers -- a lot was donated," said Spear. Although he delivered supplies to a variety of places, the bulk went to a rural clinic outside Cienfuegos. Where there is only one doctor for every 250 families that live in an area.

In Cuba, education is mandatory until ninth grade, after which people have the choice of going to high school, to technical school or, when 16 years of age, to enter military service (compulsory for males), or continuing their education. If they are university bound, they complete grades 10 - 12 and receive a baccalaureate degree and must pass a set of challenging exams to enter the university. Here, they can enter their choice of professional schools.

When members of the tour group asked professionals about mental health problems in Cuba, the list looked very much like those anywhere: behavioral problems, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, spousal abuse. One clinical psychologist said that people who come to her have stress, depression, and suffering. "You know, the same problems as in the modern world," she said.

The poverty is ubiquitous, said Spear, and affects people, infrastructure, and institutions. Everywhere there are buildings, streets, and plazas in need of repair. In general, people earn between $25 and $30 a month, whether they are surgeons or teachers or taxi drivers. Spear heard from a fellow delegate about a married couple, both professionals, who each make $20 a month, yet their monthly living expenses total $100. For a while, they did their professional work on the side, but were reported to the government and told that there would be adversive consequences if they did not stop.

"Everywhere, people tried to sell us stuff on the street - even hand rolled cigars" said Spear. "They are fairly ingenious, but if they get caught, they will be penalized. The government has allowed artisans to sell their work -- paintings, sculptures, jewelry, and crocheted work -- on the streets. People are also allowed to sell vegetables they've raised." His understanding is that vendors have to give 80 percent of whatever they make to the government. "It may be the beginning of capitalism, but it's tightly controlled," said Spear.

One official government claim with which Spear agrees is that Cuba does not have racial tensions. "There's simply no evidence of it. Everybody is a shade lighter or darker than somebody else. Everybody just gets along -- at least from what I saw on the surface -- very well."

Spear was most impressed by the joie de vivre that the people seem to have. "Music abounds everywhere," he said. It's an easygoing culture. People seem at peace with themselves amidst all this poverty. They are a vibrant people. It moved me deeply to see how they have adapted."

Barbara Alderson

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