Cuba's 'doctors of the soul'

By Marce Cameron

Their uniform is not the traditional white coat of the medical fraternity, but red and blue T-shirts with the slogan “For the triumph of virtue”. Their medicine is the warmth of social solidarity and the gift of friendship. Nearly all are members of Cuba’s communist youth organisation, the UJC. They are Cuba’s revolutionary youth social workers, or “doctors of the soul” as they are affectionately known.

Youth have always been at the forefront of the Cuban Revolution. The leaders of the January 1, 1959 revolution that toppled the US-backed Batista dictatorship were mostly in their 20s. In 1961, brigades of youth left the classroom to become teachers. With government-issued lanterns and textbooks in hand, they left the comfort of the cities to live among the illiterate rural poor in their dirt-floor huts with roofs thatched with palm leaves. During the day the students pitched in on the farms. At night they gave literacy classes by lanternlight. Since then tens of thousands of Cuban youth have served in internationalist missions as volunteer doctors, teachers and soldiers all over the Third World. The continuity of the revolution depends on each new generation of youth making the revolution and its socialist morality their own.

Today’s generation of Cuban youth have never experienced life under capitalism and they tend to take for granted the social achievements of the Cuban Revolution, such as free healthcare and education. But they have grown up in times of great hardship amid growing social inequality and an annual influx of around 2 million Western tourists.

‘Special Period’

Cuba’s revolutionary social work program is at the heart of the “battle of ideas” launched by retired president Fidel Castro in 2000. The battle of ideas encompasses dozens of social, education and cultural initiatives aimed at reasserting socialist values as Cuba emerges from the “Special Period” imposed on the country by the disappearance of the Soviet bloc, its major trading partner from the early 1960s until 1991.

When the Soviet bloc collapsed at the beginning of the 1990s, Cuba’s post-capitalist economy contracted 35% in less than two years. Taking advantage of Cuba’s misfortune, the US imperialist rulers tightened their economic blockade of the island. Cuba’s socialist government did everything it could to ensure that the resulting hardships were shared as equitably as possible. No schools or hospitals were closed. Nobody was thrown out of their homes or jobs, and workers whose factories lay idle for lack of fuel or raw materials were sent home on 60% of their wages. State rationing at subsidised prices ensured that nobody starved.

But there was a sharp rise in social inequality. The wages the government paid workers had become almost worthless, as there was little to buy in the shops other than a few subsidised rationed goods. What could not be bought in the state stores, including such necessities as soap and cooking oil, could only be acquired for astronomical sums on the flourishing black market in US dollars.

Cuba had no choice but to make significant concessions to global capitalism through expansion of joint ventures between the Cuban state and foreign investors, particularly in a massively expanded tourism industry, which became the number one source of export earnings. While the expansion of tourism had the desired effect of stimulating the economy, which began to recover during the second half of the 1990s, small fortunes were made by black marketers and by others who received remittances in US dollars from relatives living abroad. With the collapse in the exchange rate of the Cuban peso, a social divide opened up between those who had access to foreign currency and those who didn’t. A hotel waiter could earn more in tips in a single night than a surgeon earned in a month.

“I am not claiming that our country is a perfect model of equality and justice”, Fidel Castro told a Cuba solidarity rally at the Riverside Church in Harlem, New York, in September 2000. “We believed at the beginning [of the revolution] that when we established the fullest equality before the law and complete intolerance for any demonstration of sexual discrimination in the case of women, or racial discrimination in the case of ethnic minorities, these phenomena would vanish from our society. It was some time before we discovered that marginality and racial discrimination with it are not something that one gets rid of with a law or even with 10 laws, and we have not managed to eliminate them completely, even in 40 years.”

“There are marginal neighbourhoods; there are hundreds of thousand of people who live in marginal neighbourhoods, and not only blacks and mixed race people, but whites as well. There are marginal whites, too, and all this we inherited from the previous [capitalist] social system ... We do not have the money to build housing for all the people who live in what we could call marginal conditions. But we have lots of other ideas.”

Young social workers

One of these ideas was the establishment of the first social work college in Cojimar in the capital, Havana. Today, four colleges have graduated 40,000 young social workers who have completed an intensive one-year training course. These youth are now working as social workers in all of Cuba’s 169 municipalities while they complete their university studies. They have been assigned various tasks related to the economic and social programs of the revolution.

In 2005 they were deployed to temporarily staff petrol stations after the government discovered that half the revenue from fuel sales was being lost to theft and corruption. The following year they went from home to home replacing incandescent light globes with free energy-saving compact fluorescent bulbs as part of Cuba’s “energy revolution”. The young social workers are also involved in an program to replace household appliances such as fridges and TVs with new energy-efficient models.

A nationwide door-to-door survey carried out by the young social workers identified 37,000 elderly people living alone. Now young social workers visit them and attend to their needs. Another project has identified children considered vulnerable because of problems at home. These children receive special attention from the young social workers, who almost become part of the child’s family.

Cuba’s young social workers also work with disaffected youth who are neither studying nor working, mostly because they’re making money on the black market. The numbers of such youth have been substantially reduced during the past eight years, thanks to the patient efforts of the young social workers to find them interesting employment or study projects that coincide with the collective needs of the revolution. One such initiative is the creation of art teacher training colleges to prepare young art instructors to teach dance, sculpture, music and painting in junior high schools.

The approach of the young social workers is not to preach Marxist doctrine or to urge the youth they visit to attend political rallies, but to seek to befriend them and win their personal trust. These friendships are cultivated in the privacy of the youth’s home, always by a young social worker working alone. The young social workers consult with the neighbourhood-based Committees in Defence of the Revolution and the People’s Councils, the base level of Cuba’s participatory system of government. They also consult with the local police about the general problems in their neighbourhoods, but if a young person is involved in black-market activities the young social workers’ code of ethics forbids them from divulging this information to the youth’s parents, the police or any other third person, even to another young social worker.

To establish a genuine friendship based on mutual respect, the young social workers seek to see things from the point of view of those they are trying to help. “You have to get inside their heads, see things as they see them”, one young social worker explained to me. Some youth initially reject the offer of friendship, but sooner or later most of them agree to talk to a young social worker.

Across the country, three-quarters of those who have volunteered to be young social workers are women, and many come from “marginal” communities where youth are more susceptible to disaffection. The social work program has become a giant school of applied social science at the service of the revolution.

While in Cuba this January I had a chance to directly observe the activities of the young socialist workers in Colon, a densely populated neighbourhood with crumbling colonial buildings and narrow streets, located in the Centro Habana municipality of the capital. From an office with a single computer terminal in the children’s games salon run by the local People’s Council, each day 30 young social workers fanned out in pairs across the neighbourhood. They were nine months into a three-year pilot program that aims to turn around the relatively high incidence of idle, disaffected youth engaged in black-market activities and prostitution in Colon, with its nearby a cluster of tourist hotels. As elsewhere in the Third World, cashed-up Western tourists are a magnet for those seeking “easy money” on the street.

The dedication of this group of young social workers was impressive. Most came from outside Havana and spend just a few days with their families every two months. They work long hours, typically from 8.30am to 10pm six or seven days a week, living in dormitories at the social work college in Cojimar. They told me they love their work and are totally absorbed in it.

Capitalism develops according to the blind laws of “the market”. It pits each against all in a competitive struggle for survival, leaving a trail of human wreckage. At best, social work under capitalism is like trying to apply a band-aid to a diseased social organism. At worst, social workers get drawn into capitalism’s system of social control of the working class that seeks to channel discontent into the futile quest for individual solutions to social problems. Efforts to coerce the unemployed to find work under capitalism, for example, are hypocritical, since the biggest social parasites, the corporate rich, are rewarded for their idleness with enormous incomes derived from owning property and exploiting other people’s labour. There is no such hypocrisy in socialist Cuba’s humane and patient efforts to reintegrate disaffected youth into work or study, because there is no ruling capitalist class.