By Yusimi Rodriguez
HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 11 — A couple of months ago I met “Marielys” (who like other people I’ve interviewed won’t give her real name, but I had to call her something). As I walked with her to the bus stop, she told me something that almost knocked me on my butt. She said, “I quit a job where I earned 475 pesos a month plus a bag of toiletries (with soap, deodorant, detergent, sanitary napkins, razors, etc.) for another job where I earn only 355 pesos and don’t get a toiletry bag”
“Generally what people do is try to move up instead of going backwards. I went backwards economically, that’s obvious, but I didn’t take a step back professionally or spiritually, because now I’m doing what I really like, something that I see as making more sense and as being a place where I’ve found myself,” she insisted.
The job that Marielys left which paid 475 pesos and that also included a bag of toiletries was that of a social worker.
The following is the conversation I had with her:
Could you explain to the readers what the Social Workers Program consists of? I have a vague idea. I think it began in 2000 or 2001.
I’m not sure about the exact date, but it must have been in 2000 because I was in last my year of high school when the whole boom in social workers began. In theory it’s a very beautiful profession. Like Fidel said, we were “the doctors of the soul.” Here we don’t have an entity that supports us economically with material things to give to people, meaning that our work was out of pure effort and was very spiritual, listening to people’s problems. We couldn’t do anything else because we had nothing else to give. We could only serve as mediators between people and the State.
What type of people did you assist?
Basically people with some type of social disadvantage, for example older adults living alone, people with disabilities, single mothers, or people who lived in dysfunctional families… That’s why they were having difficulties with social development. And prisoners, we also worked in prisons.
So how is it possible that you didn’t see the sense in all that?
When we were in the school everything was painted very pretty, but like the saying goes: “There’s a tremendous gap between theory and practice.” When we hit the ground, so to speak, there was a lot of bureaucracy. If you place me in a situation for me to serve as the mediator between a person in need and the State, you have to give me the tools for solving that problem. For example, if I’m going to process the ration book of a person who needs it, you can’t delay that process for a month or more, which is what often happened.
I was a social worker for seven or eight years, and there were cases that I had from when I first started that still hadn’t been resolved by the time I left, or the client simply never received an answer. The paperwork would get lost, or someone would misfile it and I would have to send it to them again. There was no one really responsibility over what we were doing. I’m not blaming everything on the State, because there were many factors; for example the bureaucracy, which prevented the work from being done like it should have been.
I believe that we had an idea of how the things should have worked, but reality always surpassed any study that was done. That’s why a lot of people were disappointed, just like what happened to me. I saw that we were just one group that was created to address what was necessary at the moment. We took part in the Energy Revolution, Operation Miracle, the annual Havana Book Fair…
Did you feel useful in carrying out that work?
Yes, I felt very useful working around the Energy Revolution and the Book Fair book; these were more concrete activities with objectives that were more specific, more real. Often what we did on other projects was paperwork, say making lists of children from zero to fifteen years of age. But then they would tell you on Tuesday afternoon that you had to turn in the list on Wednesday morning; things like that, just plain absurd. They would tell you, “Make a list of children who are in dysfunctional families,” everything in such a rush. This means that if research was being conducted, it wasn’t being done in any depth; instead, it was being done to merely to fill out paperwork and forms. This was repeated over and over again. We spent a year making lists and more lists. And we didn’t understand why we had to keep doing the same thing.
During the time you were a social worker, what problems were you able to detect? What were the problems that had the most impact on you?
There were people who struggled for the revolution, gave the best of their lives working, and right now they don’t have anything, or they didn’t enjoy the same benefits as other people who struggled and are now recognized. There were people who really needed what they were asking for, but because of all the bureaucracy their problems were never addressed. I found people living in places where their roofs were falling in, but the only thing that was done was to send a social worker to listen to their problems. I’m telling you, it’s true that you’re a doctor of the soul in this job, you can listen to the problems of some person once or twice, but you’re not going to lift their spirits going there five times… What for? To tell them what?
I’m telling you this from my point of view. I don’t know, maybe it’s that I didn’t understand what we were supposed to do. But people have material needs that determine their conditions and their social behavior. Everything depends on the economy. You’re going to think like you live. If you don’t have a roof over your head, you can’t think about studying or anything else. It’s real, though they want to see it in another light and try to divert the thinking of that person, but it’s real. If you’re experiencing need and living in misery, you can’t think about “Homeland or death.” You think about your need because it’s what’s paramount. They often wanted us to go there and sit down with people… like for example what my boss told me to do one time; she said: “If the girl’s book-bag is dirty, you have to wash it for her. And if the mother wants you to take the child to the doctor, you have to pick the kid up and take her.” I wasn’t there for that, because it doesn’t help psychologically. You help a person by making them aware of their problem, and then you can help them look for roads to solving these.
Did you see anything positive in the work?
Well, positive, yes. Underweight or undernourished children were given a special diet, and it was completely free. It was a diet that didn’t help them gain weight, but nor did it allow them to lose more weight or worsen their situation. The food was given to them every month and it consisted of pasta, rice, beans and oil. This was something that I recognized as positive. Plus they organized different activities for those children; for example, during the week of school vacation, on Children’s Day, on April 4 or whatever day that was set aside for children. We would also take them to the Book Fair.
What was behind the problem of these low-weight or undernourished children?
It could have been something genetic or pathological, or it could have been due to some social situation in the family. Either of these two situations were requirements for getting into the program. This could mean that parents in a perfect economic situation could have a child who was undernourished or had low weight; however, they wouldn’t be given the special diet because the parents had the means to obtain it to solve the problem. The children who were prioritized were those with low weight or undernourished who were social work cases, critical cases, or those in dysfunctional families; in short, those who really needed it.
Other positive things? Well, there was the Book Fair, which as I already mentioned was something I felt quite useful when I participated in it, and the Energy Revolution Program at one time…
Why at one time?
There were things that weren’t very well thought out, like in all experiments. In the end the home appliances that were delivered were not what were needed by Cuban homemakers because they didn’t find them useful, and that could be seen. The Energy Revolution had two moments: a first moment when we were working in CUPET gas stations, every place where gasoline was being wasted, and later when we were giving away energy efficient cooking appliances. Later a lot of people took whatever they had access to and the program ended up in mass graft and pilfering.
Who was involved in the graft?
The social workers themselves. They also stole gasoline and sold electric appliances. A lot of things happened.
Were you also involved in that graft? Remembers I’m not here to judge you, and your name won’t appear in the interview.
I wasn’t involved, but it was something that was all around me.
So what happened with those people who were involved?
Nothing. Nobody saw anything since everybody was doing the same thing… the workers in the warehouses, everybody. Everybody was after pesos… everybody who was there. And the ones who didn’t benefit from the Energy Revolution didn’t benefit from anything.
That means it must have been pretty difficult to resist temptation…
Very difficult. The problem was that the first social work cases were the social workers… The program began with the objective of giving jobs to many youth who were neither working or studying. The purpose of the program was so they could do something with their future, so they could study, and have more opportunities. They were given an “fast-track” social worker’s course that lasted six months. For this, they were paid a stipend of 50 pesos and came out of the program with a job that paid 340 pesos a month.
From the very moment you began the course, they gave you the 50 pesos, plus a bag of toiletries. You had the opportunity to take that course when you finished your final year of high school or if you were disconnected from work or study. You had an open schedule, as well as ability to get into a community college to study for a career without having to take an admissions exam. It couldn’t have been any easier for a person who was not in school or working, someone who previously had been sitting on the corner doing nothing? In the beginning, there were thousands of people who entered the field like that. However, they were both the cream of the crop and the dregs, and a lot of them were just marginal… What I’m trying to say is that the first social work cases were the new social workers themselves. It was something almost Machiavellian: you would go to a house to find out about the situation of a person whose roof had holes in it just like your own home, or possibly theirs had completely collapsed.
Well in Cuba we have an excess of problems with housing, right?
Exactly. So imagine who the people were in this program. They were the same ones who hadn’t been enrolled in school, which was my situation… However I entered from the heart, because that was what I wanted to do. I knew that I wasn’t going to pass the math admissions exam because I’m not good in that subject, but they said they were going to drop the exams for me to get into the social work program. I was super excited with that.
There was a moment, before I got in, though, when they said they weren’t going to take any more students. I was devastated since I couldn’t imagine doing anything that wasn’t social work, because that’s what I liked – helping people.
But suddenly you changed, and it wasn’t precisely due to any economic reason…
It’s what I told you, when you meet reality head on, reality trumps everything. I saw that there was no relation between what we had studied, what was so beautiful in school with such good professors, and what we found in the street.
But weren’t you tempted by the toiletries bags and the wage of almost five hundred pesos?
No, absolutely not. I might die with bread and water, but I’ll have bread and water working in what I like.
It seems that at this point the readers will want to know what job you have that’s so phenomenal that it’s worth going hungry and giving up a toiletry bag and 475 pesos for a flat wage of a little more than 300 pesos.
I earn 355 pesos as a cultural promoter. It’s not a “phenomenal” job for many people, but for me it’s something I wanted to do and where I’ve been able to find myself.
So do you feel that in your present job you’re really being useful?
Yes…yes. You have to understand that a cultural promoter is a social worker in the cultural sphere. In the end, everybody who works in relation to society is a social worker. That’s something inside a person… I also love cultural development, but as a social worker they didn’t allow you to venture further on. Everything was very limited to roles, to steps, to bureaucracy. But here I see that I’m useful because I work with children, with grandparents, with people who are disabled, with children with psycho-social problems. And you see the concrete results because when you organize an activity for a group of people, you can see their happiness as the activity unfolds, and then they thank you. They’ll see you in the street and they’ll ask you when the next activity will be held. You can see their gratitude, though it’s not necessary for them to thank you at that exact moment.
What activities do you organize for those people?
In the summer we set up children’s activities, ones that are both recreational and educational, ones appropriate for the development of their childhood. We also have activities for the elderly. You know that with the elderly in this country (I say this because I’m not familiar with elderly development in other countries) what families do is send them to pick up bread, to pick up newspapers and to run other errands. We assist in the community dining rooms, the grandparents’ centers, the geriatrics centers, and we organize activities that range from art exhibitions to participation in sports and table games. We involve them in singing and reciting.
But what about the resources to carry out those activities?
Well, I’ve already told you that this work is that of a social worker. You have to arrange things here and set up things over there. Because right now, with the situation that the country is in —which is the same situation our country has always been— you don’t have the luxury of having a warehouse where you can go and get the things you need. Fortunately I see that the Ministry of Culture has a bit more resources: audio equipment, local talent from the neighborhood cultural centers, and we can rely a great deal on the natural promoters from the Popular Council. So from all of that comes our work.
Also, since you’re connected to cultural institutions, you also have to have some spark, some self-motivation. You might not have audio equipment one day, but there may be a good moderator and a good singer; so you go with that to organize your activity for the grandparents. If there’s a clown that has a performance every Saturday morning, then you have to lasso the kids and take them there. It’s a beautiful job from my point of view because I like to do things for people. I have an immense need to share, to always give and do things. In other words, I’ve found that I can do more for society as a cultural promoter than as a social worker.
But for less money
Yes, for less money, but with more happiness.
Would you like to talk about another initiative that you have – a more personal one?
That one I do out of the need I just mentioned – to be surrounded by people, giving them alternatives, opportunities, talking with them. I had thought about something like this a while ago with a friend. In principle, we wanted to set up a program for culinary arts, to take some dish and build a whole activity around it. Later we opened it up a little more to include all artistic forms and we had it in a larger place where people could enjoy everything we were able to bring together. If we reduced the scope and size, only those people who were interested in the culinary arts would come and we wouldn’t have activities for those who like to sing or recite, or for people who like to read.
We hold this program every last Sunday of the month at 6:00 in the evening in differing locations. We wanted to take it to different neighborhoods to overcome the geographical fatalism that people have in their minds, plus that’s also a way to reach new people. We aren’t from the downtown area, so we try to see that every area has an opportunity. Our objectives are very simple: to give the youth and people of any age a place where they can relax in a healthy manner; where they can feel good with very simple, very spiritual things, because we don’t have audio equipment or professional talent or economic resources – nothing. Everything is achieved with our sweat and effort and with our own limited resources.
Do you want to explain to the readers why you won’t give your real name?
Well, because people manipulate information a lot. I’ve been speaking here very spontaneously, without any intentions or interests of any type, but everything can be manipulated politically. With respect to the opinions I’ve just expressed, some people could say that these are political or counter-revolutionary statements; in that way they also manipulate concepts themselves. That’s why it’s better this way.