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Touched by Cuba
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AMHCA's Delegation Meets With Peers in Havana

By Tom J. Ferro, LCPC,
AMHCA Past President, 2011–2012

I have always been fascinated by the Latin cultures. Growing up I have vivid memories of watching “I Love Lucy” as a child and being amazed at Ricky Ricardo playing the congas in his big band. Having been a drummer since before I can remember, I have a rhythm in my head at all times. So when I got the opportunity to lead a group of mental health professionals from AMHCA to Cuba, I jumped at the chance! 

I was prepared for the travel, but I was not prepared for how emotional this trip turned out to be for myself and our group of seven. We all were truly touched by the Cuban people. The AMHCA delegation consisted of six AMHCA members (Tony Iacubino, LCPC; Maria Elena Perez; Maritza Rodriguez–Arseneau, LPC; AMHCA Past President Carol Staben–Burroughs, LCPC; AMHCA Past President Marion Turowski, LPC, NCC; and myself), as well as American Counseling Association President Marcheta Evans, PhD, LPC, NCC, DCC.

From the time we landed in Cuba and met our wonderful Cuban guide, Elizabeth, to our departure back to Miami, we were constantly impressed with the Cuban mental health specialists and doctors and nurses in the clinics we visited. Our days were jam-packed with meetings and group discussions. I got up around 6:30 every morning to be ready for the beautiful buffet where we started each day. We left the hotel between 8 and 9 a.m. every day and didn’t get back to the hotel until after 4 p.m. to get ready for our evening entertainment. For the entire trip, I never got to bed before midnight! 

Some of our meetings consisted of presentations, such as the one by a group of Cuban mental health professionals from the Center of Sociological and Psychological Research who went to Haiti during the devastation following the 2010 earthquake. 

We sat in on that presentation with Columbia University professors who were on visiting Cuba on a similar trip to ours, studying Cuba’s health system. We also met with the team in Havana running the HIV/AIDS clinic that has started a hotline for HIV/AIDS help and education. Those team members are very much into prevention and education about HIV/AIDS, and to fulfill their mission, they go out into the streets of Havana and meet with high-risk individuals and pass out condoms and educational pamphlets. 

We toured a Poly clinic, which is a medical clinic with multiple disciplines. One floor was OB–GYN, another floor was Pediatrics, another was Ophthalmology, and so on. We met privately with the nurses there to ask questions about their work, and one question I asked was, “You all look so busy here, do you ever get stressed out?” Their response was interesting—they all laughed! It was like the word stress was not even in their vocabulary. They come to work and do their job. That is what they do. It made me think about how many times I complain about being “stressed out” even though I am well-paid for my work and my living conditions are many times better than those of my colleagues in Cuba.

We did see economic stress and hardship. It was very sad to see the poverty in Cuba and poor living conditions. We were sheltered from some of it as we expected; however, we couldn’t help noticing in the heart of Havana what difficult lives many people live. Despite some of the harsh living conditions, wherever we went, the Cuban people gave us very warm receptions. From the restaurant waiters to the professionals we interacted with to the people on the street we would stop and talk to—all welcomed us and made it very clear they want a long-term relationship with Americans.

My most memorable experience—and the most emotional one, too—was our visit with the after-school program for children with emotional difficulties. It is called La Colmenita, which means “beehive” in Spanish. The director of the health-promotion program is an exciting, vibrant man who emanated enthusiasm and love for the children. The program used art, play, music, and drama as therapy for the children. After we completed our tour of the program, the children gave us a wonderful surprise. They had been practicing a performance for us, and we were all overwhelmed by their passion, talent, and enthusiasm for music. The children sang and danced and played all the instruments themselves. And then we danced with them! It was so incredible. 

But that wasn’t all. A beautiful little girl around 12 years old was playing the maracas, and then moved over to the drum set and started drumming to a Latin song with an upbeat tempo. She blew us all away with her rhythm and enthusiastic drumming. Her rhythm obviously came from a place deep within her, a skill that can’t be taught. The director told me later that the drumming girl had ADHD and that they put her behind the drums to help her manage her energy. It certainly worked! 

I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that we greatly enjoyed the nightlife in Cuba. We were entertained by a show reminiscent of the Copa Cabana at the Parisian, we saw music and dancing performed at the famous Buena Vista Social Club, and we had some great dinners. A few of us (who shall remain unnamed) even enjoyed some Cuban cigars and 11-year-old rum.

Our delegation had an incredible emotional, professional, and personal, once-in-a-lifetime experience. AMHCA is committed to continuing to offer international professional trips to our members. I highly recommend that you consider going on the next international AMHCA trip; you will be enriched forever!