Feature

One of the most prominent billboards in Cuba is splashed with anti-American propaganda that refers to the United States's 50-plus-year embargo on the nation as "the longest genocide in history." The sign is a blunt reminder of the longstanding tensions between the two governments, and could have made a group of Americans feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.

But for the 17 APA members who traveled to Cuba in March, the experience was just the opposite.

The delegates were taken by “the heartfelt goodwill of the Cuban people,” said APA’s Dr. Greg Neimeyer(credit: James Baños, PhD)"The most salient aspects of the trip were the remarkable and heartfelt goodwill of the Cuban people to the U.S. citizens, and vice versa," said Greg Neimeyer, PhD, director of APA's Office of Continuing Education in Psychology, who accompanied the delegation. "They said, ‘For us, this is a reunion of our family—a family of psychologists.'"

The trip, developed in partnership with Professionals Abroad, was the first international delegation to Cuba sponsored by APA since the 1970s.

"This has been really exciting because Cuban psychology has been relatively unknown to us as an organization," said Merry Bullock, PhD, director of APA's Office of International Affairs.

Through the four-day trip, the psychologists studied Cuba's psychology practices, services, education and research, accompanied by a translator. They visited a community-based primary and secondary health-care facility, the University of Havana's department of psychology, the Center for Psychological and Sociological Research and the National School of Public Health. They also met with specialists from the Cuban Neuroscience Center who are conducting "vigorous research" in neurodegenerative dementia, according to delegate Otto Pedraza, PhD, a neuropsychologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.

On the first morning, representatives from Cuba's Ministry of Public Health, the Cuban Society of Psychologists and the National Health Psychology group of the ministry briefed APA's delegates on Cuba's health-care system, a government-controlled system in which psychologists play an integral part. They learned that Cuba has 1,700 psychologists and 800 psychology technicians who practice mainly in community clinics or in university-based settings. The system is based on a biopsychosocial concept of care, with a strong emphasis on interdisciplinary teamwork and disease prevention.

"I came back with a profound appreciation for the level of integration of health and mental health," said APA Past President Carol Goodheart, EdD, a private practitioner in New Jersey who led the delegation. "They say, ‘Of course we work together. This is what we have—each other.'"

Members of the delegation received more than 20 hours of continuing-education credit for the trip, which was "a dawn-to-dusk sort of thing," said Neimeyer.

"Once we got on the ground, it was clear that not only was the experience relevant to the discipline of psychology, but it was absolutely distinctive," he said. "It was the kind of experience in cultural exchange that you could not find in any other context."

That was true for Carolina Yahne, PhD, a researcher at the University of New Mexico who trains health-care professionals in motivational interviewing, a method she's interested in disseminating globally. She was excited when professors and students at the University of Havana were eager to learn more about the evidence-based approach to help combat their nation's tobacco addiction problem. "Something that's always mattered to me is how our work translates across cultures," she said. "It was very gratifying that they were so enthused."

For other psychologists, like Birmingham, Ala., neuropsychologist James Baños, PhD, the experience had personal meaning: He visited his father's childhood house while on the trip. "It was surreal to see these locations I had only heard about in stories," he said.

Pedraza, who emigrated from Cuba at age 7, also had a dual motivation for joining the delegation. "It was a unique opportunity to get a feel for what our colleagues are doing and also to re-experience the past," he said.

The delegation's success has led APA to develop a memorandum of understanding with Cuban psychology organizations that will encourage future communication and projects. Struck by the scarcity of resources for Cuban psychologists, the delegation members also hope to find ways to send books, training DVDs, dictionaries and other materials to their colleagues. In October, APA is sponsoring another international delegation—this one to China—and a few months later, plans to send one back to Cuba.

"Despite all the historical and philosophical and political divides between the two countries, when you're amongst professionals, there are a lot more similarities than differences," said Pedraza. "That's the value of these professional delegations. They can really carry the torch when it comes to bridging different cultures."