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Returning from Cuba, Ben Reese Discusses Diversity Issues on the Island Nation

Vice President Ben Reese thanks a representative from the Cuban Institute of Friendship With The People following a presentation on his trip to Cuba.
Vice President Ben Reese thanks a representative from the Cuban Institute of Friendship With The People following a presentation on his trip to Cuba.

For Benjamin Reese and a group of American diversity officers, an eight-day trip to Cuba this past July offered an opportunity to pose a question: How does a society whose ideology is based on equity deal with difference?

What they found, Reese said, intrigued them. Throughout Cuba the officers saw how equity led to near-universal literacy rates, free education for all, and ready access to basic health care.

“But what we also learned is that many people experience racial bias in Cuba based on complexion,” said Reese, Duke’s vice president of institutional equity who is also president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE).

“We met with Professor Esteban Morales, who studies how this form of bias has existed through many generations in Cuba. He made the point that nearly all of the senior political leaders are light skinned.  Most business leaders are light skinned.  This form of bias appears to be embedded in their culture, despite the ideology of equality and the fact that there is generally equitable entrance into higher education and many examples of equal distribution of resources and opportunities.”

Reese led a team of 35 Americans representing NADOHE. The trip included dialogue with representatives from the Cuban National Literacy Museum, Cuban Federation of Women, community healthcare representatives, U.S. students graduating from medical school in Cuba, a top expert on race relations in Cuba, poets, painters, and a noted Cuban economist.

The group also met with Cubans from a variety of professions, including medical professionals, to get a closer look at daily life.

Cuba visit

A panel of Cuban professionals talk with NADOHE diversity officers. Photo courtesy Ben Reese

Reese said one of the association’s missions is “to see how other countries develop leadership around difference and diversity.” The trip to Cuba was suggested by two board members who had visited Cuba through their own university programs.

Reese said he learned that “there hasn’t been much open discussion about racial differences” in Cuba, but that there are certainly signs that suggest that’s changing.  All of our conversations were open and wide-ranging.  It’s a beautiful country with warm and engaging people.  In spite of issues of race and the complex history with the United States, it’s exciting to think of the mutual learning that can take place as our two countries, and cultures, get to know each other better.”

The higher education diversity officers focused much of their discussions on the educational system, which produces a high percentage of professionals, despite salaries being no higher than for traditional blue-collar workers.  There appears to be such a strong focus on community, in that conversations during the trip focused more on support for neighborhoods, rather than competition for financial compensation.

“Another result of their educational system is that they have a proliferation of doctors, so much so that they often send them around the world during crisis or simply to augment a country’s healthcare system. In fact, there are elements of their entire medical system that can serve as models for healthcare in other regions of the world.   Some Cubans told me that part of their challenge now is to get enough people to work the land because so many people are choosing professional careers.”

“It was intriguing to learn the Cuban history of literacy,” Reese said. “In 1961, the Cuban government sent tens of thousands of people, some as young as age 14, into the countryside to eradicate illiteracy. The result is a 96 percent literacy rate, far better than some developed countries.  Their strategy is today being used in other regions of the world.”

Reese and colleagues also had plenty of opportunities to answer questions about race and diversity in America.  With the trip coming at an historic thaw in Cuban-US relations, he found a lot of interest in what the future holds for the two countries.

“There were many positive feelings expressed for Americans,” Reese said. “There is a lot of hope. But, there were some people who were concerned what a sudden and large influx of people and different values might do to aspects of Cuba culture that they’re so proud of. Nevertheless, there is a lot of excitement.

“I don’t want to sugar coat the trip. I recognize the constraints on freedom within the Cuban system, such as the lack of an open press and challenges in creating broad political discourse, but there is much for us to appreciate.  We didn’t meet with dissidents, but then again, that wasn’t the goal of our trip.  But, we did have a wide range of direct and open conversations that provided some insights into the life and culture of a country we had only seen from the perspective of U.S. media.  I, for one, am really looking forward to enhanced Cuban-U.S. relations.”