September 5, 2017

The following is a reflection from Allyson Pakstis on the travel portion of the study abroad class to Cuba taken with Professor Kerry Tripp, and 18 undergraduate and graduate students. Allyson is a fourth-year doctoral student researching the impact of Operation Peter Pan, where Cuban youth were flown out of Cuba after the 1959 Cuban Revolution and resettled in the United States. The May 31 to June 8 travel experience to Havana was part of the Family Science study abroad class “Impacts of Socialized Family Law, Public Health and Poverty on the Cuban Family.”

Our first class of the Family Science Department’s new study abroad course, Impacts of Socialized Family Law, Public Health and Poverty on the Cuban Family, was a resounding success for participating students and faculty! The course focused on comparing family issues in a capitalist society with a socialist one within the context of legal, public health, social, cultural and economic systems. Our diverse group consisted of Family Science faculty; Ph.D. graduate students from Family Science and Behavioral and Community Health, and a  Master of Public Health student in Public Health Practice and Policy; plus a diverse group of undergraduate students representing Family Science, Public Health Science, African American Studies, Government, Journalism and Pre-law.

We arrived in Havana, Cuba on the afternoon of May 31, 2017 and wasted no time acclimating to the island nation. As soon as we passed through the doors of the arrival terminal at Jose Marti International Airport we were greeted by a blast of the Caribbean heat, along with the friendly smiles of the many Cubans waiting for family and friends returning home. There we met our knowledgeable Cuban guide Rita and our on-site coordinator Hector, who effortlessly blended into our group and made the trip experience complete.

The family law component of this course was explored through our meetings with a judge, a prosecutor, lawyers from the Cuban Society of Civil and Family Law, and with lawyers in a collective law firm that uses multidisciplinary teams in dealing with international issues including family law. Students compared Cuba’s civil law legal system with a scientific foundation to our American system of common law based on court-made legal precedent. Students learned about the Cuban  Constitution, including equality requirements, and the Society’s proposal to the Cuban General Assembly (its governing body) to update the Cuban Family Code[1] to include the rights of same-sex couples and expand on women’s rights. Students asked about practical matters such as adoption, lowering the Cuban divorce rates, effects of migration on the family, and how everyday Cubans get to participate in the development and improvement of the Cuban legal system. The law professionals that we met emphasized that their focus is on protecting the rights of families while respecting the intimacy of family life.

We also explored Cuban public health by visiting an Orientation House for Women and the Family, the National Center for Sex Education, the School of Medical Sciences at the University of Havana, and a rural community family doctor responsible for the primary care for about a thousand people living in a biosphere. Students learned and asked about issues that affect Cuban families’ health such as their national marketing campaigns against homophobia and transphobia, sex education, domestic violence prevention and intervention, substance abuse and mental health services, provision of health care, and the negative effects of the U.S.-Cuba Embargo on the availability of medical supplies. A main takeaway was how the Cuban government has incorporated public health practice at both the federal and local level to better serve its people through universal health care that is free of charge and accessible to everyone.

This trip was an eye-opening experience for students to look at how law and public health can be used together in innovative ways and with limited resources to help families. One of the most prominent challenges of this trip, for those of us who have lived in the U.S., was being able to process all of this information on how a socialist society works and how it can affect the people living within it. It was an excellent exercise in setting aside preconceived ideas on democracy to be able to make a well-informed opinion about Cuba’s civil law system, socialized healthcare and communist government and how these systems can work together to ensure the health and wellbeing of Cuban families.

Hannah Allen, a Doctoral Candidate in Behavioral and Community Health, praised the course: “This trip to Cuba was a truly life-changing experience! As a PhD student (working on substance abuse issues), I was able to apply what we learned about family law and health in Cuba to my independent research, and this trip helped widen my global perspective on how political and economic structure influence all aspects of life. I would highly recommend this trip for graduate students, as both the educational and recreational experiences we had were relevant for so many different academic disciplines, including public health, medicine, political science and law. You won't regret visiting this beautiful country!”


[1] The Cuban Family Code contains a collection of statutes that directly addresses family issues such as marriage, divorce, parent responsibilities, adoption, and children’s rights.

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Kerry W. Tripp