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"The best conference that I have ever attended": The 4th International Workshop on Psychology in Santiago de Cuba, 13–16 November 2001

Adrian Brock
University College Dublin

I first became aware of this workshop through the German web-site, "Psychologie in Kuba". The announcement asked interested persons to send an abstract to the Universidad de Oriente in Santiago de Cuba before 31 July 2001. I sent the abstract for my paper by post and by e-mail in mid-July and then waited for a response. I waited throughout the months of August and September and for half the month of October. There were only 4 weeks to go to the start of the conference and I had still not heard anything about it. A friend helpfully suggested that the conference may have been cancelled. I therefore decided to send an e-mail to the Universidad de Oriente to find out if the conference was still on and if my abstract had been received. A reply came back a few days later to say that my abstract had been both received and accepted. Why it took them 3 months to tell me that and then only in response to an enquiry was difficult to understand.

At least I could now buy the flight tickets and get started on my paper for the conference. I had absolutely no idea what kind of paper was expected – 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour? I therefore had to send another e-mail to the Universidad de Oriente to find out. I received a reply a few days later to say that the presentations were "10-15 minutes". If this was true, then it would set a new record for the shortest conference paper I have ever given. It seemed to be a long journey to make from Dublin to Santiago de Cuba just to get "10-15 minutes" to speak.

With every other conference that I have attended, I received a conference programme in the post, together with information about registration costs, any special events that may have been organised and what these might cost, if meals and/or accommodation would be provided, directions for how to get to the conference and much more. Given that it took some special effort on my part to find out if my abstract had been accepted, it will probably come as no surprise when I say that no information of this kind was sent out. When I flew to Havana on 10 November, I knew almost nothing about the conference that I was about to attend.

I did not know, for example, how big the conference was going to be and if this would have an impact on the availability of accommodation in Santiago. I therefore decided to travel to Santiago immediately on arrival in Havana just to be sure. It turned out that finding accommodation in Santiago was no problem at all. At this stage, I knew that the dates of the conference were 13-16 November but I had absolutely no idea when and where the conference was due to begin. I therefore went to the Psychology Department of the Universidad de Oriente on 12 November to find out. The people at the reception said that it was unlikely that I would find anyone connected with the conference there but I ignored them and went ahead. I eventually found someone who appeared to be connected with the conference and she helpfully told me that "the conference programme will be available tomorrow". I told her that this was fine but I still needed to know when and where the conference was due to begin in order to collect the programme! To my surprise, she accepted this argument and told me to be in the "Plaza de la Revolución" at 8.30 the next day. I expressed some surprise that we were going to meet in a square but she assured me that it would be no problem to find the people from the conference.

I arrived at the Plaza de la Revolución at 8.30 the next day and looked around desperately for someone who might be connected with the conference. I didn’t see any likely candidates and so I decided to walk around the square. I still couldn’t find anyone from the conference and so I decided to walk around the square again. At one point, I noticed a door underneath the monument in the middle of the square with a security guard standing outside it. I decided to ask the security guard if he knew where the conference might be. As I approached him, I saw that there was a large room beyond the door with people milling around. Could this be it? I went inside and the first person I asked told me that this was indeed the psychology conference. I was then directed to a large queue and told that I needed to register.

As I was standing in the queue, a group of confused looking Germans asked me if this was where the psychology conference was. I told them that it was and that they should join the queue. We then had an opportunity to trade our experiences up to that point. Like me, none of them had received any information prior to the conference and, like me, they had gone to the university the day before to try to find out when and where it was due to begin and, like me, they had been walking around the "Plaza de la Revolución" trying to find it. It is reassuring to be able to trade experiences in this way. For some strange reason, it helps to know that your experiences are not unique.

The cost of registration turned out to be US$120 in cash. Some members of the German party were not prepared for this (no one had ever said anything about registration costs) and one of them had to get a taxi back to his hotel. We stood in the queue waiting to register for an hour and a half. Just as I reached the desk, it was announced that the conference was about to begin and that registration would resume afterwards. Oh well! It had been a pleasant hour and a half standing in the queue.

The opening session was quite an experience. There was a long table at the front of the room with about ten members of the conference committee sitting at it. The conference began with the Cuban national anthem for which everyone stood. Then every person at the table was introduced and each one got a round of applause. Then several members of the audience were introduced and each one got a round of applause. Then the list of 40 countries of the participants in the conference was read out and each one got a round of applause, though people’s hands were starting to get tired at this point and the applause degenerated into a shout of "oi!" towards the end.

Someone said something about a "parte cultural" (cultural part) and out of nowhere four men with saxophones appeared and played three rhythmic tunes. They were given a standing ovation. Then there was a recital of classical guitar music and the guitarist was then joined by a second guitarist and they began to sing traditional Cuban songs. It was quite a sight to see the members of the conference committee at the long table in front clapping their hands and swaying to the beat of the music. It would not have surprised me if some of the conference participants had got up and started to dance but that did not happen – at least not at this point.

The conference itself then began with a round table discussion on globalisation with participants from Cuba, Argentina and Brazil. I didn’t stay on for it because I had to go back to join the registration queue. Fortunately, this time registration was achieved in a reasonable amount of time. I was so tired from all the queuing that I decided not to join the session late and instead explored the Plaza, the conference centre, where we would meet the next day, and the Universidad de Oriente. The session was supposed to end at 11.00 but it went on until 13.30. This was a particular problem for many people in the lobby since the only toilets in the building were on the opposite side of the conference hall. There was a mad dash for the hall as soon as the session ended, which is, of course, the opposite of what usually happens when sessions end.

The conference was supposed to continue in the afternoon at the "Museo de la Lucha Clandestina" (Museum of the Secret Struggle) at 14.30. Being totally naive at this point, I actually arrived at the museum at 14.30. No one else from the conference was there and so I waited. Fortunately, I had brought a newspaper with me and so I started reading it. I finished reading it a 15.00 (newspapers in Cuba are very thin – something to do with a paper shortage). At this point a Brazilian woman who was connected with the conference arrived and I had to reassure her that she was in the right place. What to do now? The museum looked fairly interesting and so I decided to look around. At 15.30 there were still no signs of the conference and so I decided to go for a walk. I came back at 16.00 just as the bus with the main group of Cubans was arriving. The afternoon session finally got going at 16.15.

The next part of the conference was a delight. It began with a little girl in fancy dress making a welcome speech that she had obviously learned by heart. She reminded me of Shirley Temple in the old Hollywood films. Then we were treated to a talk on the voluntary social work that was being done by the grandmothers of the area. This included, for example, providing help and support to young single mothers. At the end of the talk, the entire group of grandmothers got up and shouted their slogans in unison. They then sang their campaign song, punching the air as they sang. Everyone in the audience was charmed by this group of radical and militant grandmothers.

There then followed two talks on community psychology. The first one was given by the Brazilian woman who I had previously assured that she was in the right place, Elsa Francisca Cunha. I have travelled extensively in Latin America, including Brazil, and I have yet to meet a Brazilian who speaks Spanish. This is quite amazing given the similarity of the Spanish and Portuguese languages. This speaker was no exception to that rule. She gave her talk in Portuguese and it was clear that the Cubans were having great difficulty in understanding her. This was unfortunate because she was talking about some very interesting work that she and her colleagues were doing in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. This talk was followed by another talk from a Cuban psychologist who was doing similar community work in a small town in Cuba.

Back to the "parte cultural". We emerged from the museum to find a group of young children in traditional dress who performed traditional Cuban dances in the street for us. The next part of the conference was a walk through the area of Tivoli, which was founded by French refugees from Haiti who came to Cuba with their slaves after the successful slave revolt in Haiti at the end of the 18th century. The children accompanied us on this walk and performed more traditional dances along the way. For some strange reason, the tour of Tivoli included the workshops of local artists who had lots of pictures for sale and our university guide was keen to make sure that we all got their business cards.

The walk was followed by a reception at the "Balcón de Velasquez" in the same area. This is a balcony with breathtaking views of the coast and the mountains near Santiago. There was a buffet, cold beer and yet another musical group. I began to wonder at this point if I had spent more time listening to conference papers or music during the day. It was a close call but, at the same time, I was sure that the Cubans had got their priorities right. I remember telling one of the Germans I had met in the registration queue that this was the best conference that I had ever attended.

The conference papers began the next day at 9.00 in the very modern convention centre next to the Plaza de la Revolución. There were five sessions going on simultaneously and the organisation of the sessions did not seem to have much logic to it. I was due to present my paper in one of these sessions and so my choice had already been made. I gave my paper in English and it quickly became clear that only one or two members of the audience could understand what I was saying. I could have prepared a paper in Spanish had I known but this was my first conference outside Europe or North America and English had never been a problem at international conferences before. There had been something in the Call for Papers about translation services being available but, if they existed, they had passed me by. The fact that hardly anyone in the audience understood what I was saying may have been the reason why the moderator insisted that I keep very strictly to the maximum limit of 15 minutes because this did not happen to the Cuban speakers.

As with all the sessions, there did not seem to be much logic to the organisation of the papers. My paper on the history of psychology was followed by a paper by an American on terrorism and natural disasters and this was followed by two more talks on community psychology by Cubans. Somewhat surprisingly, given the 15 minutes that had been allowed for each paper, the four presentations were followed by a full hour of "discussion". This part of the session was dominated by an Argentinian, a Venezuelan and a Chilean who all seemed to enjoy the sound of their own voices. They spoke at great length about all the issues of our time: war, social justice, pollution, corruption and other political themes. I couldn’t help wondering what all this had to do with the papers that had just been presented or even what it had to with psychology but this may have been a cross-cultural misunderstanding on my part.

After the break at 11.00, I decided to go to a session that was being given by Barry Schneider of the University of Ottawa in Canada and Maria del Pilar, the chair of psychology at the Universidad de Oriente, on cross-cultural research that they had been doing together. It will probably come as no surprise when I say that the session started two hours late. These two hours provided the members of the audience with an opportunity to get to know each other better. The research was on competition and co-operation among adolescents in Canada, Cuba and Costa Rica. Perhaps the most surprising result of the research was how few differences there were between them.

There was a curious kind of "apartheid" with the travel arrangements. At the end of each morning session, a modern air-conditioned bus was waiting to take the foreign visitors back to their hotels for lunch while the Cubans went off for lunch in a battered old bus. This is a reflection of the society in general where anyone with US dollars can lead a privileged life compared to those who have to make do with the Cuban peso. I hadn’t come to Cuba to avoid the Cubans and so I decided to get on the Cuban bus. It would surely be more interesting and I could avoid waiting for up to two hours for the afternoon session to begin since I would be on the bus that was holding everyone up!

We were supposed to go for lunch at a national (i.e. Cuban peso) restaurant and then to an afternoon session at the "Escuela Vocacional de Arte" (Vocational School of the Arts) which was due to begin at 14.30. It turned out that our restaurant had closed only 10 minutes before we arrived. After a great deal of persuasion, the staff offered to open it again for us but only on condition that we all had minced meat and rice and on condition that we wait for 30 minutes. The 30 minutes was actually more like an hour and it was 16.15 when we eventually arrived at the "Escuela Vocacional" for our 14.30 session. But the best was yet to come: When we arrived, the staff at the school said that they had been expecting us on the following day and that nothing had been prepared! On hearing this, we all decided to go home. One of the professors from the Universidad de Oriente, Bertha Martinez, was travelling in the same direction as me and she introduced me to the complexities of Cuban public transport. Once again, it had been a most enjoyable day.

But more was to come. We had gone through an entire day without any music, singing or dancing; though that was mainly due to the misunderstanding at the school. Clearly, this situation had to be corrected. It was that evening in a large hall underneath the convention centre with another buffet and a live band. I went along for an hour and it seemed to me that the participants were almost entirely Cuban.

The following day began in the same way with five sessions going on simultaneously in the convention centre and it was difficult to make a choice. One of my new Cuban friends decided that she wanted to hear a talk on psychotherapy training in Sweden and so I went along as well. The story of how psychotherapists are trained in Sweden was not the most interesting part of the talk. The Swedish speaker began in Spanish but was clearly struggling. A Cuban professor in the audience patronisingly insisted that she speak in English and then pushed a frightened-looking young girl to the front of the room who was to be her interpreter. The girl was a student of English at the university and it quickly became clear that she could not translate the talk. The Cuban professor then decided to translate the talk himself but somewhat curiously stayed in his seat. When he ran into difficulties, a Chilean member of the audience stood up and decided to take over the translation. There then followed a bizarre exchange between an Argentinian member of the audience who began to engage this self-appointed Chilean interpreter in discussion while the poor Swedish speaker merely looked on. At this point, I decided that it had been a stroke of good fortune that no one had offered to translate for me the day before!

There were two Americans at the conference, Scott Minor and Chuck Cross who spoke little Spanish and they often spoke with me as one of the few people at the conference from an English-speaking country. They were about to give two papers on their work training teachers of students with learning difficulties in Jamaica and, in a spirit of friendliness, I decided to go to one of the talks. The problem was that they were on the programme from 9.40 to 9.55 in Room 3 and also from 10.00 to 10.15 in Room 5. Given that the sessions generally started two hours late, I was intrigued to know how they were going to move from one room to the other with such precision. I decided to go to the 10.00 session in Room 5. It turned out that they were not presenting two papers at all but a paper and a poster and that this was merely a programming mistake. Even worse, the session that I attended turned out to be the mistake. They had actually been speaking in Room 3!

There were other problems with the programme. I thought that I had been hard done by travelling from Europe and having only 15 minutes to speak. One of the Germans I had met in the registration queue on the first day subsequently told me that he had not been able to present his paper at all due to programming errors and he was not the only one. This also happened to the Cubans and Argentinians who had been scheduled to speak at the "Escuela Vocacional de Arte" on the previous day.

I had had such a good time on the battered old Cuban bus the day before that I decided to join it again. This time we managed to get to the restaurant before it closed. The official afternoon session was in the "Escuela de Formación de Trabajadores Sociales" (Training School for Social Workers) but Bertha Martinez was trying to organise a "splinter group" that would go back to the "Escuela Vocacional de Arte". The children there had been preparing a show for us – albeit a day late – and it would be embarrassing if no one turned up. Partly out of curiosity to see what I had missed on the previous day, and partly out of deference to Bertha, I decided to join this splinter group. The children put on a marvellous show of music, singing and dancing. They were all very talented and well trained. After the show we retired to the library and had an "open" discussion; mainly, it seems, because none of the speakers from the previous day had turned up. Perhaps they had not been told about the change. Perhaps they had been told but were unable to attend. We sat in a circle and had to introduce ourselves in turn, just as one might in a psychotherapy group. The conversation was artificial and not very interesting. I also had to translate everything for two Germans who had only a basic knowledge of Spanish. I think we all felt relieved when the bus finally arrived to take us back to town.

An additional event was offered in the evening: a traditional Cuban cabaret at a seaside resort outside Santiago called, "San Pedro del Mar". I was told to wait in the main square of the town, the Parque Céspedes, at 21.00 for the bus. I arrived on time, though I would have been very surprised if the bus had arrived on time as well. At around 21.30, I discovered another group of conference participants waiting in the "Parque" and so I chatted with them until the bus finally turned up at 22.15. Cabarets are not my kind of thing but I was surprised to find myself enjoying it. One of my neighbours was particularly amused by a scantily clad male dancer who had a hat and a stick exactly like those of the Pope. One of the singers also gave a stirring rendition of Frank Sinatra’s "My Way" in Spanish ("A mi manera"). Perhaps the main attraction was a fat, middle-aged singer whose dance moves were as accomplished as those of Michael Jackson. He was clearly enjoying himself, especially when the audience began to cheer him on. The cabaret lasted for a full two hours and there were some very tired people waiting for buses on the car park at 1.15.

The last day of the conference consisted mainly of closing speeches. A potentially interesting round table discussion led by Marcus Vinicius de Oliveira Silva of Brazil on "Latin Americanism as an epistemological perspective in psychology" had been scheduled for the first hour. Maria del Pilar began this session by announcing that Marcus Vinicius de Oliveira Silva had been unable to attend and we were to have an "open" discussion instead. I was starting to get used to open discussions at this point. The discussion mainly consisted of various people who had attended the conference thanking Maria del Pilar for the wonderful time that they had had. The Brazilian woman who had spoken to on the first day of the conference stood up and said that the Cubans could teach us all a lesson in human warmth and was vigorously applauded for doing so. Then came the "parte cultural". This meant, of course, more music and singing. The highlight of the session was undoubtedly a choir which sang traditional Cuban songs without musical accompaniment. I was particularly surprised by the amount of rhythm that can be generated by unaccompanied human voices. Then it was back to San Pedro del Mar for a farewell lunch and more music and dancing for the rest of the afternoon.

It was a very strange mixture. The main purpose of the conference from the Cubans’ point of view is to generate what they call "devisas" or "efectivo", which in Cuba means US dollars. As in the GDR and other former socialist countries, the Cuban peso is a "soft" currency and US dollars are needed to import books, journals, equipment and many of the other things that are essential to running a university department. Organising conferences of this kind is a lot of extra work for the academics involved but their willingness to take on this work is a sign of their dedication. The conferences mean not only extra work but also extra work under difficult circumstances. Once I heard about the paper shortages, it immediately became clear why no information about the conference had been sent out in advance. If any foreign participants felt frustrated by the unreliability of some aspects of the conference, then it must be pointed out that this frustration is shared by many of our Cuban colleagues. As the English poet John Donne put it, "No man is an island". Even with the best will in the world, someone cannot be reliable if the things that they depend on are unreliable.

We can be sure that our registration fees are going to a good cause but what else is in it for the foreign visitor? If you are looking for intellectual stimulation from a conference, you may go away disappointed. The only possible academic reason I can think of for attending such a conference would be to find out more about what Cuban psychologists in particular and Latin American psychologists in general are doing. If you like your conferences to be well organised, then you should definitely stay away. But there is more to life than this. What about music, singing and dancing? What about the incredible "joie de vivre" that many Cubans possess (perhaps even more incredible because of the difficult economic and political circumstances that they live in)? What about the lesson in human warmth that our Brazilian colleague spoke about in the closing session? I am convinced that the Cubans have got their priorities right and it is because of this that I regard the 4th International Workshop on Psychology in Santiago de Cuba as unquestionably the best conference I have ever attended.