Health and Safety

Cuba is generally considered one of the safest countries in the world.  Violent crimes are very rare.  The most common crimes confronted by students involve pickpocketing.  In addition to enjoying a very low level of violence, Cuba also has one of the most developed and accessible healthcare systems on the planet. There is one doctor for every 400 Cubans, and through obligatory insurance coverage study abroad students enjoy access to world class medical attention.

The Autonomous University of Social Movements believe that maintaining close relationships with community members and homestay families, and offering a full schedule for students are the most important ways to ensure a safe, healthy study abroad program. The Universidad de Ciencias Pedagogicas has been developing relationships with families and health and safety services in the Marianao neighborhood of Havana for the past 26 years, allowing us to respond quickly should any crisis arise.  Each home stay family is carefully screened and given an extensive orientation on dealing with health care situations and other emergencies.

Most health care problems involve “turismo,” a common digestive reaction to strange foods and bacteria.  In most cases, diarrhea, upset stomach and/or vomiting are the most serious symptoms, and they generally pass within 24 to 48 hours.  While it is unusual for students visiting Cuba for the first time to avoid a bout of turismo, it is often the case that one bout will “vaccinate” students against similar experiences.  Pepto Bysmol is generally the recommended treatment.  Students should avoid tap water and street foods, which are generally the cause of turismo.  Students should also wash their hands with soap and water several times a day.  

In case of more serious illness, the health care protocol starts with a visit to the family doctor, generally located within four blocks of the home stay.  More serious cases are referred to the neighborhood clinic, and the most serious cases are referred to a regional hospital or specialty care center.  Home stay family members and/or staff always accompany students in any health crisis.  In any crisis that escalates to a hospital, US families are notified immediately, no matter the time of day.  In cases that end in a neighborhood clinic or with the family doctor, US families are notified by the student.

Sexual assault is very rare in Cuba.  In the unlikely case of sexual assault, staff provides immediate counseling.  Unless the victim exhibits serious physical injuries or an uncontrollable psychological reaction, the care protocol options are discussed with the victim and her/his preferences for police intervention, the extent of medical attention, and post-event counseling and housing are guided by the victim’s desires.  In 25 years we have not seen a case of sexual assault among participants in an educational program.

Cuba is in the middle of the Caribbean and is occasionally subjected to hurricanes.  Safety protocols on the island are very well-designed and implementation is usually flawless in the sense that hurricane-related deaths are unusual.  Student home stays are located more than a mile inland and are not subject to high waves or flooding.  In the case of a hurricane, students are instructed to carefully follow the lead of staff and/or their home stay families.

In the unlikely case of political violence or an extreme natural disaster, home stays are located 15 minutes from the international airport in Havana.  The Universidad de Ciencias Pedagogicas has its own transportation and is a State institution, which means quick access to government authorities who can arrange for emergency evacuation.  The program meets each semester with the US Interest Section, which represents the interests of US citizens on the island.

Student schedules are chock-full of academic classes, Spanish instruction, meetings with Cuban organizations and institutions, and visits to museums and cultural sites, leaving little time to engage in risky behavior.  But some students will occasionally find time to get into trouble.  Excessive alcohol consumption is the single greatest risk factor on most study abroad programs, and Cuba is no exception.  In fact, in 25 years of leading educational trips to Cuba, our Director Dr. Thomas Hansen has seen no situations in which participants were subjected to criminal activity that was not directly related to excessive alcohol consumption.  The very few cases we have seen involved pick-pockets or street robberies late at night when participants were drunk and alone.   Students are not only responsible to themselves, but also to their home communities, their homestay families, AUSM, and the Universidad de Ciencias Pedagogicas.  We strictly prohibit excessive alcohol consumption or the use of any illegal drugs (which are almost impossible to find in Cuba in any case).  Cases of excessive alcohol consumption are dealt with by a warning the first time and expulsion from the program without the possibility of any refund of program fees the second time.

Should you have any questions about safety, health or crisis management, please call our office at 773 583 7728.