Presentation at the Higher Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology (InSTEC)
University of Havana, Cuba
During a recent trip to Cuba in February 2016, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to discuss alternate dispute resolution across cultures. I was invited by Dr. Maritza Lau Gonzalez, a director at the University, to lead a discussion on the topic of managing conflict in Cuba. Faculty at the university shared what types of conflicts they have and how people respond to them. Professor Ramiro Zayas Frutos acted as interpreter. Approximately 15 people participated in the session.
During the discussion people touched on general themes that included institutional conflict avoidance, interpersonal disputes, and different expectations for the learning environment.
More specifically, they shared the following observations:
- People in authority often did not address and manage conflictual issues, leaving on-going issues unresolved.
- Some students did not respect the professor’s role and teachings.
- Co-workers did not always work collaboratively.
- People tended to avoid conflict
- There are power struggles between departments and colleagues.
It became apparent that subtle norms affect the way conflict is handled in a culture where the collaborative ethos of socialism shapes perceptions of conflict. For example, one of the participants talked about how she approached her supervisor for assistance and he said he would look into it. After repeated requests, with no action being taken, she just gave up. The issue was never resolved. She felt frustrated and hopeless. Even though the prevailing cultural norm is the leveling of social hierarchies, this woman suggested that it is difficult to be assertive with a person in power in her culture. Participants talked about unacknowledged hierarchies complicating the management of conflict.
People were enthusiastic about learning more skills such as listening and assertiveness. I recommended that skill development coupled with a shift in collaborative thinking would prepare them for a more successful exchange. People want to learn how to approach another person they are having difficulty with and learn how to help people be patient and listen when they have a disagreement. They hoped to set up a follow-up session with me while I was in Cuba but it was justnot possible to organize an all-day event on such short notice.
We discussed the type of conflict management training offered at some Canadian schools and I also shared examples from my mediation practice involving university environments. They mentioned the learning they acquired from a workshop Cheryl Picard presented during a recent trip to Havana (a Canadian author of books on mediation and conflict).
The complexity of Cuban society infiltrates institutions and complicates the management of conflict. Denial and defensiveness clearly shape how power is negotiated in this institution of higher learning.
Most surprising was the similarity of their challenges to issues I have mediated in university settings in Canada, frequently involving interests of respect and trust. Despite coming from diverse cultural backgrounds, our conflicts may be different but our interests are remarkably similar. Cuba’s socialism and culture of collaboration and interdependence have not eliminated personal and professional conflicts resulting from hierarchies embedded in institutional life.
Donna Soules is a Civil Roster mediator and educator. She holds a Masters degree in Conflict Resolution in Mediation and teaches at the Justice Institute of BC and Vancouver Island University. Donna maintains an active mediation practice based in Ladysmith, BC.