KOKOMO, Ind. —An Indiana University Kokomo professor offered his expertise in international relations and comparative politics to leaders of emerging non-government organizations (NGOs) in Cuba this summer, learning what they see as their country’s greatest needs.

“Since the passing of Fidel Castro, we’ve started to see political, economic, and social changes we hadn’t seen in the past,” said Todd Bradley, associate professor of political science.

For more than 50 years, the Caribbean island nation of Cuba, though only 90 miles south of the Florida coast, remained out of reach to Americans.

As diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States began to thaw in more recent years, scholars started visiting Cuba, tapping into previously uncharted research waters.

Bradley plans to talk about what he learned in his comparative politics classes this semester, and about how NGOs are seen as the route to political involvement in Cuba.

“Here in the U.S., we don’t necessarily have to get involved in interest groups, we can contact our legislators, work with government officials. We can get things done without interest groups,” he said. “In Cuba, policy is being instituted from the group up, through NGOs, which allow the people a way to get involved and address their issues.”

He was surprised to learn the country has many people with Down Syndrome, as the leaders identified assistance for them as one of their greatest needs.

“They have special schools to educate them, and they want more NGOs to work with the government to help assimilate the children into regular schools, and better integrate the adults into society,” he said. “They want this information out in the world.”

They’re also concerned about environmental preservation, he said.

The people he met with are adamant that NGOs, non-profit volunteer organizations that perform service and humanitarian functions, are vital to the economic, social, and political development of their country. Some examples of NGOs are Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Human Rights Watch.

“That’s exciting to me, because that’s part of trying to be part of the political system,” Bradley said. “Having space for ordinary people to participate in the process, that’s moving to me. I’m excited about the development of Cuba.”

After leading a 1959 revolution, Fidel Castro recreated Cuba as a Communist state. In

2006, as his health declined, he passed power to his brother, and resigned as president two years later. Fidel Castro died in November 2016. Raul Castro negotiated an end to the 50-year standoff with the U.S., and loosened restrictions.

Bradley was pleased to witness rising interest in community service and involvement among the people of Cuba, as they have more freedoms.

“The more opportunities people have in education, social movements, and health care, it gives them opportunities to seek political involvement,” he said. “As Raul Castro’s government wanes over the years, the younger people are excited to be able to get involved, and not necessarily have to have a family name to make changes.”

Bradley traveled J.R. Pico, senior lecturer in Spanish, and Karl Besel, assistant dean and director of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IU Northwest. Besel’s research area is urban development and non-profit management, and Pico served as interpreter.

They stayed in Havana, and Bradley appreciated the architecture, the artwork, and the friendliness of the people, but also noticed the poverty.

He hopes to return to Cuba in the future, to spend time outside of Havana and other urban areas, to get the perspective of people who live in more rural areas.

“It’s like a tale of two countries,” he said. “There are some fairly well-to-do areas, and some desperately poor areas. That’s not unique in developing countries, but it was more rampant than what I’ve seen in other places.”

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.