It is a wonder that such a small island, Cuba, can invoke so many distinct images from people world-wide. Sparkling beaches, classic cars, cigars and Havana Club rum. The distinctive timba music and dizzying salsa dancing. Cuban doctors on internationalist missions. And of course, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and the Cuban revolution have planted their images on the minds of people around the world.
While there are many ways to visit the fascinating island of Cuba, I would claim that the Ernesto Che Guevara Volunteer Work Brigade is the best opportunity to experience Cuba to the fullest. Although you can learn all about Cuba's amazing healthcare and education from books, or you can be dragged into the mainstream media view that paints Cuba in a mainly negative light, on the Che Guevara Brigade it is your eyes, ears and heart that will be able to make your own judgement on what Cuba is all about. In two weeks of exchanges with students, teachers, doctors, farmers, workers and artists you can see first-hand how Cuba has managed to not only survive under over 55 years of a cruel and immoral US blockade, but to thrive and advance in so many aspects of life, politics and society.
The 2017 Ernesto Che Guevara Volunteer Work Brigade, April 28 to May 12, marked 25 years of this brigade from Canada. I had the honour of being a part of this year's brigade, joining 33 “brigadistas” from across Canada, from Vancouver Island to Labrador and many places in between, as well as an American brigadista. The brigade is for people of all ages, and this year the range was from 15 to 87 years old! The brigade is an annual project of the Canadian Network of Cuba, alongside the Cuban organization, Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP). This year's brigade took place in the eastern provinces of Holguin, Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo. Most brigadistas (myself included) had not been to Guantanamo before, and as Guantanamo is so associated with the US military base and prison we were very curious to go to Guantanamo! We soon learned that Guantanamo is much more than just the US military base. Guantanameros were eager to demonstrate the beauty of Guantanamo's surroundings, the traditional Changui music and dancing, and the warmth of the people of Guantanamo, as well as their steadfast opposition to the US military base.
Cuban Youth are Leading the Way:
On the very first day of the brigade we had the chance to meet with Cuban students, and from this meeting to many other visits and exchanges throughout the brigade there was ample opportunity to see that the future of the Cuban revolution is in good hands. We were not only impressed with the Cuban education system, but also with the intelligence, assertiveness and critical thinking of students of every level. It is clear that not only does Cuba provide education free of charge, up to the PhD level, but also that this is highly advanced quality education! The brigade had exchanges with the Federation of University Students (FEU), the Federation of High School Students (FEEM) as well as the Union of Young Communists (UJC). In these candid meetings it was inspiring to see these students as organizers and young leaders, who didn’t hesitate to speak their minds and give their opinions. For example, while visiting the “Alcibiades Blanco Mejías” High School in the rural community of San Benito de Mayarí, one young student gave a very astute reply to a comment from a brigadista about Canadian students giving apples to their teachers to get good grades. The young student said, “In Cuba if we want good grades we study and work hard with the opportunities that Fidel and the revolution has given us”. I’d have to agree with her!
It is in these enjoyable moments of music, art and culture that you see that the Cuban revolution is not only ensuring that necessities are met in terms of food, healthcare, education and housing. The Cuban revolution is also nurturing the necessities of the hearts and minds, of expressing life through art. We saw a demonstration on the art of paper-making a publishing house for hand-made books, and visited the cultural center of the union of Cuban artists and writers. We saw young students with visual and hearing impairments using sign language to perform a song in homage of Fidel, and learned how at an art-focused elementary school students can pursue their futures as musicians and dancers. A “concert for peace” in Guantanamo amazed us with classical piano to electric guitar, traditional folk to hip hop dancing. We were enchanted by several talented children's theater groups, including a performance on our last night of the brigade which sent us back to Canada with full hearts. A highlight of the trip was a party held by a CDR – Committee in Defense of the Revolution - where since the Cuban revolution communities have been organized at the grassroots level to defend themselves from counter-revolutionary attacks, as well as to organize things like vaccination campaigns and volunteer work. CDR’s also know how to hold a block party! The community showcased their talented singers and dancers, even a children’s karate demonstration, before the brigadistas were all up and dancing with our Cuban hosts!
How Does Cuba Work?
In Cuba you get the sense that life is in a constant state of improvisation and organization - not as contradictory as it might seem. Due to the inhuman US blockade on Cuba, consumer goods are not always available, from car parts to medical supplies. So everywhere you look you see something improvised, reused or invented. With a strong will power and conviction in the revolution, everything is possible and a solution can be found! This is made all the more possible with Cuba’s high level of organization. Problems are addressed in a collective way, from the coffee factory where we learned that management reports to the factory owners (who are the workers), to the Federation of Cuban Women who respond to not only women's issues, but to family and community issues. We also learned how strong the role of women is in Cuban society, and not just within the Federation of Cuban Women. A meeting with bloggers, reporters and journalists in Guantanamo happened to be almost entirely a group of women. A presentation on Cuba's electoral system was given by eight representatives of the National and Provincial Assembly of People's Power. All eight of them were women! Not only did we learn that Cuba has the 3rd highest representation of women in government worldwide, and without a quota system, but we could see it in action in front of our eyes! In Guantanamo we had what I would say was a highlight of the trip - a meeting with the young men and women doing military service guarding the border of the illegally US-held Guantanamo Bay. The young soldiers here at this very sensitive post, on the front-lines with US imperialism, are recommended by their local organizations like the UJC or FEU, and we could see why by their informative and thought-provoking responses to our many questions. Here again we could see the strength of Cuban women - although Cuban women do not have mandatory military service, the majority of the soldiers were women who had volunteered to do this military service!
The brigade had the chance to learn more about the illegal US occupation of Guantanamo Bay, at the Fifth International Seminar for Peace and the Abolition of Foreign Military Bases. A separate report is available for you to read in the following pages.
Working and Learning:
While I am near the end of recounting my favorite experiences from this year's volunteer work brigade you may be wondering, hold on, what about the volunteering? Yes, the brigade did participate in voluntary work which is an exciting experience of talking with and learning from the Cubans we worked alongside. One morning of voluntary work was cleaning up garbage after participating in May Day, International Worker's Day, on May 1st in Holguin where we marched alongside 200,000 proud and exuberant Cuban workers. The experience of May Day in Cuba deserves its own report, which you can find near this report you are reading. However in terms of voluntary work that day, we learned that Cubans are not fond of littering, and we were surprised to not have much clean-up work to do after this massive march! In both Holguin and Guantanamo we took part in volunteer work in organiponicos, which are urban organic gardens. These gardens have a fascinating history. While at first these urban gardens were created to deal with fuel shortages and the necessity to grow food locally, and organic due the US blockade limiting access to chemical fertilizers and pesticides, Cuba has now become a global leader in urban and organic agriculture! While pulling out weeds we learned about which plants ward off insects, where the food produced in the gardens are consumed, and how Cuban farming cooperatives work. Volunteer work was more than just contributing to Cuba's work force. We were also participating in Cuba's revolutionary concept of volunteerism, which Cubans actively take part in both in Cuba and internationally!
You may be able to tell from my many stories in this report that I truly loved my experience on the brigade. In fact, this was my sixth time in Cuba with the Che Guevara Volunteer Brigade, and my 9th time in Cuba including other solidarity trips! But in closing, the beauty of the brigade is also in the moments in-between the rather full program, excellently put together by our friends in ICAP. There were the many questions answered and thoughtful discussions with our ICAP representatives and Cuban hosts, the fun and awkward lessons in salsa dancing from patient Cubans, the friendships made with your fellow brigadistas and yes, don't worry, a trip to the sandy beaches where you can experience Cuba's natural beauty!
After seeing all that Cuba stands for and is building within their society, we all go home understanding that Cuba is under attack and we have a responsibility to defend the Cuba that we have grown to love and respect. We now have our first-hand knowledge to combat the lies we hear about Cuba in the mainstream media. When we are protesting the US blockade on Cuba and demanding the US return Guantanamo to Cuba it is with a deeper understanding of how these struggles effect Cuba on a day to day basis.
My last few minutes on this trip to Cuba were the best send off I could have. As a taxi driver took me to the airport, he explained to me the importance of the Cuban Revolution and especially the example of Fidel which lives on in all Cubans. Throughout the brigade we saw signs and paintings proclaiming "yo soy Fidel", in English “I am Fidel”. The taxi driver told me how all of Cuba is Fidel, from the mountains to the palm trees to the Cuban people, instilled with his steadfast and visionary revolutionary spirit. At the end of this inspiring taxi ride the driver walked me to the check-in counter, gave me a kiss on the cheek and wished me a good trip home and with a wink, "luchar!" to continue the struggle!
Follow Janine Solanki on Twitter: @janinesolanki
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