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      Cuba Vive y Trabaja! Report back from the 28th
      Che Guevara Volunteer Work Brigade!

      By Janine Solanki

      On April 26, brigadistas arrived in Havana, Cuba to embark on the 28th Che Guevara Volunteer Work Brigade, a unique opportunity to learn about Cuba first-hand and to practice solidarity with the Cuban people. The Che Guevara Brigade has been coming to Cuba since 1992, and this year brought a group of 33 people, many of whom were travelling to Cuba for the first time. While most brigadistas hailed from five provinces across Canada, the Che Brigade also welcomes international participants and this year was joined by brigadistas from England and Mexico. Brigadistas arrived eager to learn about this island nation and the remarkable achievements of the Cuban Revolution, as well as to see for themselves the impacts of the over 60 year U.S. blockade against Cuba.

      The Che Guevara Volunteer Work Brigade is a project of the Canadian Network on Cuba (CNC), an umbrella group of Cuba solidarity organizations across Canada, with the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP). The 28th Che Guevara Brigade was itself an achievement after the Covid-19 pandemic limiting of international travel and multiple postponements since 2020. Despite the uncertainty of the last two years, the Che Guevara Brigade organizing committee continued to build for the eventual return to Cuba and held numerous webinars about Cuba's history, politics, and culture until travel in person was possible. Due to the work and consistent organizing of the Che Brigade organizing committee, the Che Guevara Brigade has now completed two successful brigades within two months!

      The Che Guevara Volunteer Work Brigade aims to provide brigadistas with a full understanding of Cuba from a historical, political, social and cultural perspective. While mainstream media manipulations and misinformation about Cuba run rampant, the Che Brigade invites brigadistas to form their own opinions from their own experiences. One of the central activities of the Che Brigade is volunteer work, where brigadistas work side-by-side with Cuban workers, seeing first-hand how a society run by and for the working class functions, and learning the reality of Cuba's popular slogan “Cuba Vive y Trabaja” (Cuba Lives and Works). Throughout the two week program brigadistas cleared a field at a cooperative ecological farm, harvested potatoes, and cleared brush from a guava grove. Brigadistas also learned that there is nothing better after working on a field than juice straight from a coconut!

      One of the first activities of the Che Guevara Brigade was a visit to the newly inaugurated Fidel Castro Center in Havana. The state-of-the-art interactive institution is dedicated to study of the thought and work of the great Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro. Brigadistas exploring the center learned about Fidel Castro's extraordinary contribution not just to the lives of Cubans, but also his internationalism. One example of this internationalism was the creation of Cuba's Latin American School of Medicine which today trains students from at least 110 countries to be doctors, on a full scholarship.

      Brigadistas also learned about one of the most important recent achievements Cuba has made - the development of five vaccines effective against Covid-19. Brigadistas visited the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) in Havana, which developed the Covid-19 vaccine Abdala. The vaccine, which has an efficacy of 92.28% is itself a form of Cuba's medical internationalism, and is being exported to Venezuela, Vietnam, Iran and Nicaragua. Cuba is requesting the World Health Organization approval of Abdala which will help the vaccine reach more people, especially in developing nations. At CIGB, scientists took time out of their busy day to answer the questions of brigadistas, who learned about the impressive history of Cuba's medical research and vaccine development long before Covid-19!

      One of the most inspiring experiences for anyone visiting Cuba is to participate in May 1 - International Workers Day. Early in the morning on May 1, brigadistas gathered at the Jose Marti Memorial in Havana's Plaza de la Revolución, where the march would pass through for the first time in two years since the pandemic. Soon after the sun rose the march began with a massive banner reading “Cuba Vive y Trabaja” (Cuba Lives and Works) followed by a 50,000-strong block of doctors, medical scientists and students, nurses and other healthcare workers, who were being honoured with the lead position in the march in recognition and appreciation of their heroic fight against the pandemic. Brigadistas held the “Che Guevara Volunteer Work Brigade” banner facing the hundreds of thousands more Cuban workers who passed by proudly holding banners from their workplaces, posters of revolutionary heroes like Fidel and Che, and signs demanding an end to the U.S. blockade against Cuba. Brigadistas crowded up close to the passing march, and exchanged enthusiastic chants of “Viva Cuba!”, enormous smiles, waves and fist pumps with Cuban workers celebrating this day. Across Cuba, 6 million people – over half of Cuba’s population participated in May Day marches and activities.

      The next day brigadistas participated in the May 2 International Solidarity Conference, meeting with activists from around the world who are engaged in solidarity work for Cuba as well as other social justice struggles. Cuba's President Miguel Díaz-Canel came to address the conference. Brigadistas were especially struck by the words of the Cuban President as he said “solidarity cannot be blockaded”, stressing the unwavering power that exists in the solidarity between Cuba and social justice causes around the world, including in the struggle against the U.S. blockade on Cuba.

      For the second half of the trip, brigadistas travelled to the city of Santa Clara, where Che Guevara led the last battle of the Cuban revolution to victory, ensuring the triumph of the Cuban Revolution on January 1, 1959. The first stop in Santa Clara was to visit the museum and mausoleum of Che Guevara, where the remains of Che and other guerrilla fighters are interred. Here brigadistas paid tribute to Che Guevara, the revolutionary hero, leader and thinker for which the brigade is named.

      In Santa Clara the Che Brigade was able to learn more about Cuba's renowned education and healthcare systems. The brigade visited the Central University “Martha Abreu” where brigadistas had an exchange with students, and the “Arnaldo Milián Castro” hospital, where doctors took time to give a presentation and answer questions.

      Brigadistas had come to Cuba aware of the immense pressure that the U.S. blockade has put on Cuba’s economy and ability to import goods over the past 60 years. This cruel blockade was made even more difficult by the 243 new measures added by former U.S. President Trump, alongside the global pandemic. Both of these additional factors have impacted Cuba's access to medical supplies and meant new challenges for Cuba’s tourism industry. This is why the Che Brigade brought as much medical aid as possible, including 17 suitcases full of medical supplies, with the help of the organization Not Just Tourists. These medical supplies were donated to the “Arnaldo Milián Castro” hospital, where they will be put to good use by Cuba's skilled medical professionals.

      An important part of the trip is learning how the Cuban revolution is truly grassroots with a base in popular institutions such as the Federation of Cuban Women and the University Students Federation. One of Cuba's core popular institutions are the Committees for Defense of the Revolution (CDR) which organize communities on a neighbourhood level in a multitude of ways. This includes facilitating vaccination campaigns (even prior to Covid-19). Recently, CDRs have been organizing the popular consultations about Cuba’s Families Code, which is currently being reworked to advance and enshrine the rights of all Cubans, including the 2SLGBTQAI+ community.

      A local CDR invited the Che Guevara Brigade for a block party one evening, and brigadistas were welcomed with a presentation of the local musicians and dancers of the community, as well as dancing and intense games of dominos! This experience of seeing a community united and organized to encourage and care for one another cemented the truth behind the CDR slogan “Somos el Barrio” (We are the Neighbourhood).

      Another extraordinary example of the strength of community in Cuba was at El Mejunje in Santa Clara. This one-of-a-kind community space started out in 1985, founded by Ramon Silverio. Brigadistas had a chance to meet with Ramon Silverio and hear his vision for El Mejunje and how it had developed as a cultural center for the 2SLGBTQAI+ community but also as a truly inclusive space for all people regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. El Mejunje's theater, bar, cafe, restaurant and art gallery features rock music nights, drag shows, trova concerts, seniors afternoons and even children's activities. During the pandemic, they became a center to organize deliveries of food throughout Santa Clara. Through experiences like this brigadistas learned how the Cuban revolution is living and breathing, nurturing the desire of Cubans to develop an inclusive society that is always progressing.

      On the final day of the trip, the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP) held a ceremony to show their appreciation for the solidarity efforts of the Che Guevara Volunteer Work Brigade. President of ICAP and national hero Fernando Gonzalez presented a commemorative medallion, which marks the 60th anniversary of ICAP. He also presented a certificate of recognition, which Che Brigade national coordinator Janine Solanki and a brigadista from Nova Scotia received on behalf of the Che Guevara Brigade. While this great honour recognizes the solidarity of the Che Guevara Brigade, the last two weeks of the trip proved to all that it is the brigadistas that have Cuba to thank, for the example Cuba provides for those wanting to build a better and more just world.

      Brigadistas returned home with many inspired to join the Cuba solidarity movement, and some writing articles or reporting back on the trip to their local organizations. This report is just a short representation of this incredible trip, and if you are reading this, you too can join the 29th Che Guevara Volunteer Work Brigade in Spring of 2023! The Che Guevara Brigade is open to people of all ages and abilities, we have had brigadistas from 7 to 86 years old! While we are based in Canada, we welcome brigadistas to join us from other countries too. For more info and updates visit www.canadiannetworkoncuba.ca/brigade or email chevolbrigade@gmail.com or follow @chevolbrigade on Twitter and Facebook.

      Follow Janine on Twitter: @janinesolanki

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