For the last 24 years, a group of people from across Canada have gone to Cuba together. Not as tourists, but as solidarity activists and people interested in learning about Cuba from Cubans themselves. The annual “Che Guevara Volunteer Work Brigade”, a two-week solidarity tour of the island, is organized by the Canadian Network on Cuba. It’s purpose: to build Canada-Cuba friendship and solidarity, and celebrate the gains of the Revolution, now in its 57th year.
The volunteer work is a portion of the trip and symbolizes internationalism and the spirit of volunteer labour and solidarity promoted by Ernesto Che Guevara in the early years of the Revolution. Brigadistas carry out agricultural and community work alongside Cubans, where there are a variety of tasks to suit all physical abilities.
The majority of the Brigade is spent touring the island, with a different itinerary each year, but every year includes witnessing cheering Cuban workers march on May 1st, International Workers’ Day. The trip is spent participating in visits to social, political and community organizations representing a broad cross-section of Cuban society, such as the women’s federation, labour unions, student organizations, academics, neighbourhood committees and more. And of course there is the music, dancing, beaches, culture, history, site-seeing and getting to know your fellow Brigadistas from across Canada.
This spring the 25th Che Brigade will leave Canada for the South of Cuba. People from across Canada will visit Holguin, Guantanmo and Santiago. In Guantanamo the Brigade will attend a conference with Cuban activists demanding an end to the US naval base that occupies part of that province to this day, part of which is the infamous "Guantanamo Bay" extrajudicial military prison. The Brigade will also pay tribute to the memory of Fidel Castro, who died last year, by visiting his resting place in Santiago and visiting his childhood home in Holguin. For more info on how to register for the Brigade check out the website. This year the Brigade departs on April 28th and returns on May 12th.
But the Brigade is really about the personal experiences, which is hard to convey in an article format. For this purpose we’ve asked recent young participants of the Brigade to write down a few of them:
“I’d been meaning to go for several years and in 2015 took the plunge. I think what struck me the most was the pride of Cubans in their country and their Revolution’s achievements. One of the most widely acknowledged achievements, that even the imperialist media has been unable to ignore, is the island’s health care system and its medical internationalism. Cuba’s free, public and universal healthcare system has resulted in higher health indicators the United States, which is exponentially richer, let alone in comparing Cuba to the rest of the global South.
The Brigade had the opportunity to visit a local health clinic close to Varadero where we had a meeting with dozens of doctors and healthcare workers who explained different aspects of their system. I’m sure the members of the Brigade who worked in the health field in Canada (a couple nurses I think) got the most out of the exchange, but it was incredible to hear from the doctors about their participation on international missions. One third of Cuba’s doctors at any given time are away from the island, treating patients in over 70 different countries. Each doctor in the room gave a description of where they had served on international missions, with several doctors doing more than a couple extended trips abroad. All conveyed pride in their experience and a sense of internationalist duty.
I knew most of this before and had read about it, but it was another thing to meet front-line workers. I was also aware of the breadth of Cuba’s international work in health because my own sister was treated by Cuban doctors while in a small town in Ghana a few years ago. She would have had to travel a long distance while being very sick to see a Ghanian doctor at the time. But what really brought it home was when we were talking to a doctor who had just returned from Liberia where they had been part of a successful international effort to eliminate the 2014 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. Several of these doctors helped to lead the 2015 May Day march in Havana. During the discussion, a Brigadista from Peru gave a very emotional speech where he thanked this doctor, as his son had had his life saved by a Cuban doctor’s intervention in Peru several years before. The imperialist system leaves hundreds of millions of people without access to the most rudimentary health care. Cuba has shown by example that not only is it possible to provide high quality healthcare to everyone in a poor country, but it’s possible through a socialist system to treat millions internationally.
The experience with the doctors was put in my mind again a month or so later when we were listening to Fernando Gonzalez speak in Toronto, a Cuban political prisoner that had spent 15 years in US prisons. He spoke about receiving a postcard from a Cuban doctor from a country he didn’t know existed (some small Pacific Island nation). He said that that moment gave him strength as it showed that he was part of a Revolution that was powerful enough to be doing good works in the tiniest of places. Being a lefty in Canada can have its dark days, but seeing this spirit of internationalism first hand is truly inspiring!”
Drew, Toronto, Brigadista in 2015
|Some Brigadistas from the 23rd Brigade in 2015|
“Getting the opportunity to go to Cuba on the Che Guevara Work Brigade allowed me to see that change is possible. The Brigade teaches us about a system that our capitalist society misrepresents and vilifies. While we are told that Socialism is a dead cause, the Brigade gave us a chance to see it in action. We had the opportunity to participate in Cuba’s May Day, a rally with millions of locals marching in support of workers and equality. We learned about the importance of Revolutionary Trade Unions, Cuba’s extraordinary health care system, their democratic process, and their current struggle for the liberation of women, the LGBTIQ community, and Afro-Cubans. The Brigade provided us with a new set of knowledge - predominately that a socialist alternative is possible, that the liberation of the working class is possible.
Although Cuba has been fighting imperialist forces for decades, they still managed to provide essential needs to all its people and keep socialism alive. Cuba, though labeled as a “dictatorship” by Western powers, reminds us we can end homelessness, decrease crime and provide a fully public education and health care system. It demonstrates how unions can have real power in society - a system that shows us that people can control the means of production and that labour exploitation can be stopped.
Rather than forcing “Western ideals” on the people of Cuba, like imperialists have been attempting for years, we are there to learn something from the Cuban people’s struggle. Cuba’s history and system demonstrates that with proper resistance and strong enough movements, we too can create a just system based on the fundamentals of socialism - “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” As such, the Brigade is important and valuable for us because we are not only providing solidarity to Cuba, but we are taking back something to tell people in Canada.”
Rozhin, Vancouver, Brigadista in 2013 & 2014
|Millions of Cubans march each May 1st|
“Cuba has been bullied by the United States for so many decades that many of us have become desensitized to the illegality and illegitimacy of the ongoing blockade against Cuba. Some of us might even believe it’s justified, that if so much media speaks out against Cuba, then it must be true. Some of us might just be against any kind of state and as such might choose to not take a stance on Cuba.
I. Love. Cuba. I do. If you don’t, or if you have any sort of reservation, I encourage you with all of my heart to go on the Che Guevara Work Brigade. There is much to learn from talking directly to people on the ground in Cuba.
I loved Cuba prior to the Brigade but nothing gave me more hope than a classroom full of eight year old students professing their love for the Revolution, or a speech by an 12-year-old girl explaining how she’s ready to fight to preserve the Revolution that fights against imperialism.
Cuba is a country that has been terrorized by the United States. No matter how you feel about Cuba, you must believe that the fate of this country should lie in the hands of the Cuban people.
The Brigade allows for an opportunity to talk to Cubans one-on-one and get a first-hand glimpse of what Cuba is like, outside of Havana or resorts. It also allows for a genuine learning experience where the classroom is all around you. For example, a trip to a sugar factory to talk to union representatives turns into a trip consuming delicious goods produced by the workers reaping the benefits of the revolution. Candy never tasted so sweet!”
Denise, Toronto, Brigadista in 2015
|Mural in an elementary school visited by Brigade|
“I attended the Brigade and it exceeded my expectations. Brigadistas get the opportunity to work some mornings on cooperative farms and urban farms, along with other volunteer work. The work is modest and not too strenuous but important to show that Brigadistas do not come to Cuba as tourists but as activists fighting to support the Cuban revolution.
Along with volunteer work, Brigadistas get the opportunity to learn about Cuba’s society. In 2013, those who participated in the Brigade learned about the Cuban economy from a Cuban economist; the Cuban education system from Cuban teachers and students; the Cuban health system from doctors; Cuban cooperative farms from farmers; the work of the Young Communist League of Cuba from young Communists; the work of the Federation of Cuban Women from its members; Cuba’s political system from an elected representative of the National Assembly of People’s Power; Cuba’s law system from a judge; Cuba’s student unions from students; Cuba’s workers unions from workers; and much more...
...We learned how Cuba’s socialist system has true democracy, unlike what is said by corporate media at home. Cuban candidates are nominated to the National Assembly of People’s Power by Municipal Assemblies. There are no money-run election campaigns in Cuba. Instead people are nominated and voted in by their constituents. Public Solidarity Organizations like trade unions, farmers’ organizations, student unions, and the Federation of Cuban Women also elect people to the National Assembly. As a result, workers are in power in Cuban governments. Teachers, nurses, and other workers in the National Assembly do not sell out working people in Cuba, unlike in Canada where elected politicians make six figure salaries and often collaborate with the capitalist class, (if they aren’t already capitalists themselves)...
...The last thing I would like to say about the Che Brigade is that it was inspiring. Hearing from committed comrades in Cuba can really help us further commit ourselves to building progressive mass movements back home.”
Peter, Guelph, Brigadista in 2013
A version of this article is printed in Issue 20 of Rebel Youth! The issue deals has a focus on racism and anti-racist struggles. Find out more and subscribe today!