May 21, 2013

"Brigadistas" Return from Cuba Volunteer Work Program

Chevy Phillips,
Special to Rebel Youth

A press conference was held today in Toronto’s City Hall to welcome back and hear from the most recent Che Guevara Work Brigade, a group of 43 people aged from 15 to 82 years of age, from 5 provinces across Canada and 1 American state, who spent three weeks engaging in a variety of volunteer work projects across the island of Cuba.

The highly diverse group included 12 students and 9 retirees, 13 people on their first Che Guevara Work Brigade experience, 12 who were present last year and one person for whom 2013 saw their fifth Brigade excursion. Many of the Brigade participants are active in Canada with Cuba Solidarity campaigns, work with their local Cuban Friendship Associations, and take part in the global campaign to free the "Cuban 5" prisoners held in US prisons. Rene Gonzales, one of the 5, has recently been given leave to remain in Cuba and no is longer obliged to fulfil the restrictive bail conditions that were imposed upon him after his release from incarceration due to the popular pressure of the international "Free the Cuban 5" campaign. Members of the Young Communist League of Canada were also proud participants of the Brigade.

The Brigade's press conference was led by Niagara's Dave Thomas, who has been the coordinator for the Work Brigade for the past three years, and heard contributions from four of the Brigadistas. Examples of the activity of the Brigade were discussed, including work on a cooperative farm and visits to schools and hospitals. Work Brigade members of all ages were given tasks according to their abilities; on a Mango farm this meant sorting fruit for distribution or weeding out in the fields, since the overwhelming majority of Cuban agriculture is organic. The Brigade participants related how their efforts were always warmly and gratefully received by local Cuban workers.

A visit to a housing complex for victims of recent hurricane damage was also discussed, the Brigade members relating how impressed they were that even this small community on an island off the mainland was still generously served by education and health services, both of which are world class and free to all citizens. This community has seven teachers for ten students, four daycare workers for around a dozen young children, and a doctor and nurse in residence in the community. One of the Brigade participants, a nursing student from Vancouver, spoke of how trainee nurses in Cuba receive excellent levels of one-on-one training with qualified doctors, and how the average wait time in ER in Cuba is just 30 minutes. In Canada, the average wait times are over four hours, among the highest in the world. Cuba’s health service provided a dramatic and lasting example to the Brigadistas of how even a relatively poor country can have excellent health provision if resources and spending priorities are set accordingly.

One of the highlights of the three weeks was, as anticipated, May Day in Havana. The Brigade participants spoke of their admiration for the enthusiasm and collective spirit of the million or so participants, who from first thing in the morning began to gather with great pride at the achievements of their country, their ranks being led this year by scientific workers currently engaged in ground breaking cancer research. This year’s May Day parade also saw a giant tribute display to the late Hugo Chavez, recently deceased president of Venezuela, who was a great friend of Cuba and much loved by the people there.

May Day 2013 - Havana Cuba
In the words of some of the Brigadistas themselves:

“I have great hope that the Cuban Revolution is strong and surviving, and has answers for the problems we have here in Canada"

“I was greatly impacted by the warmth and humanity of the Cuban people”

“Cuba is a beautiful and powerful example of what a country can achieve when its people work together”

Organising for the next Che Guevara Work Brigade will begin a little later this year. See to keep up with the latest news on Cuba and more information on the Brigade.

Rebel Youth Blog will be publishing more on this year's Brigade and hearing from some of the participants themselves... so stay tuned!

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