May 12, 2015

Brigadistas return home to Canada from Cuba

Brigade & Ailí Labañino after a morning of volunteer work
photo: Denise M.
 Drew Garvie

The 38 participants who traveled to Cuba this month as members of the 23rd Che Guevara Volunteer Work Brigade have returned home to Canada. The annual 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 56th year. This year was especially significant in the broader political context; the hard-won freedom of the five Cuban heroes, and the groundbreaking negotiations taking place between the United States and Cuba.

The Brigade members were a diverse group of activists of all ages, joined together in solidarity with the Cuban people. Members participated from cities across Canada, including Vancouver, Kamloops, Kelowna, Winnipeg, Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax. Some members came as individuals and others as members of organizations involved in Cuba solidarity work across Canada. Several members of the Communist Party of Canada and the Young Communist League attended the tour.

This year, larger international delegations with over 1000 members were present in Cuba to attend the May Day celebrations. Because of this, this year’s Che Brigade was joined by other participants from a variety of countries. A large delegation from Peru and smaller delegations from Chile, Costa Rica, New Zealand, joined the group from Canada. This added to the internationalist flavor of the Brigade and friendships were made with a shared respect of Cuba’s revolution as the foundation.
As in past years, the Brigade highlights included meetings with youth and student organizations, local members of the Cuban Women’s Federation (FMC), a local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), government representatives working on anti-homophobia and transphobia campaigns through the National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX), and specialists on the Cuban economy and agriculture. The Brigade was two weeks long, with the first week spent working at the Niceto Pérez camp, fondly called ‘La Casa Grande de Los Campesinos’ (the Great House of Farmers). Located an hour south of Havana in Güira de Melena, the camp is cooperatively owned and operated by the Association of Small Farmers (ANAP). The second week was spent in Matanzas province close to the world renowned beach in Varadero with educational day trips into the cities of Cardenas and Matanzas, as well as Playa Giron (the Bay of Pigs).

The Brigade included volunteer work such as harvesting sweet potatoes, planting green onions and preparing seedling bags. This work was done to show solidarity with the Cuban people and their revolution and to have the chance to work alongside Cuban farmers and workers and learn from them directly.

Through meetings with Cuban organizations, government officials, economists and everyday interactions, it became clear to the entire Brigade that Cuba is intent on preserving and updating its socialist system, without compromising any of their revolutionary principles.

Girl holds "Venezuela is not alone" sign in May Day march
photo: Denise M.
This became abundantly clear on the 1st of May where the Brigade joined well over 1000 other international guests to witness over one million Cuban workers march in Havana under the slogan “united in the construction of socialism”. The march was led by the five Cuban heroes, who since December 17th of last year, have all finally been freed from the US jails in which they spent the last 16 years. Their historic and heroic efforts defied the US government’s attempts for them to give in and renounce Cuba and the victories of socialism. Also leading the parade were hundreds of doctors who have recently returned a successful fight against Ebola in West Africa.

The leader of Cuba’s national Trade Union Federation (CTC), Ulises Guilarte, delivered a defiant and revolutionary address to the crowd of millions: “we are here sending to the world a message of unity of the Cuban people’s massive support for their socialist revolution, for the Party, for Raul and for Fidel!” Venezuelan worker-President Nicolas Maduro attended the events next to Cuban President Raul Castro. Thousands of Venezuelan flags and signs were present in the march and carried by Cuban workers. These signs demanded an end to US intervention and sanctions in Venezuela, and honoured Maduro’s historic presence.

The following day on May 2nd, the CTC hosted an annual meeting of Cuba solidarity activists from around the world. There it was repeated by Cuban officials that there is a political struggle to be won in terms of lifting the criminal US blockade and normalizing relations, but the Cubans refuse to achieve this by giving in to US corporate interests through dismantling socialism or by abandoning its anti-imperialist principles. Kenia Serrano of the Cuban Institute of Friendship of the People (ICAP) asked the solidarity movements to keep up the momentum that was built through the successful international campaign for the release of the Cuban five. She asked organizations to continue and deepen the struggle to lift the US blockade of Cuba, which has cost the country over 1 trillion dollars since it was first imposed, and push for the removal of the illegal US military base in Guantanamo. Also at the close of the meeting, the CTC awarded medals to the Cuban five for their service to the revolution and Cuban workers.

Brigade members were supposed to meet directly with the Cuban five a couple days later at the camp, but there was a scheduling conflict due to an invitation given to the five by President Maduro to visit Venezuela for a week long tour in that country. The Brigade did have a chance to do volunteer work with and hear from Ailí Labañino, the daughter of the Ramon Labañino, a member of the Cuban five. The group heard about her happy surprise on the morning of December 17th in seeing her father free for the first time in 16 years. She also passed on the message of thanks to all members of the Cuban solidarity movement in Canada that had campaigned for her father’s release.

Young Communist League contingent of the Brigade at May Day
photo: Alvand M. 
At a final meeting of the Brigade with leaders from ICAP on May 8th, all Brigade participants expressed positive remarks in relation to this year’s program and their time in Cuba. Having a chance to see first-hand the strength of Cuban socialism, the gains made by the revolution, and the unity of the Cuban people in defiance of US imperialism, was an unforgettable experience. Brigadistas returned energized and ready to build for next year’s Brigade, as part of the broader goal to build the Cuban solidarity movement in Canada.

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