Sun, surf and sand will always be Cuba’s main tourist attractions, but a small number of Canadians have found a curiously old-fashioned reason for visiting this beautiful tropical island: a shared longing for social and cultural equality and justice.
Sheshatshiu resident Dawna Lee recently returned from spending three weeks doing volunteer work and learning about how the country reformed its outmoded schools.
Lee was the first Labrador representative on the Canadian Che Guevara Brigade — around 40 members of which joined 320 other volunteers from around the world to celebrate May Day with more than a million Cubans.
Although Lee has been visiting Cuba since the 1970s, she only heard of the two-decade-old Che Guevara Brigade this past year. The then-upcoming 21st brigade (which she just attended from the end of April into the first part of May) seemed to offer her exactly what she wanted: an impression she says was justified because she’s come back to Canada with all her goals fulfilled.
“Firstly, I was looking for an opportunity to volunteer in Cuba,” she said. “Secondly, I’ve been interested in Cuba since I was 15. There’s been lots of reforms recently and I’ve kind of wanted to do a research paper for university … looking into education and at youth engagement and citizenship.”
Plenty to do
She got the work in spades — literally. When the brigade wasn’t sorting mangos for a farm co-operative, the volunteers worked in the fields or weeded the grounds of a well-preserved historic treasure: a pre-revolutionary resort once frequented by the rich, famous and powerful.
The brigade wasn’t all about hard work, however.
Lee and the other Canadians also toured museums, hospitals, a disaster-response program, memorials and other cultural and historic sites — like the Bay of Pigs, where American-backed counter-revolutionaries once tried to invade the country.
The brigade also met with farmers, students, trade unionists, veterans and artists, as well as with a local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, the Federation of Cuban Women and with relatives of the Cuban Five, a group of men currently jailed in the United States.
The centrepiece of the scheduled events (the brigade is advertised as a vacation designed to teach about the “real” Cuba) was an invitation to attend the massive annual May Day Parade in Havana.
Lee said Canada’s brigade joined with all the others to be among a countless number of buses that converged on the capital city in the early morning.
She said the Cubans put no military might on display — it was all about the workers.
“I took the Labrador flag to the May Day parade,” she said. “We were spectators at the parade and we had front row seats.”
Being one of the last two Communist-run nations to survive the Cold War gives Cuba an unusual place in current affairs.
Seeing there’s only two Communist nations left (especially since the other one, China, is evolving into a rich and increasingly novel Communist/capitalist hybrid) obviously gives observers the impression the former worldwide movement is on its very last legs — that when it ends in Cuba, as many predict it will, Communism will forever be snuffed out like a spent candle.
However, the 21st Che Guevara Brigade presented a different possibility altogether: that maybe the grassroots of Communism remain vibrant enough to still teach many things to the modern world, like how to improve the human condition — not just on broad philosophical terms, but on local, practical levels, too.
“We visited the Che Guevara High School where we were allowed to walk among the students and talk to them freely,” Lee said. “What was remarkable was that they weren’t just standing there. They were very curious, happy kids.”
As Lee explained, the Cuban revolution was largely about educating people, about taking an almost completely illiterate population and teaching everyone to read and write. Lee pointed out that the revolutionary reforms succeeded by dismantling the old colonial education system and building one based on Cuba’s own culture.
“Cuba took their education system and transformed it,” she said, adding that the lessons learned could be applied in her own community and elsewhere to help all students become as remarkably outgoing and curious as those on that faraway island.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.