Labrador’s flag flying in Communist Cuba

Michael Johansen
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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.

Organizations: Canadian Che Guevara Brigade, Committee for the Defense, Federation of Cuban Women Che Guevara High School

Geographic location: Cuba, Labrador, Canada Bay of Pigs United States.The Havana China

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Recent comments

  • Foghorn Leghorn
    June 13, 2013 - 14:16

    Lets not kid ourselves here Fidel Castro and Che Guevara weren't exactly running a boy scout troop. Guevara was basically a "missionary for hire" who aligned himself with Fidel Castro and his regime and they successfully overthrew the Batista regime in 1959. This man basically did much of the "dirty" work for Castro. After the revolution he was "rewarded" with control of one of Cuba's infamous prisons. It is alleged that there were hundreds of people who were arbitrarily executed without a trial. The Castro propaganda machine has basically created a folk legend out of Che Guevara. As far as the Cuban people being "free and happy". If you had someone that beat you with a stick, they stopped but now they just stand there with a stick in their hand. Yes anyone would be happy they stopped beating you but are you actually happy to live under these circumstances, I think not!

  • Anne Jerome
    June 13, 2013 - 11:06

    About 10 years ago my husband and I spent 3 weeks in Cuba and stayed in a small hotel. Cuba is by no means as free as Canada! Underpaid teachers were tour guides who had to be very careful about expressing their true feelings;had they had been overheard, they would been tossed in prison! I commend the government for introducing organic farming! However, after the Russians pulled out, and the people were suffering, Castro did not want the world to see skinny Cubans, so all food had to be cooked/smothered in oil to fatten up its citizens. We are hikers and we were noit allowed to leave any city/town without a guide! So no, we would not hold Cuba up as a model in most ways.

  • Dave Thomas Sr.
    June 12, 2013 - 09:14

    I was national coordinator of the 21st Che Guevara Brigade. 17 years ago, when I retired I crated my motorcycle and shipped it to Cuba. I did this to resolve once-and-for-all the conflict in my mind of, on the one hand, the obvious benevolence of the Cuban Revolution and the common held belief of human rights abuses as noted by JT. I lived in Cuba 1 1/2 years and rode 33,000 Km on Cuban roads. I went where I wanted, did what I wanted, interacted with Cubans as I wanted. No one interfered in any way. My conclusion: Cubans are at least as free as we in Canada; They are not fearful of their government; They would talk to me on any subject; They have all kinds of opportunities and support to develop as individuals; They are healthy and articulate. I further concluded Cuba's socialist system is very efficient: Whole industries needed to make a capitalist system function - like advertising, financial industry, tax collection, insurance - are either redundant or much reduced when most property is state owned, most workers work for the state and social programs are your insurance policy. I was there in 1997, hotels were being bombed by American based terrorists organizations, Cuba had just lost over 80% of its foreign trade with the collapse of the former Eastern Block. The Americans then tightened the blockade to hinder shipping and harass international banking. Blockaded Cuba was on life support, short of fuel and spare parts which almost brought agriculture, transportation and industry to its knees. It seemed the whole world thought the revolution's collapse was imminent...except Fidel Castro. When I ask myself: Could Canada survive such a national calamity? When the going gets tough would we cooperate or fight each other? I hope we never have to find out. Cubans cooperated - and are still cooperating 23 years later - sharing what they have so all can survive. Cuba is indeed a ray of hope in a very troubled world!

  • Politically Incorrect
    June 10, 2013 - 08:48

    "Cuban government is guilty of systematic human rights abuses, including torture, arbitrary imprisonment, unfair trials, and extrajudicial execution." Funny. You don't see the irony, JT. Oh, and for the record, Cuba is hardly communist. Stalinst, maybe, but not communist.

  • JT
    June 10, 2013 - 08:19

    "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 " How very nieve of Ms Lee. The Cuban government is guilty of systematic human rights abuses, including torture, arbitrary imprisonment, unfair trials, and extrajudicial execution. The sooner Communism goes into the dustbin of human existence, the better.