December 13, 1999

"Cuban Experience"

The Chronicle-Herald
Living Youth Press, Thursday, December 9, 1999, p. B11

Cuban experience; Upgrading kids' camp, cutting sugar cane, and a week at the beach gave Canadian volunteers unique view of Cuba

Chris Arsenault

OUR RICKETY, Soviet-made truck sped along the dirt roads in Cuba's rural interior. A more conservative person might worry about the safety of the 42 Canadians standing in a vehicle that's more than 20 years old - probably being held together by the cap of a rum bottle. For some reason, we didn't worry. Cuba just seems to instill a carefree attitude. To the locals, our group must have been quite an odd sight. Dirty, sweaty Canadians, carrying wooden hoes, coming back from a hard day in the sugar-cane fields must have been a switch from the camera-carrying, beach-bumming and souvenir-shopping tourists.

Our program, which sends groups of Canadian volunteers to Cuba to experience the country and its people, is called the Ernesto Che Guevara Work Brigade, organized by Vancouver-based Amigos de Cuba. The brigade left Toronto on July 26 and returned Aug. 16. The volunteers, aged 15-70, included anarchists from Toronto, feminists from British Columbia and computer programmers from Ontario.

It was an incredible experience and one that would be hard to find through any other vacation. Volunteers spent the first two weeks in the Pioneer Village, an outdoor camp where Cuban kids learn basic biology and survival skills. The camp is in central Cuba, in an agricultural region, about 25 minutes from Ciego de Avila, the country's third-largest city.

The brigade volunteers worked at a variety of jobs. First, we did maintenance at the camp, getting it ready for the school year. Volunteers painted and repaired classrooms, built a gravel path from the mess hall to the infirmary and, most important, donated toys for the centre's toy library. Upgrading the library was probably the most rewarding experience because of how happy it made the children. One little girl gave a speech to our group, saying the toys would make her life better and give her and her friends happiness.

The volunteers then moved to the banana and sugar-cane fields. The work was much harder - 37 C degrees with no shade. In the banana fields, we used machetes to cut leaves off the trees and the grass growing around them. Still, the work was fun and when it was done, we always looked forward to swimming in the cool river.

In Cuba, people rarely work in the fields past noon because of the heat. We'd be up by 6:30 and in the fields by 8. Getting to the fields was the best part of the work day. We'd stand in the back of the truck and speed along the rural roads with the breeze blowing in our hair. We worked hard but we could take frequent breaks, and no one pushed us to do more than we wanted.

After work, we'd meet delegates from various groups - trade unions, the Association of Cuban Women, local government representatives, the Association of Small Farmers and even veterans of the revolution who fought alongside Fidel Casto and Che Guevera. These people painted a beautiful picture of Cuban society.

Even volunteers who don't support the country's economic policies agreed the Cuban system accommodates and provides for its people better than those of many other countries.

Some volunteers didn't like what they saw - Cuba is still a Third World country with many problems, including poverty. Many of the people we met received just enough money for their daily needs, with little or none for recreation.

One of the greatest challenges facing the country today is its treatment by the United States. The average Cuban undoubtely suffers from the 40-year-old American trade embargo, imposed in a so-far fruitless bid to bring down communist leader Fidel Castro.

Before 1991, Cuba relied on the former Soviet Union for things like cars, oil and medical suppplies. In turn, the Soviets bought a lot of Cuba's farm products, especially sugar. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba lost its biggest trading partner.

Think what would happen to Canada if the American economy and government collapsed tomorrow.

In 1991, Cuba's gross national product fell more than 40 per cent, with imports and exports in an even worse situation.

It is only now that Cuban industrial output is getting back to 1991 levels. Cuba has worked hard to find new trading partners in an increasingly competitive world, but because of the embargo, it can't buy anything made or patented in the U.S. This hurts hospitals, which need certain types of American-made equipment. At the hospital in Ciego de Avila, a nurse told us of a newborn who died because she had no access to the American-patented medicine needed to treat her. The embargo also hurts farmers, who can't buy any fertilizer or farm machinery patented or made in the U.S.

When we weren't working or meeting, we visited different cities. We saw hospitals, day-care centres, an orphanage and, of course, a variety of Cuban bars.

Our third and final week was spent on Cayo Coco, a beautiful island. We stayed in a resort where all the other guests were Cuban. We were the only foreigners allowed in. Although western comforts, like electric lights, flush toilets and the almighty television weren't available, none of the Canadians seemed to mind.

When you have a beach, good food and great friends, none of that other stuff really matters.

In Cayo Coco, we swam in the warm water, relaxed on the soft, white sand and, of course, hung out with Cuban friends. The brigade included 10 Cubans who were fluent in English. These young men and women became almost part of my family during the trip. We shared everything. There are very few, if any, other programs offering this sort of personal contact and it made this experience truly amazing.

Chris Arsenault, of Halifax, a 16-year-old student at Queen Elizabeth High School, spent three weeks in Cuba this summer.

Ingrid Bulmer / Herald PhotoChris Arsenault of Halifax stands in the door to his room next to a poster of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. The 16-year-old student was one of 42 Canadians participating in a volunteer work program this summer in Cuba.

Chris Arsenault and his Cuban translator, Jorge, stand outside a mechanic's house in Managua.

Category: Society and Trends
Length: Long, 849 words
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