I was 23 then. My friend and I, and others in the brigade, wanted to better learn the history, yes, but we also wanted answers—we wanted to know what the Cubans we were working and staying with thought we should do with our energies and focus. Not surprisingly, many were very grateful for the material goods we brought, as well as the labor we contributed to help maintain their livestock over winter. But ultimately, they pointed out, and as many of us already knew, the most important work remained in our own countries, particularly in the U.S., where effort was needed to end the blockade against Cuba, then in its 39th year, and change U.S. foreign policy.
While in Cuba our goal was to learn as much as possible about the country, to take that information back to our own country, and, also while there, as citizens of Empire to the north, show acts of solidarity with the Cuban people. One of the most memorable acts was hiking the Sierra Maestra where Fidel, Che, and many other Cuban Revolutionaries fought from. We took rest next to Che’s make shift dental office/shack, and met a near by elderly neighbor who had his tooth pulled by Che—stretching the cheek back with a finger and pointing to a gap where the tooth once sat before extraction. Not much further up was the main camp, where we sat exploring the bunks before hiking back down to meet Cuban media and issue a statement of condemnation to the U.S. government for detaining the Cuban Five, Cubans in the U.S. working to expose anti-Castro terrorist groups and their activities. We made our statement which was broadcast on local and national radio and television stations. We also sent it for publication in the U.S.
We learned a lot during our stay. We took a trip to see the Moncada Barracks where on July 26, 1953 Fidel and Raul Castro, along with others, attacked the military barracks in hopes of taking it to launch the Revolution (failing to take the barracks, but ultimately winning the Revolution in 1959. This is the origin of the 26th of July Movement). We toured a Cuban hospital where the doctors explained how dengue fever was introduced by the U.S. during the Bay of Pigs invasion, and how they struggled to treat its subsequent breakout. We visited a home for the elderly to see the delicate care given them. We visited historic battle grounds in Granma province where a poet saw us arrive and decided to sneak up to deliver a poem of gratitude for our coming (much to the chagrin of our guides). We were introduced to Afro-Cuban culture, food, music, and dancing. We held a ceremony at a monument of Jose Marti, visited a monument dedicated to Celia Sanchez Manduley, met with the Cuban Women’s Federation, economists, and many others. We went straight to the site of Grandma’s landing, and strolled the walk-way through the reeds, out to the water and back. We were hosted in a town parade, and partied with Committees in Defense of the Revolution. I’ll never forget the hospitality given to us.
Another memory I have from the brigade is sitting on a long bus ride where I let one of the Cuban organizers of our brigade, from the NGO ICAP, listen to an interview I had recently produced with Robin Hahnel about Participatory Economics. The interview was about 30 minutes and I remember sneaking glimpses and seeing attentive expressions on his face as he listened. After the interview he handed back my headphones and said something to the affect of “Very interesting model. It is clear there are many ideals in common with the Cuban Revolution. However, it is also very Utopian.” I remember explaining that for me it was not Utopian but simply practice. I worked in a radio collective that functioned very much like a balanced job complex, with balanced divisions of labor, and that for me, decentralized participatory planning, as I imagine, would be much preferable over markets or central planning. He needed more than this introduciton to become a parecon advocate, however, we spent a lot of time talking both before and after that day enjoying each others company.
As mentioned above, this particular brigade was cut short to only two weeks. I knew someone who lived in Havana who was also a translator for the state paper Granma. She offered to let my friend and I stay with her for one week of two while we explored Havana after the brigade. This was also very educational as it became clear that, although we had many genuine experiences in the brigade, life was very different in this urban center and capital. We were able to see the affects of markets, dollarization, of the free trade zones, tourism, prostitution, and crime. While we were on our walks, my friend who incidentally is Ethiopian, had dark skin, and could speak Spanish, was constantly mistaken for a native Cuban trying to hustle a U.S. tourist (me). Authorities would repeatedly pull him aside, demanding I keep my distance while they check his papers and interrogate him right there on the street. This happened at least three times, once sadly, in Revolution Square. Needless to say, this is only anecdotal evidence of what has been much more widely and thoroughly documented—how U.S. imperialism has helped warp a nation seeking its own development path.
For our last week we found a place to stay in Havana one block from El Malecón. An elderly woman rented us a suite off the corner of her place. She asked about our stay, the brigade, and shared her own story. She relayed how she “was not a communist,” but a catholic. She told us how she joined the militias to teach Cubans how to defend themselves with guns preparing for U.S. invasion. She also joined literacy campaigns to teach people how to read and write. She was “not a communist” but she “believed in the revolution,” and just wished “the U.S. would leave Cuba alone.”
While in Havana we went to the Museum of the Revolution which was formerly the Presidential Palace of all Cuban presidents from Mario García Menocal (1913-1921) to the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista (1959). It houses a U.S. fighter jet downed during the Bay of Pigs invasion, and other memorabilia from various stages of the Revolution. Being in the museum, just like our experience in the brigade down south in Granma, put us right back into the fabric of the Cuban struggle. I remember feeling humbled and ready to go home to organize in my own country (Canada at the time).
I left for Cuba late June and came back late July (just missing the July 26 celebrations). I had moved out of my place, using my rent money to do the Cuba trip. Crazy at the age of 23, upon returning I moved into a tent for the summer in my friend’s back yard. Just over 6 weeks back from Cuba, and back to work (ironically at a homeless shelter), a friend of mine called my cell and asked if I was in front of a T.V., “no, I’m in the tent…” was my reply. She told me that planes had just crashed into the World Trade Center towers. We met with a couple other friends to try and process what was happening that day. My heart sinks whenever I think of how my country has made people around the world suffer, and Cuba was on my mind a lot those days just after Sept. 11, 2001. I had thoughts of the Cuban struggle fresh on my mind; stories of selfless sacrifices made by the Cuban people for national liberation struggles in Africa, Asia, and Latin America; the practice of sending doctors, medicine, and aid to countries in dire need; of training doctors and teachers from other countries to take that knowledge and those skills back to their homes; in being an inspiration for people around the world. All this was deeply resonating with me after 9-11.
As Castro’s announced, and long expected, resignation ripples into the near future all eyes will be on the Cuban nation and the future of its Revolution. Reforms are on the horizon, and although it is too soon to tell, we needn’t be surprised if Cuba embraces Chavez’s struggle for “21st Century Socialism.” Whatever this may look like, it is certain that the Cuban people deserve the solidarity that they have given—from Latin America and the rest of the world, and especially from those of us here in the “belly of the beast.”