Sixties in Cuba via Canadian eyes

Exhilaration, hopes and inspiration:

The 60s in Cuba through a Canadian's eyes

By Lisa Makarchuk
True North Perspective
This remarkable first-person story tells how a 22-year-old farm girl from Saskatchewan found herself at the heart of the Castro revolution in 1961. Originally published as Chapter 1 in Cuba Solidarity in Canada: Five Decades of People-to-People Foreign Relations (click to buy at, Friesen Press, Victoria, BC, 2014. Reprinted with permission from Nino Pagliccia, Editor.
Image: Photo of Lisa Makarchuk in 2015, provided by the author.  
Lisa Makarchuk arrived in Cuba in June, 1961, the Year of Literacy and shortly after the failed U.S. Bay of Pigs invasion.  She worked as a newscaster, writer, and translator at CMCA, a long-wave English-speaking radio station and later at Radio Havana Cuba, Cuba's short-wave station. She was part of the team that produced the first issues of sections of  Cuba's national newspaper in languages other than Spanish for the benefit of delegates attending the First Tricontinental Conference of Solidarity with the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America, which took place in Havana in 1966. Involved in solidarity work in favour of freedom for political prisoners in Spain and Portugal at the time of their dictatorships, she also took part in campaigns for nuclear disarmament, ending the war in Viet Nam and, later, freeing the Cuban Five. She co-coordinated the First International Festival of Poetry of Resistance in Toronto in 2009 and later, co-ordinated the third one in 2011.
In 1998, she was appointed by Canada's Prime Minister's Office as the Honorary Consul for Varadero where she served for somewhat less than two years and is one of  several Canadians to be awarded the Medal of Friendship by Cuba's Council of State through the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP).

In 1960, when C. Wright Mills’ book  Listen, Yankee: the Revolution in Cuba became a must-read and both Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell took positions solidly in support of the revolution in Cuba, I was one of a young generation that was curious and searching, groomed by a cold war atmosphere that many people accepted but was rejected by others. Growing up with MAD (Mutually-Assured Destruction) within a foreboding shadow of the mushroom cloud, we perked up our ears at the distant drumming of new ideas for a better life that was emanating from Cuba and many of us were very receptive to them. There was something delectably and unspeakably daring about a small number of dedicated men and women being able to take on a national government supported by a powerful neighbour — and win! Many Canadians like me were ready to embrace the rebels' victory in Cuba. About 3,000 "barbudos" (bearded ones) from the Sierra Maestra Mountains had overcome an army of 80,000 regulars, trained and equipped by the U.S. Eroded by self-doubt and failures, the regulars began to desert in droves as the news spread that the rebel captors generally treated any prisoner respectfully, usually releasing them if they promised not to bear arms against the rebels.

Arriving in Havana in May, 1961, I found people there from various parts of the world, mainly Latin America, many exiled from their own countries. A large number of Cubans  had returned  home from the U.S. By October, I was translating, editing and broadcasting news, interviewing guests and hosting a midnight jazz program that featured commentary between selections of music at a long-wave radio station. For a child of rural Saskatchewan, this opportunity was akin to manna from heaven. Having arrived shortly after the failed U.S. Bay of Pigs invasion, I had unwittingly stepped into a steaming cauldron of energy and activity of a country that appeared to be one big school and provided no end of topics for commentary in my radio broadcasts.

The Literacy Campaign

In Cuba, then a country of six million people, more than one in five could not read or write. Jose Marti's words "To be educated is to be free" echoed in the literacy campaign's aim to wipe out illiteracy and to educate more than a million people to a grade three level. Approximately one hundred thousand teachers, made up of volunteers, took part in this most noble of all tasks. The volunteer teachers were of all ages and social groups but it was mainly students from ages twelve to eighteen that went into the countryside where most of the illiteracy existed. Each of them was armed with a guidebook, a notebook, a set of lessons, and a lantern for use in a countryside mostly without electricity. In urban areas, parks were filled with tables of people learning to read and write. Peasants, workers, seniors and others all over the country who had never had the opportunity to learn were now not only beginning to read and write but were giving lessons to those teaching them that would last a lifetime. The volunteer teachers would eventually identify and bond with what used to be the poverty-ridden underbelly of their society, many recognizing for the first time its terrible insecurities and exhausting labours.

Many of those leaving the big cities for the countryside had never been away from home. They bid good-bye to their tearful parents in Havana and travelled to their destinations, often in isolated areas. They had to travel on the backs of trucks or mules crossing roads that were rutted or washed out. When they arrived at their destinations, they would live with the peasant families, working with them during the day and holding classes in the evening.

At first, some peasants were suspicious of the attention they were getting from the new government in Havana but, soon and usually, the young people came to be seen as heroes and treated like family members. As the arriving teachers settled into the various “bohios” (peasant huts), many of which were in the mountains, they had to cope with overwhelming loneliness, confront superstitions and, in some areas, indigenous practices.

The usually dark countryside began to be lit up by the teachers' lantern lights shining through the windows of the bohios — a poignant symbol of the new enlightenment entering everyone’s lives.

The Year of Literacy, as 1961 is known, had its share of heroes and martyrs

Early in the year, several young volunteer teachers and their peasant students were tortured and killed by roving counter-revolutionary bands. The teaching brigades were named after one of those killed: Conrado Benitez, tortured and then murdered at eighteen years of age. These horrendous crimes were committed to frighten parents into recalling their children from the countryside and, thus, wrecking the campaign.

Of course, there were a few young people who returned to Havana before their three-month stay was completed; others had to go back to join their parents’ exodus to Florida. Some never returned having been drowned in rivers or killed in accidents. While a few of the adult students did not have the capacity to learn, the vast majority of the peasants and urban poor took on the challenge of learning to read and write and became a fount of creative energy and fully-fledged participants in the revolution. The literacy campaign was deemed  spectacularly successful by international organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and regarded it as a model for other countries. (Lakhani 2010). By December 22, 1961, Cuba declared itself a country free of illiteracy — the first in the Americas — and every region had a school.

Conditions were then set up for everyone with a third grade level and up to pursue studies free of charge up to and including the University level.

Pro- and Anti-Reform

  Image: Photo of Lisa Makarchuk in 1961, age 22, provided by the author.
  The author in 1961.

Entering into this world, I at first wondered, who could ever be against teaching people to read and write? Who would be against providing a daily litre of milk to all children under the age of seven? Who could be against providing those children with shoes so that half of them would not die from parasites before the age of six? Who could be against the opening of new schools where before there were none? Putting teachers back to work and educating new ones? Who could be against bringing in the forgotten ones in isolated areas, ignored even by census takers, to rejoin their country and participate in its development? Who would be against lighting up the countryside where it would go dark after the cane-cutting season was over when wages dried up and there was no more oil for the lamps?  The anticipation, excitement and exhilaration over building a new society, taking place before my eyes, were overwhelming.

While a vast majority was in favour of these upcoming reforms, others, (many —  though not all — of the rich and privileged) were not only averse to re-distributing the riches of the country (their own and that of others) but, even more importantly, they were livid over losing their positions of influence in society. “I would rather pump gas in Miami than take orders from these "campesinos”(peasants)," one of them said to me.

Professionals, top and middle managers, technicians, business people and the wealthy were leaving town. Maids disappeared from households having found better employment elsewhere and señoras complained that good help was now hard to find. Those whom I met appeared to be suffering from a great deal of anxiety over uncertainty but were quite sure that the U.S. government would find a way to stop the “locura” (madness) that was going on around them.

The need for revolution in the '50s

Image: Photo of Elena, a young teacher, left, with student and Fidel Castro. Photo provided by the author.  
Fidel Castro at 35 with eager young teachers. In 1961 the Cuban government instituted universal, free education. Teachers were needed and had to be trained quickly and efficiently, such as at Minas del Frio.  Police barracks under Batista, the scenes of some horrific repression that took place under his watch, were cleaned, painted and used as schools for the many children who never had been to one before.
Elena Diaz González
was one of these aspiring teachers and is shown on the left with young female student teachers with Fidel Castro.

People I met spoke of their intense hatred of the U.S.-supported Batista regime. Anything and everything was for sale in Havana. The Mafia built larger and more luxurious casinos and hotels while running  gambling and prostitution operations. Daytime Havana streets were sun-drenched with the detritus of life while at night, Havana was lit up with gaudy, glaring neon lights  hiding the city’s underbelly of violence, exploitation and brutality. The toll gates, which today still stand (now unused) after passing the tunnel from Havana on the way to Varadero, remain as mute reminders of a corrupt past where Batista’s son-in-law pocketed all their revenues.

About twenty thousand, many of them students, were arrested, tortured and killed by Batista’s police for engaging in “subversive” activity. Bodies were left in ditches or roadsides where I noticed modest markers would show where they were found. There was a generalized fear of the police; beatings by them were listed in the “In Cuba” section of the weekly magazine “Bohemia”.


Cuban President Batista barred from wealthy whites only clubs

Batista had come to power in a coup on March 10, 1952. Although he had declared himself President, Batista, due to his ancestry, was not permitted to enter the “Whites Only” premises of some of the wealthy clubs. In other cases, no Cubans at all could enter. Even well-to-do Cubans felt undervalued as foreigners were running many enterprises and viewed the Cubans as a lazy people who could not get things done.

To the U.S. government Batista was “our man in Havana”. He was given ample armaments, military training, money and the run of Cuba by the U.S.

Privately financed gangs ran amok at the bidding of the large landowners. Folklore has the sons of the head of one of these gangs playing football with the skulls of their father’s victims. Oriente province was ruled by Captain Sosa Blanco as a private preserve of the United Fruit Company. The company enjoyed a tax-free status and many sweetheart deals. Later in the so-called show trials, victims or their relatives were able to confront, accuse and witness against men such as Sosa Blanco who were then expeditiously executed by firing squad. After Fidel Castro and about a hundred others had attacked the Moncada barracks on July 26, 1953, most of the deaths from this action were the result of Batista's police torturing to death persons, mostly young, who were taken prisoner after the assault. Horrendous stories of what was done to these idealistic young people made their way into common folklore. Once the revolution had triumphed, the public wanted and needed a settling of accounts, a show of justice being done for the pain, humiliation and suffering of the past. These show trials, as they were referred to by big media in Canada and the U.S., brought a lot of bad publicity to the revolution. In Cuba, however, I was assured that they established the revolution as a bastion of protection, justice and hope for the common people.

In the countryside, a very small but very rich group of families owned about half of the arable land. While 150,000 families of sugar-cane cutters lived as tenants, another 200,000 families lived as squatters and worked sporadically as day labourers. Some families in the countryside were huge, at times numbering over twenty children. Without family planning information or education, women were akin to brood mares providing generations of cheap labour for which the beneficiaries did not have to take any responsibility. This information provided palpable evidence of the connection between poverty, exploitation, illiteracy, and women’s suffering.

Revolution Manifested

On December 2, 1956, some eighty-three men, launched on the boat “Granma“ from Mexico, landed at Alegría de Pio, an unintended spot on Cuba’s southern shores. With Fidel Castro, his brother Raúl, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos among them, these men began the armed fight against the dictator, Fulgencio Batista. After their first skirmish with government forces three days after landing, only a dozen rebels were left alive. In due time, the rebel forces grew. They began to inform Cubans with their clandestine radio station, Radio Rebelde, relaying a steady stream of information to offset lies broadcast by the official pro-government media. By the time a general strike was called in 1958 in cities across the country, the loosely-formed Movimiento 26 de Julio (26 of July Movement, shortened to M-26-7), aided by the March 13 Revolutionary Directorate and members of the Popular Socialist Party (Communist) was able to call on an endless well of support.


Image: Cover of Cuba Solidarity in Canada. Click to buy at

Having taken Santiago de Cuba and making it the temporary capital on January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro's Liberty Column, as it was called, headed for Havana. The old political parties (never prohibited) simply dissolved. By January 4, people were told to end their general strike and go back to work as all arms and military installations were in the hands of the revolutionary forces. The power of a people united in support would become an unforgettable historical lesson that Cuba taught the world in those days.

Arriving in Havana, Fidel Castro pronounced a speech to the people of Cuba on January 8, 1959. During this speech, as fate would have it, a white dove flew down and rested on his shoulder signalling to many, steeped in the Afro-Cuban religions, that the saints had produced the anointed one whom they would protect. Despite 635 documented attempts on Fidel Castro’s life, he has outlasted almost a dozen U.S. Presidents so one cannot help but wonder.

Deemed to be a logical transitional figure between the past and the future, a former judge under Batista, Manuel Urrutia  assumed the Presidency but resigned five months later, replaced by Osvaldo Dorticós who remained as President until 1976.

Beginnings of the Revolution - Defiance and Reforms

If they could not install their own man in Havana then, the U.S. government must have assumed, they could, at least, buy the acquiescence of this apparently new kind of leadership that had emerged in Latin America. It did not take long for the U.S. government to realize that the men and women of the revolution were not for sale.

In April, 1959, on one of their first trips abroad, Fidel Castro and his entourage sought an audience with President Eisenhower. He refused to see them, going golfing instead, and sent Vice-President Nixon to meet with them. According to a second-hand account of this meeting, Nixon waved a cheque book and asked the entourage, “How much?” Overcome by the insult of this question, Camilo Cienfuegos, one of the most popular of the leaders of the revolution, reportedly had to be restrained from attacking Nixon. That question, however, crystallized the deep divide between the two parties in that room: one representing the old way of doing business in Latin America; the other representing a new kind of leader, firm believers in the sovereignty of their country, its independence and its self-determination and  proud of their mission.

Many terrorist acts against the revolution, emanating mainly from Florida, have resulted in the deaths of thousands and injuring or maiming thousands more. One of the worst occurred on March 4, 1960, when the steamship, La Coubre, bearing arms from Belgium to Cuba, had on board two large explosions in Havana harbour; the second and more sinister one killed volunteers who had come to rescue those injured after the first explosion. More than a hundred were killed and more than two hundred were injured. In his speech after these explosions, Fidel Castro coined the phrase “Patria o Muerte” (Homeland or Death), and Alberto Korda, a well-known professional photographer in Havana, captured the ubiquitous and now iconic photo of Che Guevara standing beside Fidel during that speech.

The La Coubre explosion was attributed to the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.). The ship’s French owners imposed a 150-year restriction on releasing the complete file of the investigation into this disaster. It sits in a strongbox of a French maritime foundation.

U.S. breaks diplomatic relations and the Bay of Pigs Attack

By January 3, 1961, the U.S. had broken off diplomatic relations with Cuba, closed its Embassy in Havana, and withdrawn its diplomats and its recognition of the Cuban government. The Swiss Embassy took over as a conduit between Cuba and the U.S. Cuba, too, broke its relations with the U.S. and, alert to any invasion, Cuba’s Council of Ministers specified that this break was not with the people of the U.S. but only with their government.

On April 17, 1961, shortly before my arrival in Havana, an invasion force of 1,500 men, trained by the U.S., with its air and naval support, attacked Cuba at Playa Girón (Giron Beach off the Bay of Pigs).  It was defeated within seventy-two hours. In this attack, the people’s militia played a heroic role in stopping the first incursions. The U.S. government denied participation in this venture and, consequently, the body of a U.S. pilot was reclaimed only after decades in cold storage in Cuba, because officially he was not there. Many of the invaders, taken prisoner, claimed to be chefs (unarmed personnel) on the expedition. All those captured were eventually sent back to the U.S. in exchange for baby food and powdered milk.

Cuba, the U.S. and the CIA

After the ignominious failure at the Bay of Pigs, President Kennedy's focus turned toward organizing activities inside Cuba to overthrow the government by weakening the economy, promoting discontent and trying to sow division. Information from declassified documents show that this responsibility went under the name of Operation Mongoose beginning on March 14, 1962. Two days later, President Kennedy approved the preparations to create the conditions that would justify armed intervention of Cuba.  By August 20, 1962,  President Kennedy was convinced there was no way that the Cuban government can be overthrown from within the country. Mongoose was now authorized to carry out more aggressive actions from outside Cuba.

When I arrived in Cuba, I soon became aware of a constant alert to the threat of foreign invasion. Some people argued that this was simply a tactic to distract people from demanding elections. Again, documents released by the U.S. State Department confirm that the threat was indeed real. At my workplace, tension was heightened when the news arrived that a Cuban sentry, at the boundary between the Guantanamo U.S. base and the rest of the country, was shot at and killed.

Agrarian Reform

May 17, 1959, marked the First Law of Agrarian Reform, fulfilling the revolution’s promises to the campesinos of the mountains that first harboured and protected Fidel Castro and the rest of the rebels. To Fidel's sister's chagrin, the first land deeds handed out by her brother were to lands belonging to their father. Strategically, the vision was to develop co-operatives organized by small landholders themselves and collective farms for large scale agriculture.

One of the first tasks of the new revolutionary government was to replace bohios with more formal dwellings. By 1960, 12,404 bohíos had disappeared, replaced with simple but sturdy dwellings with concrete floors and windows. Clearly, a mammoth job awaited the new government in confronting the housing shortage. The chosen priority was to concentrate the government’s resources in the countryside to answer its crying needs but it also left Havana, the engorging monster, as some called it, shortchanged, its infrastructure deteriorating and left unattended for many years.

Urban Reforms

With the passage of the Urban Reform Act, rental payments of tenants were halved. By October 14, 1960, all rentals had reverted into ownership; i.e. tenants became owners of their apartments. During my stay in Havana, my room became my property, which I signed over to others upon leaving Cuba. As a foreigner, I technically could not own property in Cuba but this question would be left for future resolving.

Social Reforms

The first two years of revolution saw culture for the masses established as a priority. The Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industry (ICAIC) was set up in March, 1959, under the leadership of Alfredo Guevara (no relation to Che) who summed up his approach thus: "Our artists must be non-conformists or we will have no artists." Foreign movies by the foremost directors of the day such as Ingmar Bergman and Luís Buñuel were strong favorites of a newly appreciative public. An avalanche of discussion and argument was released. For example, some criticized Bergman's film for being "pessimistic" or "too individualistic;" some condemned the film classic “La Dolce Vita” as decadent art. The music of the Beatles was banned for a short while; now a statue of John Lennon sits on a bench in a public park in Havana.

The Imprenta Nacional (National Publisher) was also established in 1960. Newsprint that had mostly been imported from the U.S. disappeared but was soon replaced by newsprint made from sugarcane in Cuba or imported from the Soviet Union. Books, sold at a very low cost, were published and made available to the population.
Radio Rebelde and Radio Havana Cuba, had their own studios. Alicia Alonso, the prima ballerina of Cuba, was personally approached by Fidel Castro to set up the National Ballet of Cuba with adequate funding promised by the government. Among others, this company has since flourished winning great acclaim abroad and at home where people go to see its performances for a tiny fraction of what ballet performances cost in North America.

Personal income tax was discontinued. After all, the land was fertile and the factories were now in the hands of the people and Cubans believed they would create enough wealth to be able to provide the populace with its basic needs.  They would eliminate unemployment and economic crises. This general optimism was a potent vision that affected most people living in Cuba at that time: after a time, Cuba would be like a Garden of Edenin evolving its people into the most cultured in the world.

Elena Díaz González, a Cuban from that sixties generation, explains: “It was easy to think like that---with the blue of the sky, blue-green of the water and elegant royal palms in almost every glance. We were poor; we had no meat; lost weight; worked seven days a week but we were also young, healthy, energetic, with so much to do, impassioned by whatever tasks were before us. We were given over entirely to the cause of a new society and the new person...We were a part of the Revolution and the Revolution was us...”

In that first year of revolution, police barracks, a grisly reminder of past brutality, were renovated and transformed into schools. Private clubs and beaches were opened to the public. Ten thousand new classrooms  were opened and, in the rural areas, five thousand young teachers started classes. The casinos were closed and about 60,000 sex workers were given opportunities and scholarships to learn skills and integrate themselves into the revolution. The Cuban Federation of Women (Federación de Mujeres Cubanas-FMC) encouraged women in general to enter the work force. Old values and attitudes were surprisingly quick to change: boots for volunteer work replaced daytime stilettos and women's clothing became looser and more comfortable. The conventional idea that men only could be heads of households was discarded.  The discounting of single mothers and single women in general appeared to soften. The emergence of divorce, a woman’s right to choose regarding pregnancies and a more positive view of interracial relationships were slowly gaining majority acceptance. The FMC also succeeded in getting the government to pass a housework law in 1967, which demanded equal responsibility from both parents in the running of a household and in the rearing of children. There is no record of a wife taking her husband to court for reneging on carrying out his share of household duties; however, the law imprinted itself in the nation’s psyche assaulting the patriarchal state of affairs. Everyone did not embrace these new values easily. Even Fidel apparently was given a metaphorical wrist slap by the FMC for inopportune remarks he would make at times regarding women‘s issues. (The Revolution was teaching him, too). Women integrated into the work force and, albeit reluctantly, husbands undertook "women's work" more and more making sure that they were not within the view of their neighbours as they did it.

Nationalizations and Blockade of Cuba

In 1960, on July 2, and after the nationalization of some U.S. businesses, President Eisenhower substantially reduced the Cuban sugar quota eventually suspending it entirely. This was Cuba's one and only big cash crop. The USSR stepped in to buy the sugar in exchange for its oil. The U.S.-owned oil refineries then refused to process oil from the USSR; the Cuban government nationalized them. First-hand information disclosed that some refinery managers were ordered by their parent companies to destroy the workings of the refineries before leaving Cuba.  By September 17, all U.S. banks were nationalized and by October 13, 382 big enterprises, mainly U.S.-owned, were also nationalized. While Cuba had arranged with Canada and other countries for a smooth take-over of foreign-owned property that was being nationalized, the U.S. never agreed to these negotiations.

President Kennedy signed the order for the total commercial blockade of Cuba on February 3, 1962, to start at 12:01 a.m., February 7,  closing the door on a 250-year trade history dating back to the time of the Thirteen Colonies. The U.S. referred to these sanctions as an “embargo.” On February 4, 1962, over one million people, including myself, converged on Revolution Square to hear the Second Declaration of Havana, which analyzed the political situation in Latin America and outlined Cuba’s response to its exclusion from the Organization of American States (OAS) and the imposition of the blockade.  Meantime U.S. government circles went on to deny all financing or sending of money to Cuba, thus reducing monetary incomes and real salaries in order to provoke, in their words, “hunger and desperation.”
Exclusion of Cuba from the Organization of American States (O.A.S.).

With the blockade installed, the U.S. government pursued a relentless policy of trying to isolate Cuba. One of these opportunities came with the O.A.S. meeting held in Punta del Este on January 21, 1962. The U.S. tried but could not receive an agreement for its proposed sanctions against Cuba.  A statement was passed, however, that Marxist-Leninist ideology was incompatible with the principles of the inter-American system thus forming the basis for Cuba’s exclusion from the O.A.S. Canada was not an O.A.S. member at this time.

Shortages and rationing

A consequence of the blockade was to experience shortages of everything immediately after its announcement. Higher employment meant greater consumption but productivity dropped. Spare parts for repairs in factories, garages and other enterprises became unavailable. Food shortages first showed up in restaurants where smirking waiters would reply, “No hay (Don’t have it)” to requests for almost all items printed on the menu. At my radio station we began to share stories of great meals in our past. To solve the food shortages Cuba decided on rationing, still in place to this day, in order to ensure that basic food sustenance that was available would be fairly distributed to all.

Cuba’s health care system

Cuba’s health care system has received international acclaim. Life expectancy has risen from 57 to 79 today.  The mortality rate of babies went from thirty-two deaths per thousand live births before the revolution to about five presently, better than the U.S. rate. After the revolution succeeded, many doctors, mostly based in Havana, left the country. Consequently the government initiated a fast-track program to graduate doctors who would spend at least two years in the countryside after graduating. By 2011, Cuba had close to eighty thousand doctors (Oficina Nacional de Estadistica e Informacion, Cuba, 2012).

Not as well known is the healthcare system's internationalist approach which assists  people in other parts of the world. This policy of sharing whatever Cuba has with over sixty countries in the world has made a profound impact on the lives of millions of people. One of the first medical solidarity contingents left Cuba in1963 when 29 doctors, 3 dentists, 15 nurses, and 8 medical technicians went to Algeria just after it declared its independence from France. There was no tangible benefit for Cuba and involved substantial material costs.

Since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, Cuba has treated 26,000 children harmed by its effects, most of them at no charge. After Hurricane Mitch, the Latin American Medical School (ELAM) was set up to bring students from affected countries to train as doctors and later the program was expanded to include students from other countries including the U.S. and one from Canada. In 2011, forty students from the U.S. graduated with the promise to work in poor or isolated areas in their country. The role of Cuba's medical personnel during the cholera outbreak in Haiti soon after the earthquake was imperative to prevent the spread of disease. Within hours of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Cuba offered its 1,500-strong brigade of doctors to the U.S. to help the people of New Orleans; President Bush never responded to this offer.

Twenty-six Latin American and Caribbean countries have sent patients by the thousands to Cuba or have been treated by Cuban doctors in their own countries to restore their eyesight in a project known as "Operación Milagro" (Operation Miracle). Mario Terán, the Bolivian soldier, who shot Che Guevara in 1967, recently had his eyes operated on by Cuban doctors in a project his victim would have been the first to endorse.

Author’s Observations

The Cuban revolution has struck a responsive chord with millions around the world, including myself. It confirmed that solving the problems of poverty and exploitation is possible through government planning harmonizing with the will of a people united in purpose.

Sharing major historical moments with the people of Cuba was a privilege for me. Not only was this new world intoxicating, electrifying, and unifying, it was a “revolucion con pachanga” (a partying revolution).  I could always hear music outside the window of my office coming from somewhere. It was the best kind of social whirlwind for me in which to spend five years during my twenties.

Notwithstanding imposing difficult years of scarcity on Cuba through the blockade, coupled with unrelenting military, economic and social threats, the U.S. government has not prevented Cuba from achieving universal literacy and health care. In hindsight one could point to some mistakes and dubious decisions taken by the Cuban government. At the 6th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba in April, 2011, Raul Castro reported on the approved Guidelines of the Economic and Social Policy for Cuba indicating that these were necessary in order to update the economic model by “streamlining the bloated payrolls in the public sector,” “increasing labour efficiency and productivity,” by reducing subsidies, and by scaling down “an excessive centralized economy” that stifled the “development of the productive forces” (Castro 2011: n.p.). However, these have not prevented Cuba from also achieving a more sustainable agriculture, a flourishing biotechnology industry, an awareness for historical preservation, a continuously changing and developing economy despite setbacks. Hand in hand with this  as well as developing a profound dignity and pride in most is the development of dignity and pride that most Cubans have in their country and its educated populace which is in constant search for a truly democratic and equitable society.

I feel fortunate to have witnessed and taken part in this social experiment of building a new society. The world must applaud Cuba’s survival, preserving its independence intact, for over five decades fraught with challenges. Who would not feel solidarity with a people so intent on building their country in face of such overwhelming challenges?

The Revolution inspired me to work in solidarity groups not only regarding Cuba but other countries as well. In the 1960s, Franco was still in power in Spain and Salazar in Portugal. We worked on the “Solidaridad” and “Amnestía” conferences in defense of political prisoners in those two countries which took place in Toronto. Later we organized the Hemispheric Conference to End the Viet Nam War in Montreal. I volunteered as a fund-raiser and manager for a trade union newspaper after organizing a  People’s Film Festival.

The “Años de las vacas gordas” (Years of the Fat Cows during the eighties), as they were known, came to a screeching halt with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early nineties. The ensuing “Special Period” tested the ingenuity and resilience of the Cuban people but it also demanded solidarity from around the world. Our subsequent activity with the Canadian-Cuban Friendship Association (CCFA) resulted in the organization of the Toronto-Cuba Solidarity Conference followed by a Canada-Cuba Solidarity Conference in Havana. We broadened our outreach to include the City of Toronto, which declared its first Toronto-Cuba Friendship Day that has continued as an annual event since 1995. It was a lump-in-the-throat feeling to see the Cuban flag raised for the first time in Nathan Phillips Square as the national anthems of Canada and Cuba were sung.

One of our greatest challenges was to gain freedom for the political prisoners called the Cuban Five, all of whom were released and are now back in Cuba. The Lawyers’ Committee for the Anti-terrorist Cuban Five; the Free the Five Cultural Committee; the International Festival of Poetry of Resistance, its first held in honour of the Cuban Five; were organized and, now, the Friends of the Cuban Five were only a part of Canada’s contribution to the international campaign to free the Five. It has always been a source of pride to be with so many dedicated people in moving solidarity activities forward toward more justice and more peace in the world.

Sources for this chapter (partial list)

Searching my memories of the sixties provided the skeleton for this chapter. The body was fleshed out with interviews with Cubans and information culled from various newspapers and journals, pamphlets, and books, listed below.

• Bell Lara, Jose, Delia Luisa Lopez and Tania Caram (2006). Documentos de la Revolucion Cubana 1959. La Habana: Editorial de ciencias sociales
Documentos de la Revolucion Cubana 1960 (2007). La Habana: Editorial de ciencias sociales
Documentos de la Revolucion Cubana 1963 (2011). LaHabana:Editorial de ciencias sociales
• Castro Ruz, Raul (16 April 2011). Central Report to the 6th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba

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