Cycle Cuba Challenge 2009 report
by Natasha Hickman
on: Tuesday, 2 February 2010
Jayne Fisher, a participant in the 2009 Cycle Cuba Challenge reports back on her experiences on the Music Fund for Cuba's annual fundraising bike ride.
Some 37 of us took part in the 350k cycle through the beautiful Cuban countryside and £40,000 was raised for the Music Fund for Cuba, and other practical solidarity was taken over by the group.
In addition, we were able to be part of the May Day celebrations in Havana, along with millions of Cubans celebrating the gains of the last 50 years and what Cuba continues to achieve at home and internationally.
The Cycle Challenge
The purpose of the trip – the fundraising Cuba Cycle Challenge – organised through the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, was an incredible experience, and involved cycling 350k over 5 days, beginning in Sancti Spiritus, and travelling around the Escambray Mountains, and from Caribbean coast to Atlantic coast.It was a truly brilliant way to see the country and to meet people, taking in dramatic scenery, quiet coastal roads, some beautiful and breathtaking rural views and many challenging uphills! Every village and hamlet we passed through bore the evidence of the nature of Cuban society, with a school in every place. We received a great reception at every turn of the road, with shouts from bus stops, encouraging us to go faster and harder, to farmers in fields waving. Hand painted murals and posters marking figures and heroes of the struggle for self-determination were evident, alongside signs for the CDRs (local committees which run the day to day workings of the local areas and provide a key cohesive structure which forms their inclusive and democratic society). The first – and very long – day’s cycle took us to the beautiful UNESCO world heritage city of Trinidad. From there we went along the coastal road to Guajimico, and then on to Lake Hanabanilla. To reach the latter involved a very long uphill cycle, which, in my view, alone merited the sponsorship money. Despite a downpour that evening, the views of the lake were amazing and the following day’s boat trip preceded the next leg of the cycle to Santa Clara.
Santa Clara and Che Guevara
Santa Clara represented a high point of the trip, given the significance of the battle in that town to the victory of the revolution. While there, we visited the Che Guevara Memorial Museum, with a huge striking monument, beneath which is a modest memorial where Che’s remains are interred.
A flame is constantly lit, and there are small plaques with images of the other compatriots from Peru, Bolivia and Cuba who died alongside Che in Bolivia, making this an incredibly moving experience.
We also visited the monument to El Tren Blindado, the derailed train which was one of the most dramatic and decisive events in the revolution, when the revolutionary forces, led by Che, blew up the train tracks and captured the enemy forces. The train remains there as a monument in the town. From Santa Clara we travelled the last day to the laid back town of Remedios on the Atlantic coast, happy to have completed the challenge, in the face of some very hard uphills and a strong headwind for most of the time. It was an excellent achievement for all concerned.
During the cycle we made some other significant visits, giving further examples of Cuban life. An evening organised by the CDR (Committee for the Defence of the Revolution) in Condado, near Trinidad, gave a keen insight into Cuban life and was also a highlight, with performances by the children and a chance to discuss the role of the CDRs.
These local committees are crucial to organising life in Cuba, and are a very fundamental unit of democratic participation and accountability. They ensure there is a strong cohesion to the local area, that there is inclusion, a true community participation, which is organised at all levels – from kids going to school to rubbish being collected. From the oldest citizen to the youngest children, the CDRs are a critical way of life there, and work amazingly well.
We were given a tremendous welcome, and even our incredibly bad dancing (with a couple of honourable exceptions) did not seem to dent this enthusiasm.
Achievements in healthcare and international solidarity
Later, en route to Santa Clara, we visited a polyclinico healthcare centre at Cumanajagua, where the delegation donated 3 wheelchairs which had been taken over. On being shown around the centre, it was evident how valuable the Cuban healthcare system is, and what a fundamental difference has been made to people’s lives.
Before the revolution life expectancy was 58. Today it is upwards of 77. Infant mortality in 1959 was 60/1,000 live births. Today it is 5.8 – among the lowest in the world. Today Cuba leads the world in vaccinations and illness prevention, having eradicated at home serious illnesses and diseases such as TB, malaria and polio.
Before 1959 malaria affected 30 per cent of people and TB 14 per cent. Cuba has the highest number of doctors per capita anywhere in the world, one doctor for every 165 inhabitants (compared to one per 1,076 in 1959). And Cuba has exported its doctors around the world to assist other countries, such as Venezuela, where doctors from Cuba established the free health system under President Chavez, Barrio Adentro. This was evidenced by our own doctor, Jorge, who accompanied the cycle all the way and was on hand if anyone needed any medical attention. Jorge told me how he had spent 5 years in Venezuela working in the Barrio Adentro projects, and two years in Africa. Cuba’s international role is incredible in this regard – for example I was told that in Haiti the only functioning hospital is a Cuban field hospital.It was a real privilege to meet and talk to doctors like Jorge, and to visit the health centre and witness what they have achieved. Moreover, what they have done to help other countries is out of no other motivation than the needs of humanity.
The Music Fund and Cuba’s inspiring education system
Back in Havana we were able to visit some of the projects funded by the Music Fund for Cuba, and hence the sponsorship raised by the cycle. A highlight – of many, many throughout the trip – was the Abel Santamaria school for visually impaired children, where we took equipment over, including a Braille printer, software and individual donations of musical instruments, and other educational material which are more useful than money, as some essential items cannot reach Cuba due to the blockade. We received, as elsewhere in Cuba, a tremendously warm and generous reception from the director of the school and the children, who performed for us.
One young pianist was so unbelievably good, it was an amazing testament to how Cuba’s system not only prioritises the fundamental needs of food, health and education, but also strives to enable all people to achieve their highest goals of personal development, resulting in a high level of culture which is a shining example around the world. This is evidenced by Cuba’s leading role in the fields of dance, sport, music and so on.
Everywhere, from the scruffiest bar to the Ambos Mundos hotel features musicians and singers of such incredible talent, who would play and were happy to chat and even show us a few chords and songs on some occasions.
The Abel Santamaria school epitomises in the clearest way this philosophy of lifting every human being to their best potential. It has a ratio of one tutor per pupil. Children with disabilities, such as those we met, are given every chance and encouragement to excel, and to be an integrated part of society.
The school underlined Cuba’s big achievements in education – reducing illiteracy from 24 per cent in 1959 to around 3 per cent today. Their literacy programmes are thought to be the best methods anywhere, and are, for example used in Venezuela as part of their education missions which helped eradicate illiteracy in that country very rapidly.
In Cuba pre-1959 only 55 per cent of children went to schools, and had to pay fees. Today schooling is totally free and compulsory up to 18. University education is free. There are universities in every municipality and one fifth of Cubans have a degree. Primary class numbers do not exceed 20. The numbers of schools in every area we cycled through were clear evidence of this.
Elsewhere, we visited the Miramar theatre which the Music Fund is raising money to renovate. A significant amount of the sponsorship money is going towards this project, where work has recently begun. An amazingly lovely art deco building, in a totally desperate state of disrepair, its enthusiastic director spoke of how vital to the community the theatre will be, used for rehearsals, performances and so on for many different projects. Support is still needed for this project.
May Day in Havana
Toward the end of the trip was the May Day Rally, an incredible honour to be part of, joining the millions of Cubans in the Revolution Plaza, with thousands of banners and hand made signs, clearly expressing a strong identification with the gains of the last 50 years, the government and its current efforts, a pride in Cuba’s achievements and the assertion of the right to self-determination and against the blockade.
Strong support for socialism and internationalism was clear. All sectors of society, ages and areas were present and an incredible atmosphere.As part of the international guests, we were privileged to be there with an amazing view of the parade, and to see President Raul Castro and others as well. TUC President Brendan Barber was among senior trade unionists present – reflecting the fact that Cuba has built up wide support throughout the world against the illegal blockade by the US, which we hope is now on its last legs, and the excellent role that the Cuba Solidarity Campaign has played in organising that support here in Britain.
The achievements of the Cuban revolution, notably in health, education and culture, continues to inspire and clearly demonstrate, at a time of global economic crisis, that there is a positive alternative way forward for humanity.
Of the many places we visited during the trip, the achievements in health and education stood out as positive examples of Cuba’s achievements, and in particular the general outlook and approach of the Cuban people in the way they organise their society and live their lives, in the context of all the problems they have faced, is hugely inspiring.
Cuba’s international role was also demonstrated, in the help they have given in terms of medical care and education throughout the world, in huge disproportion to their tiny size, was also reflected in the new trade relations with countries such as Venezuela. However, many people we met raised the ongoing problems of the US blockade which creates shortages and hardships in a range of critical areas, underlining the need to keep up the pressure to end the blockade and for governments to develop positive relationships with Cuba.Solidarity with Cuba With the recent changes across Latin America, with progressive governments applying pressure to end the blockade and with the United States’ change of administration, now would clearly be the time to redouble all solidarity efforts with Cuba.
This trip was just one small example of the kind of support which can be demonstrated, but moreover, it is a tremendous way of experiencing why Cuba should be supported.
It was brilliantly organised and particular thanks should go to Simon Bull who is in charge of the whole thing. I will certainly aim to do the cycle again next year – and will be seeking your sponsorship again.
Donations could not be put to a more positive and amazing use. Everyone should join and support the Cuba Solidarity Campaign and support the Music Fund for Cuba. I can honestly say that I am so pleased to have done the cycle and raised the funds, but I am particularly inspired by travelling there and confirming my view that there is a better way forward for humanity, of which Cuba is the living example.
Contact the Music Fund for Cuba to sign up for the 2010 Cycle Cuba Challenge or download your forms here.
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