Welcome to Cuba on 2 Wheels


So many people in my life from family and friends to acquaintances have asked me, in genuine puzzlement: Why are you so fixated on Cuba?

To answer that I woul d have to go way back into my childhood: I am a product of the cold war; born in 1939, reaching school age as the nuclear age begins and the cold war heats up with the McCarthy Hearings, the Korean War and too numerous to mention East / West diplomatic crises.

The mantra of the day, and for most of my life, from all sides – official media, teachers, friends, work mates, etc. - has been the constant refrain: “Democracy is freedom. Communism (used as a euphemism for Socialism) is brutality and oppression” or “We, good! They, bad!” It was like religion; a truth not to be questioned for fear of revealing ones self to be naive or traitorous.

Then at about age 12 in the privacy of play with my cousin Roger – same age – Roger said: “The Communists are not all bad. They do some good things.”  I don’t remember the context of our conversation that prompted those words but no doubt we were discussing some big news item of the day, like the Korean War.

Whola! That was the first time I remember something positive being said about “Communism”. When Roger elaborated on those views it turned out he had received the benefit of a progressive teacher that had asked his students to recognize the positives as well as the negatives.

In the years after the Korean War ended in a cease fire agreement, it seemed the news was full of charge and counter-charge, of NATO or Russian planes intruding into the other’s airspace. Of course OUR side always said “They are lying. We never violate national sovereignty.”  Then one day the newspaper featured U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers in the hands of Russian soldiers, wearing fur hats, and his wrecked U-2 spy plane in the background. Denial was not possible. My confidence was forever shaken to discover my government and the American government would lie to their own people.

Next as a young railway worker in Fort Erie in early 1962 or 63, just married, my union went on strike for better wages. At the time all non-operating trades (maintenance, etc…those not involved with driving the trains) negotiated together - all unions and all locals across Canada. A strike meant all trains nation wide stopped.  An intolerable situation; government invariably ordered the workers back to work with compulsory arbitration to follow, after only one week. This particular contract, workers were particularly militant.

The strike headquarters was set up in Montreal. The hundreds of union locals across Canada had only the telephone numbers of their union’s strike headquarters, but not each other’s numbers. This was to prevent confusing short-circuiting of communication. The night the Back-to-Work legislation passed, the strike headquarters was ordered closed and the telephones disconnected. Right away the media, including CBC started reporting most workers were returning to work. Of course we were all angry. We voted to defy the legislation and stay on strike. Our local president started calling Bell Canada information to obtain telephone numbers of other locals to find what they were doing. Of about 24 random union locals across Canada not one was back to work. Now I understand: news is to confuse, disarm and isolate.

From that point on I set myself a goal to analyze the information I was receiving, then to seek out alternate sources of news. That led me to shortwave listening.  I was amazed how the news stories common to Canada / U.S. were spun completely different, coming from an ideologically left perspective. And other big stories and events that went completely unreported in my part of the world.

Now I started to hear details about how people lived in socialist countries, their quality of life. All of those countries claimed dedication to developing the person so that all may have the most dignified, fulfilling life possible. I was impressed but when I mentioned what I had heard on shortwave, friends would say it was all propaganda. The more I listened and analyzed the contradictions - East vs. West - the more I believed the socialist countries were trying to build a better world.

Now I needed a model to look at in person. The most logical one and easiest to visit from Canada was Cuba: In January 1990 I obtained my first passport. Recently single again with the death of my first wife Pearlyne and my children in the care of an aunt I went to Rancho Luna, near Cienfuegos, on the south coast of central Cuba with new friend (later to be my 2nd wife, Anna). It was the strangest experience: With our preconceived ideas of what a “Communist” country is supposed to be and our resultant fears. And the fact everything looked like it could use a coat of paint.

We asked all sorts of questions; took many day trips out from the hotel to schools, hospitals and daycares; rode the local busses, saw a policeman give up his seat to a small child traveling home from school. I could quickly see Cuba was something special.

After 2 more vacation type trips to Cuba I met up with Sarah Shartel of Toronto, head of Worker-to-Worker Canada/Cuba Labour Solidarity. I accompanied Sarah’s group of labour activists on two May Day Tours, organized with the help of the Cuban labour federation, CTC. These were very intensive and very informative. Each day centred around a tour of 1 or more institutions or factories followed by questions and answers sitting around a big conference table, examining workings of the centre in the most minute detail. I never ceased to be amazed at the honesty and candour of the answers.

Friends still thought I was being shown only what the Cuban state wanted me to see and talked only to those they wanted me to talk to. Now the only thing remaining for me to do, to totally convince myself and to be able to field all questions at home, was to come and live in Cuba for 1 year; go where I wanted; talk to those I could understand (I am unilingual English). My motorcycle was to be my transportation and thanks to good language training in Cuba, I found a good number of people who could tell me their thoughts in English.

In August 1997, after retirement, I crated my motorcycle, sent it to Havana by sea then joined a Worker-to-Worker group going to Havana for a conference on Globalization. I was completely ignorant of the work of terrorist Luis Posada Carrilles sending in agents to bomb Cuban tourist facilities just as I was to ask for an extended stay.  Fortunately Manuel Montero, CTC foreign relations director, knew me sufficiently to understand the work I wished to do. The CTC supported my extended stay and helped obtain permission to keep my motorcycle in Cuba for 1 year.

Not satisfied with 1 year (August 1997 to August 1998) I returned in September 2002 to April 2003. The resultant articles you will read in these pages are of my experiences, activities attended and my observations of life in Cuba. They were written to be emailed back to Canada for publication in local newspapers near where I live as well as to circulate among email friends. I will point out; no one asked to see what I was writing or came to look at what I was doing, though my very unusual foreign motorcycle was very obvious wherever I went. A Holguin friend once said to me: “I heard you were in Santiago last week.” “How do you know?” I ask. “My friend from Santiago saw your motorcycle going down the street.” he said.

I owe so much to friends in Cuba for their generosity, hospitality, opening their hearts to me and working so hard to help me with my work. Perhaps I can acknowledge them in the order they came into my life:

Prof. Arnaldo Coro Antich, Radio Havana Cuba journalist: stored my wooden motorcycle crate safely for the return trip; he was invaluable source of technical information as well as world events;

Manuel Montero, and Lionel Gonzalez of the CTC for their trust in me making it all possible;

Alberto Medina Betancourt, his wife Ana, their children Albertico and Anita, all professors of English at the Pedagogical University, Holguin for opening their home and hearts to me. Alberto has used some of my articles in the teaching of English. I remember Ana for her conversations and her delicious but simple “Special Period” cooking

Antonio Azcuy, Prof. Emeritus, Political Economics University of Havana, who with his wife Nery Delgado provided me a home while in Havana and for his patience explaining Marx’s theory of “Surplus Value” to me with his limited English. I have to say this alone has changed the way I view the creation of wealth forever;

Mirella Suarez, professor, union leader, dedicated to-the-end Revolutionary, for inviting me to many activities of her union. She is a model of honesty, hard work and dedication;

Reina Martinez, very religious sole, ex-hotel desk clerk, ex-craft market entrepreneur, ex-church employee, now married to an Italian and living in Italy;

 Miriam Salozen her husband Bernardo and their extended family for allowing me to be part of their very close family while in Santiago. Also Miriam’s daughter Doctora Loli now living in Canada and son Jesus and family, next door.

Rosita Gonzalez, ICAP Canada Specialist, retired, Who while touring Canada for her skill and poise under pressure responding to reactionary anti-Cuba questions from a Welland City Councillor.

ICAP Specialists, Raul Bravo, Javear Domingez, Diamela Prado and Eva (forgot the last name) for their assistance on my 2nd motorcycle visit.

Ruth Wilson Ferrer, Historian specializing in African history, a Revolutionary, living in Santiago de Cuba. If it were not for Ruth this book would have never seen ink. She saw value in my articles and worked tirelessly to bring them to print. Thank you Ruth for your dedication.

And those supporters of my quest in Canada:

My wife, Anna, for her blessing and support for me to realize my dream…twice! Even though she cannot completely understand my “obsession”, as she calls it;

Sarah Shartel, Trade Union Activist, for setting me on my present course with her Worker-to-Worker conferences and Cuba tours;

Lisa Makarchuk, life long Cuba solidarity activist, for her help understanding the Revolution from her experiences in Cuba just after the Bay of Pigs invasion and her translation skills;

Ron Boyer of CCFA Niagara for his help and support crating and delivering my motorcycle to Toronto on a trailer with the lights prone to go out too often;

CCFA Niagara for their support of my Cuba on 2 Wheels Power Point presentations.

There are, of course many, many more both in Cuba and Canada to whom I am indebted for their contribution to my efforts, be it a little story, a memorable experience or their untiring dedication to the cause of Cuba’s fight to survive as an independent, sharing, caring nation.

Dave Thomas