Tuesday, October 21, 2008

It's a Long Way to Las Tunas (February 2004)

Tue, 17 Feb 2004
N. Donnell Beaton
[Pictured at right are Tracy Austin, Front Sales with Harding  Medical Supplies, and NSCUBA member Donnell Beaton]
It was in October, 2003, when I received my first e-mail from Cuba telling me that a 72 year old man in Las Tunas was in dire need of a specialized wheelchair. By coincidence, during that same week I went to the Baddeck dumpsite where I noticed six old wheelchairs resting on the pile of scrap metal.
With the aid of two of the attendants there and with their permission I took the six chairs and put them in my van, subsequently storing them in my shed in Baddeck with the intention of having them checked out by someone and eventually sending them to Cuba.
The tone and content of this e-mail from Cuba instilled in me a sense of urgency. Here was a 72 year old father of five children, a chronic diabetic, depressed... a man who for 60 years had worked the sugar cane fields, was extremely active as a revolutionary in Castro's fight against the dictator Batista and now he was reduced to a mere torso.
For many years I had been working with MediCuba, sourcing and procuring medicines for the Cuban people and I have been an active volunteer with NSCUBA (Nova Scotia Cuba Association).
On a trip to Bedford, I took two of the best wheelchairs with me, and approached Harding Medical Supplies Ltd. in Halifax to advise me as to their usefulness.
I was told by the Harding people that one of the chairs was usable, and the other chair was not salvageable. They told me that they would upgrade the better chair and that they would donate a specialized chair for this man if I was to get his specifications. A week later, I picked up our newly reconditioned wheelchair, and a brand new donated wheelchair for this 72 year old Cuban.
[As a special note of thanks, Mr. Harding, of harding Medical Supplies Ltd. of Halifax and his team of workers must be considered one of the most humanitarian companies I have ever had the privilege of dealing with.] 

Now came the challenge: how to get this specialized chair to Cuba. Cuba has a policy that whatever donations that are brought into the country dealing with medical matters, the decision as to who gets what is made by the Cuban medical authorities. For example, maybe a child, or someone more needy should have this chair, in their estimation. However, this chair was made to the specifications of a particular person and I was determined to get the chair to him.
At the José Martí International airport I was met by no less than three customs agents and a sniffer dog, all of whom were interested in taking the wheelchair from me just as a course of their duties. None of the four were interested in my stilted Spanish explaination, and my protesting, but with the help of some letters given to me by NSCUBA and my pleading expression they finally relented and let me go... with the wheelchair!
The trip to Las Tunas has not been uneventful, add to the mix of bad roads (the type of road where you drive into one side of a pot-hole and out the other side), bicycles, oxen, assorted other animals, hitch hikers, bad tires, and other critters... one can have a hazardous adventure.
One of the first things I learned was to pick up a Cuban hitch hiker who looked like a worker (if one can reasonably make that assumption) the reasoning for this was that just about every Cuban man knows how to repair, take apart, and assemble every known car in Cuba, indicative of the 1950's-era cars still operating in the country. I felt that I had insurance against any car problems because the distance was great, and there are no lights at night.
Day 2 finds me in Las Tunas Plaza listening to beautiful band music. These bands, of which there are hundreds in Cuba, come and go during any time of the day when and where they are able to jam, meet old friends, and entertain the people.
Life seems to be s little better for Many Cubans, tourism is good, the sugar cane harvest is better and optimism is always present, ie., things were bad last year, but will be better this year. (Attitude is Everything)
I look for a Casa Particular, similar to our B&B where the owners are especiallyÊvery gracious of any Canadian willing to talk whith them, and to spend a few days. One immediately becomes a member of the family (my house is your house) and within minutes there are four people interested in who I am.
I explain my presence in LasTunas and immediately a process is put into place with all of them talking at once. The strategy is set up where one person will contact the father's daughter, Maritza, and one person will come with me to the house, in order to deliver the wheelchair. So we proceed with the plan. After many attempts to telephone Maritza, finally we were able to get through. Maritza is one of the daughters, and through her local government connection she had access to a computer which has e-mail and it was in this way that I was initially contacted.
My "new family" offer to come to Maritza's office, from which we proceed to Maritza's father's home, which is some distance from the center of LasTunas. Again, I discover rough dirt roads, chickens, pigs, dogs and people walking.
We arrive at Maritza's father's house which appears to be one of the most neglected areas of Las Tunas. I find the father sitting in a large chair at the open doorway looking out toward to road. He begins to cry from happiness along with several family members, including Maritza, including myself, at the happiness of this man, as I carry the wheelchair toward the house.
His sons lifted Papa into the new wheelchair. He raised his hands in a sign of victory, then grasped both my hands and thanked me profusely in Spanish, not a word of which I could understand.
It was late in the day, but I had to promise to come back the next day for a visit.
On my arrival the next day, after traumatizing more chickens, pigs and dogs I was greeted not only by the whole family, but half the neighbourhood, all of whom who wanted to drink a toast to my health and to my little adventure. Of course they were all talking at once and but you could certainly tell from their expressions that they appreciated someone helping Papa.
Pictures of the family were taken, with Papa in the new wheelchair, and they wished me well on my return trip to Canada.
NSCUBA additional note:
We commend Don Beaton for his humanitarianism and selfless act of support for Maritza and her father. He is a true friend of the Cuban people and a steadfast activist for stronger ties of friendship and cooperation between Canada and Cuba.
It is very rare that we are in a position to provide this sort of assistance to an individual family in Cuba. The logistics of shipping, importing, customs and in-country transport are challenging. For this reason, NSCUBA typically operates with a Cuban institutional partner, which coordinates the distribution of material to where it is most needed. (As of 2005, we are no longer shipping material goods to Cuba)
This story would not exist also were it not for the reality of contemporary Cuba, in which a nation which once was able to provide sufficiently for all members of society is now forced to distribute meagre resources among many who are in need. The U.S. economic embargo of Cuba has these very real effects upon the people of Cuba. The additional money spent by the Cuban government to import goods from those countries who are willing to trade, despite the threat of reprisals from the U.S., is considerable. Shipping costs alone - with material coming from China, Vietnam and the Mid-East - add millions to the cost of providing for Cuba's citizens.
Medical donations and humanitarian support do help to alleviate some of the difficulties faced by Cubans every day. But more importantly, the struggle must continue against the U.S. foreign policy which negatively affects Cuba's ability to participate fairly on the world markets. Your support of NSCUBA's activities - locally, nationally and internationally - can help to address this situation.

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