Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Solidarity from Thunder Bay to Santa Clara


Until recently I was the Cuba Solidarity Campaign contact for Lincolnshire. In September 2012 I moved to Canada to take up a job opportunity in Thunder Bay, Ontario, on the north western shore of Lake Superior. I quickly discovered that Thunder Bay also has another name - Cuba Town - because of its long time support for the Cuban people.Thunder Bay has a proud progressive history. 

The labour movement has always been strong here within the forestry and industrial sectors. This militancy was compounded by a large influx of Finnish workers in the early 20th century. Their influence can still be seen today in the Finnish Labour Temple - above the world famous Hoito workers restaurant - and a number of co-operative ventures.

Cuban art and culture are also visible here. The Habana Gallery is on Cumberland Street, a short walk from where I live. This vibrant gallery displays Cuban paintings, local and international arts and crafts, hand-made picture frames and canvas stretching and holds workshops for adults and children.

We also have Rollie's Cuban Cigar store on Memorial Avenue, which sells a wide range of hand-made Cuban cigars, including Cohibas. We do not need to accept second rate imitations produced by the US company General Cigar Co. which stole the Cohiba trade mark with the support of a federal commission. We have the real deal right here in Thunder Bay.

Many of our bars and restaurants also serve Havana Club, the authentic Cuban rum. This means that we do not have to drink Bacardi, who have not operated in Cuba since 1959, but who continue to sell rum with the Havana Club label, which is another trademark violation.

The connection with Cuba is maintained via three direct flights a week from Thunder Bay to Havana which have enabled a number of local solidarity projects to develop.

Dresses for Success

When the Cuban economy began to open up, Erika Maki, a Thunder Bay businesswoman, started to think of ways to support budding entrepreneurs in Cuba. She began by asking anyone who was going to Cuba for vacation to leave some room for a clothing package in their luggage. This is part of the Soroptomist International initiative, Business in a Bag, to help women earn more income.

The dresses are needed to help women start their own rental and bridal shops. Maki supplies the dresses and the tourists drop them off at a pre-arranged location, such as a hotel. This helps cut costs as many of the Cuban women cannot afford long taxi rides to airports.
The packages contain everything a woman needs to start a rental business. Formal gowns are in big demand for weddings and quinceanera, a girl's 15th birthday, which is considered the turning point from childhood to adulthood in Spanish influenced cultures.

There are no problems with customs in Cuba where it is perfectly legal to bring used clothes into the country. The Business in a Bag project is not limited to dresses. Maki is looking into other business start up ideas from photography equipment to electronics and household appliances.

Travellers Can Save Lives

Stan and Janet Roy are not your average tourists. 'If you're going on vacation, why not help someone else if you can?' says Janet Roy. On their last two trips to Cuba they have done just that. They have taken various medical items for MEMO Cuba.

'It's very easy to do,' says Stan Roy, Janet's husband. 'Especially if you are travelling to a Varadero beach resort.' You can hop on a bus, for the whole day, that takes you right up Calle 34, the street where you'll find the Varadero Presbyterian church. Here you can drop off the MEMO supplies.’

There is no problem taking these small items into Cuba. It is very easy to do. MEMO Cuba, created and based here in Thunder Bay, provides you with a small package that weighs less than five kilograms. MEMO was founded by Jerome Harvey, MD:
‘Have you ever wondered what happens to all that redundant hospital equipment that gets replaced every 10 years by state-of-the-art stuff? That thought went through my mind as I stood looking out my kitchen window at the old 250-bed Port Arthur General Hospital in Thunder Bay. It was soon to be closed and, along with the 350-bed Mckellar Hospital on the other side of town, to be replaced with a 375-bed state-of-art super-duper new hospital.

‘My inquiries led me to discover that, because of Thunder Bay’s isolation (500 kilometers to the next nearest large population centre) the cost of removal and shipping made the contents of the old hospitals valueless. Reluctantly, the hospital administration admitted that most of the equipment would be sold to a scrap dealer for $50 a ton. This included 12 x-ray machines, ranging from seven to twenty years of age, all to be replaced with digital machines.’

Because two complete hospitals were being replaced with a single one, the equivalent of eight operating suites, complete with all the surgical instruments and scopes were available. The list of what had been declared redundant went on and on, with replacement value of approximately $20 million.

It was through this that Medical Equipment Modernization Opportunity (MEMO) was born. Jerome approached the Thunder Bay Regional Hospital Administration and discovered that they were open to the idea of the hospital equipment being used in a third world country rather being turned into scrap or landfill. In Havana  Jerome met with  Cuban Ministry of Health officials, facilitated by  a young Cuban physician, Dr. Aurora Riera from Placetas (near Santa Clara in central Cuba ). The Cuban government agreed to help in any way they could. They also agreed the donation could go to the remote and needy area of Santa Clara.

For two weeks more than 100 volunteers from across Western Canada removed, created and shipped 11 ocean containers to Cuba. This included 110 modern hospital beds.  A great mountain of hospital equipment and furnishings were bubble wrapped, shrink wrapped and protected in 270 palletized crates. All the equipment arrived undamaged and usable. Cuban biomedical engineers immediately set to work to install X-ray machines, lab equipment and operating room suites.

One orthopaedic surgeon, as he opened boxes of surgical instruments with tear in his eyes, cried, “I have only seen instruments like these in textbooks!”

One very important aspect of MEMO was sustainability. MEMO committed itself to providing orientation to this new modern equipment as well as providing repair parts and consumables for the next five years.

You are probably wondering who paid for all of this. The cost of acquiring, removing, packing, shipping and reinstalling this $20 million of equipment was $346,314. This was raised entirely from individual Canadians by word of mouth promotion. When MEMO was facing the dilemma of having to let life-saving hospital equipment sit in a warehouse for lack of funds for shipping, an elderly couple came forward with a loan of $70,000 from their retirement savings to allow the equipment to be shipped.

An e-mail, from Dr. Riera in Cuba says it all: ‘I will send you a picture of the department of X-ray in Placetas, all is very beautiful. Everybody is very happy. It is amazing!’

MEMO has shipped 41 ocean containers with contents valued at $24 million dollars. It has facilitated 19 medical/surgical/technical teams to Cuba. Team members pay all their own expenses.

MEMO is currently working in seven hospitals, two clinics, seven homes for the aged and the regional cancer centre. It has instituted laproscopic cholecystectomies and arthroscopic surgery in Placetas hospital. It has shipped over 600 computers and collaborated in setting up computer systems in hospitals. MEMO has sent over eight tons of bed linens for use in health care institutions.

It has instituted the only functioning breast screening program in Cuba. It has provided a computerized clinical laboratory in Placetas hospital. It has furnished ICU equipment to five of the hospitals it works in. MEMO has equipped a children’s clinic for neurologically compromised children in the capital city of Villa Clara. It is furnishing an 80 bed hospital for severely physically and mentally incapacitated children in Villa Clara.

MEMO has also collaborated with the provincial cancer centre and palliative care ward at the Celestino Hospital in Santa Clara. It has already provided endoscopes for cancer diagnosis in three hospitals. It has renewed the laundry facilities of three hospitals. It provides audio equipment for hearing impaired children. It has carried over $200,000 of pharmaceutics to Cuba in team member’s luggage.

From big projects to small practical acts of solidarity, Thunder Bay is playing its part in the worldwide movement to support Cuba and its people.

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