A group of Oxfam executive directors and board chairs recently took to the fields of Cuba, traveling with the Oxfam in Cuba team to Holguin, east of Havana.
The bus never showed up, luggage was left behind and the airport was a mess, but the team eventually boarded a plane for Holguin – about an hour flight east of Havana. Led by Oxfam Country Director Jerome Faure, Oxfam Intermon’s Marta Rodrigues and local Gender Specialist Yohanka Valdes, the group visited cooperatives and met with partners and beneficiaries.
Suburban agriculture and cooperative strengthening
Many cooperatives on the itinerary were part of the “suburban agriculture and cooperative strengthening project”, implemented by Oxfam and its longtime local partner the National Small Farmer’s Association (ANAP). It promotes local food production, consumption and commercialization. It also provides training, support and materials so that women – like Teresa Fuentes whom the group met in Gibara Municipality – become active members of their local cooperatives and empowered members of their communities, increase their income and gain economic independence.
Teresa, who has been selling fruits like papayas, bananas and mangoes for two years, told Oxfam: “On the best days I can sell as much as 300 pesos worth of produce (about 10$ CAD). I get to bring home 10% of that money. That’s good money here in Cuba! I am really appreciative to have this job because I can be more secure and independent.”
An afternoon was also spent in Jesus Menendez, visiting start-up arts and crafts cooperative, a microbiology farm, a organic rice producer and a small-scale food processing plant.
Putting it all together
After two days in the field and a late night return to Havana, participants were joined by Marion Lieser, the Executive Director of Oxfam Germany, for a day of presentations, round tables and discussions.
Robert Fox was able to give a view from the bridge: “We wanted to show how in the distinctive context of contemporary Cuba, Oxfam is seen as a development partner of Cuban civil society. We pilot innovative approaches, document experience and learning, and then actively disseminate to influence policy and practice.”
Although from different parts of the world – Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, Belgium and Canada – all were impressed by the quality, complexity and scale of the program and the way in which it integrates and advances so many dimensions of Oxfam’s work in support of active citizenship, gender justice, sustainable development and economic empowerment.
Learning and adapting to the Cuban context
“What struck me is what we can learn in Cuba, and how we can use this learning to guide our own processes as an organization,” said Guido Van Hecken, Board Chair of Oxfam in Belgium. “I am genuinely impressed by the quality of the team and how we have successfully adapted our program to what Cuba needs, in this moment.”
Yvonne Underhill-Sem, Board Chair of Oxfam New Zealand also reflected on timing and on relationships with partners: “What will most stay with me is the particular moment in which Cuba is in it’s transformation – economic, social and political – and how Oxfam is at the right place and is playing a very vital role. The amazing relationship we have with partners and beneficiaries is a testament to that.”
Local development in the midst of reforms
Margaret Hancock, Board Chair of Oxfam Canada, appreciated the opportunity to see the work with other affiliates and partners. “Gender work is of particular importance to me, and in different ways, it was there in most of what I have seen, in particular the increase of small-scale food processing plants that provide employment to women.”
She was uncertain, however, how small-scale local development would survive social, economic and political reforms in Cuba. Jim Clarken, Executive Director of Oxfam Ireland, shared similar concerns – impressed by the quality of the program but seeing challenges ahead should massive reforms and changes to the Cuban model happen. He was however, excited at the opportunity to apply learning and share his experience with Oxfam Ireland and within the confederation.
Toasting a new office and saying farewell
Closing the conversation for the day, Country Director Jerome Faure said: “Getting to meet, network and learn from colleagues who bring such a wealth and variety of expertise and experience is invaluable. I hope this trip helps us raise awareness within the Confederation of the amazing work that is happening in Cuba – a fascinating country in which our work is constantly evolving, challenging and rewarding.”
To mark the end of the trip and celebrate the grand opening of Oxfam’s new office in Havana, local partners and friends were invited to the office for a toast, after which Oxfam staff made its way to historic Old Havana for dinner and a show at the Buena Vista Social Club – what quickly turned into a celebration of the week’s accomplishments. Most tried the local mojito, many danced to traditional Cuban rhythms, and one Oxfamer even got up to the mic to belt out an old Irish tune!
Melanie Gallant is Oxfam Canada’s Media Relations officer
Oxfam has been working in Cuba since 1993, in partnership with local organizations and in support of equitable and sustainable socio-economic development. Click here for more information on Oxfam Canada’s Cuba program.
To view more photos of the ED and Board Chair visit, which took place in March 2014, check out Oxfam Canada’s photo set