Trip of a lifetime
Chris Leaman was the joint jefe (leader) of last summer’s CSC work brigade to Cuba.
I hoped that this trip was going to be a ‘trip of a lifetime’. In fact it was actually much more than that and I sincerely hope that it doesn’t turn out to be my one and only trip to Cuba!
To recap, together with my Scottish pal, Bruce, I was a joint ’Jefe’ or chief of the Summer Work Brigade organised by the Cuba Solidarity Camaign.We were made up of four Scots, a New Zealander, an Australian, fourteen English and me - a solitary Welshman. A better, friendlier group of people you couldn’t wish to have with you.
It was such a joy to be able to hand over our educational aid to people in such need. Our main presentation, including a speech from me!, was to a Community Learning Centre for mentally and physically disabled people of all ages. Because of the 44 year illegal and immoral US Economic Blockade against Cuba they are severely short of the most basic educational tools (pens, pencils, rubbers, notebooks, etc) and they were so grateful and appreciative of our donations.
I and my colleagues on the brigade spoke and took part in many interesting afternoon conferences and meetings. These included visits from the General Secretary of the CTC (Cuba’s equivalent of our TUC); the Federation of Cuban Women; the Federation of Cuban War Veterans; local CDRs (Committees for the Defence of the Revolution) - and various community and education organisations.
We attracted a lot of attention during our stay, appearing on national Cuban TV twice and with regular coverage in ’Granma’ - the islands national newspaper and local press.
There were two main highlights of the trip for me. The first of these was a meeting with family members of the Miami 5 (known in Cuba as the ’Five Heroes’).
These are five Cubans unjustly imprisoned and disproportionately severely sentenced for attempting to prevent Miami-based terrorist groups from targeting Cuba. I have been corresponding regularly with these amazing guys for a number of years so it was a very emotional experience to meet their mothers, fathers, daughters and nieces.
I thought that this occasion would be unbeatable but I was wrong. A few days later I was approached by the camp leader and asked to represent the whole European brigade (20 countries, about 400 people) in a memorial ceremony to Jose Marti - Cuba’s no.1 national hero. This was a huge and moving official ceremony complete with fanfare and ceremonial guards. Two of our young European brigadistas laid a wreath at the foot of Marti’s statue in Central Park, Havana. Then I (with my Cuban interpreter Roberto) gave a short speech of friendship, international solidarity and honour of Marti I had prepared, followed by reading out another poem I had written entitled ‘Viva Cuba’.
This was the most exhilarating experience of the trip and of my whole life. Here I was, in the middle of Havana, beneath the statue of Marti, at a ceremony in his honour, and with a sea of people in front of me, joining in with the clenched fist finale to my poem shouting ’Viva Marti! Viva Che! Viva Fidel! Viva Cuba! Words cannot do justice to the feelings of pride and of honour that I felt at that moment. So proud to be there to represent my fellow brigadistas from the UK, the Jose Marti European Brigade and Cuba Solidarity Campaign.
As well as the above activities we were also (willingly!) put to work. At the wonderful hour of 6am we were woken each day by cock crow and inspiring Cuban music. Our brigade was given (along with the Scandinavian groups) the toughest assignment first - weeding the sugar cane fields. It was very hard, very hot, and dirty work. But it was also very enjoyable working alongside Cuban farmers and making a real, practical contribution to Cuban life. I was so proud of how committed and hard-working the UK brigadistas were. Indeed we set a high standard and earned respect from the local Cubanos on each of our three work assignments.
Next up was our turn on a construction site. We helped - again working very hard both guys and girls - on building a clinic that would save the local people from having to trek the 20 odd miles into Havana for treatment in future.
Taking the tougher jobs first meant we finished up with the easier task of pruning and tidying up in the citrus groves. Again the commitment of the UK brigadistas, getting up so early to work so hard sometimes battling illness and regular hangovers!, was inspiring. I cannot praise every single member of our brigade highly enough.
Finally, as a reward for our efforts in field, on building site, and in citrus grove, we were given three days r and r in a hotel in Matanzas. A slightly more comfortable environment than our camp, with our own swimming pool and trips to the glorious beaches of Varadero were a very welcome treat for all our hard work.
Overall then, as you may have gathered, I found it an incredibly exhilarating and rewarding experience. Truly a ’trip of a lifetime’ - though hopefully not my one and only lifetime experience of Cuba. More than anything else I can’t wait to return. What better recommendation for a country or a Solidarity Work Brigade could there be?
VIVA CUBA !