The first brigade
Mike Faulkner reflects on his participation in the first solidarity work brigade to Cuba in 1960
In June 1960 I had just turned 23 years old. Like other young people on the left, I had been inspired by the Cuban Revolution. We knew little about the country but were intrigued by the dramatic events that were unfolding. The threat from the United States, still under the Republican Eisenhower administration, was growing by the day as the Revolution became ever more radical. Of the revolutionary leaders, we were familiar with only one name – Fidel Castro. I was overjoyed that summer to be offered the opportunity to go to Cuba with a small British contingent of an international work brigade organised under the auspices of the World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY).
The $600 round trip was paid for by WFDY. The composition of the British contingent was unknown to me when I received a telegram on 26 July informing me that the flight to Havana would leave from Madridon the 31st. I had four days to hitch-hike from Switzerland (where I had backpacked to see a friend) to Spain, which at the time was still under Franco’s dictatorship. I arrived in Madrid late the night before the flight, not meeting members of the British contingent and others from Western Europe until the following morning at the Cubana airline office. The flight left at 2pm – I had made it by the skin of my teeth.
I spent the month of August and most of September in Cuba. While there I kept a diary in which I recorded my thoughts about some of the seemingly endless flow of stupendous events into which we had been thrust. When recalling that experience, nothing more aptly expresses my response than Wordsworth’s much-quoted lines greeting the French Revolution:
“Bliss it was that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”
No account of those early years can easily convey the atmosphere in Cuba. We travelled all over the island and it was evident that the great majority of the population supported the Revolution with an enthusiasm that was contagious. We spent the first two weeks in Havana where we met members of other national groups that were to make up the 200-strong International Work Brigade. We were all to be dispatched in due course to El Caney, in the Sierra Maestra where the revolutionary guerrilla war had begun, to assist in the newly started construction of the School City of Camilo Cienfuegos (named to commemorate one of the Revolution’s leaders who had died in a plane crash the year before). The School City was planned to accommodate 100,000 pupils from the remote areas of the province who had never had any schools before.
In August 1960, Havana was a city in arms. We travelled on buses packed with young armed militia men and women. I felt completely safe amongst them. I wrote in my diary that this is how Petrograd must have been in November 1917.
A Latin American youth congress was taking place at the Hilton Hotel, which had been renamed the Havana Libre, and members of the brigade attended meetings and rallies addressed by Fidel and Raul Castro – and Che Guevara, who was almost completely unknown outside Cuba.
The accessibility of these revolutionary leaders was astounding. I remember some of us attending a film premiere of the first year’s production of Cuba’s National Film Institute and finding ourselves sitting immediately behind Raul Castro who at the end of the show was prevailed upon by the audience to make a speech.
The sense of being in a world turned upside-down, amid throngs of people nonchalantly appropriating the spaces, such as the Hilton and Nacional hotels that had until recently been the exclusive preserves of rich Americans and Mafiosi, was exciting and unforgettable. Our delegation and others from the USA, Western Europe and elsewhere spent two weeks based at the Hotel Nacional which until 1959 had been frequented by Hollywood movie stars and other millionaires. A carnival atmosphere pervaded every daily event. Che Guevara’s remark to a bemused visiting Soviet minister, Anastas Mikoyan, that the Cuban Revolution was a revolution “with pachanga” was singularly apposite.
This was a time of mounting tension between Cuba and the United States. The Cubans expected a US invasion at any time. The land reform, which was the most thorough and popular ever undertaken in Latin America, was denounced as “communist.” In the spring of 1960, Cuba purchased cheap Soviet crude oil in the teeth of hostility from the Western oil companies. When the Western-owned refineries refused to refine the Soviet oil, the government, with mass popular support, took over the refineries. This was the decisive action which put Cuba on a collision course with the United States. The US responded by cancelling the sugar quota, which meant that 70 per cent of Cuba’s sugar was left without a market. The intention was to cripple Cuba economically and bring down the revolutionary government. We were in Cuba shortly after this. The tension was palpable. Soviet premier Khrushchev agreed to buy the sugar. The USSR became very popular in Cuba overnight. An expression of popular sentiment in Cuba was “Sin Cuota; sin Amo” (without quota, without bosses).
My most vivid memory from that time is attending a mass rally on 6th August in the Havana stadium. I think all 200 brigade members were there. Fidel addressed a crowd of about 70,000, composed of workers’, peasants’ and students’ militias, both men and women – many of them armed. This historic rally marked a further decisive stage in the radicalisation of the Revolution. It was the occasion on which he announced the expropriation of all US companies and assets in Cuba. The huge crowd went wild with excitement. The next day – or later the same day as the rally didn’t end until 5am – the streets of Havana thronged with thousands of people celebrating their freedom from “Yankee imperialism.” Buildings, many guarded by young armed militia women, were festooned with banners proclaiming “this company is the property of the people of Cuba.”
Members of the International Work Brigade representing Europe, the USA, North Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, China and the USSR were fitted out with boots and transported by train to Oriente province in the east of the island. We worked for six or seven weeks, somewhat sporadically due to the intense heat and humidity. The work at times was quite demanding as there were occasions when some of us were called upon to use shovels and wheelbarrows to transfer earth back into trenches that had been dug to lay pipes and cables to the first completed units of the school buildings. This is what I was doing when a photographer from Prensa Latina took the picture opposite of me. I knew nothing about it until I learned later that it had appeared on hoardings in Cuba in 1961 to promote the National Bank’s campaign to support the construction of homes.
Our work was frequently interrupted to take us on visits to attend meetings on various aspects of the revolutionary process. The most memorable of these meetings was the one we had on the school site with Che Guevara, who had just been appointed Minister for the Economy. He spoke to the brigade and answered our questions. The meeting lasted for about two hours. Photos of this meeting were taken on colour film by our comrade Nicola Seyd, who sadly died several years ago.
In late August the US government pressurised its satellite subordinate “allies” in Latin America in a campaign to drive Cuba out of the Organization of American States (OAS). The US secretary of state, Herter, fed them blatant lies about the International Work Brigade, claiming that the Cuban government had imported 200 expertly trained East European communist guerrilla fighters to bolster the supposedly “demoralised Castro Militia.” We read this in a copy of the New York Herald Tribune sent to a US brigade member by his parents while we were working with shovels and wheelbarrows. On 2 September Fidel Castro addressed a million-strong meeting in what was then the Plaza Cívica (now Revolution Square) in Havana, denouncing the US attacks on the island. From that historic meeting came the first ‘Declaration of Havana’ (see article on page 29). In this fashion Cuba’s foreign policy alignment changed literally overnight. I remember listening to that address, relayed live from Havana, in a Cuban Rebel Army barracks near the top of the highest mountain in the Sierra Maestra. The proceedings went on until the early hours of the morning.
For those of us who had the good fortune to have been part of the first international work brigade in Cuba in 1960, it is an experience that we have never forgotten and will never forget as long as we live. Cuba was a beacon of hope for humanity then, and in spite of all adversity, remains so today.
Forty years later in 2001, Mike’s daughter Lara went on a CSC brigade to Cuba and they both wrote an artice comparing their experiences in the Autumn 2001 issue of CubaSí. You can download a copy of this article here.