Confessions of an “independent” trade unionist
Steve Ludlam interviews a Cuban double agent who infiltrated one of the US financed fake trade unions in Cuba
The arrest of 75 Cuban ‘dissidents’ in 2003 was the subject of an extraordinary propaganda exercise orchestrated by the US State Department, provoking a crisis in EU-Cuba relations.
The fact that some of the 75 were described as “independent trade union leaders” has been used a stick with which to beat trade union activists campaigning against the US blockade of Cuba.
An example can be found in the 2005 edition of the standard reference book Trade Unions of the World (p84): “In April 2003 Cuba’s compliance, or lack of, with international labour standards was brought sharply into focus when a major government crackdown on dissidents led to the arrest and sentencing to lengthy prison terms of seventy-six people, among whom were six labour activists.”
What has rarely been reported is Cuba’s insistence that these were not ordinary dissidents, but paid agents of the US. In 1996 the ‘Helms-Burton’ legislation obliged US presidents, uniquely in international relations, to overthrow the government of an independent state - Cuba. ‘Helms-Burton’ funding was allocated annually to paying agents in Cuba.
In 1999 Cuba passed a law making the receipt of such money an offence. The 75 were charged under this law. Other dissidents, who were not in the pay of the US Interests Section (de facto embassy), and thus not regarded as mercenaries, were not arrested.
The evidence against the 75 was collected by loyal Cubans who had been recruited by the US-funded groups, but who were also, or became, agents of the Cuban authorities. Their extraordinary stories have now been published in English in The Dissidents (available from www.cubaconnect.co.uk). One of them, 43-year old Pedro Serrano Urra, was himself, for four years, a so-called “independent” trade union leader.
Now a lawyer working for the CTC, the Cuban TUC, Pedro Serrano Urra and I first met by chance in Pinar del Rio with a group of US labour lawyers. In July 2005 the CTC arranged for me to meet him in their Pinar del Rio office. I recorded the interview with no constraints on questions, or on use of the material. No-one monitored the interview.
His interview in The Dissidents says relatively little about his independent union leadership role, and I wanted to find out more about this. British trade union delegations to Cuba in the past have dismissed the independent unions as insignificant. Were they? What did they actually do? The Pinar del Rio group that Pedro was recruited into in 1999 told the US Interests Section it had hundreds of members, but he found only a tiny group with rather less than heroic objectives.
“They were not workers, they were not employed anywhere. They were small groups of 3, 4, 5 people who claim backing, but they were small groups of mercenaries with very well-defined interests: either to emigrate to the United States by getting visas as political refugees; or to obtain income from external counter-revolutionaries, in order to have an easy life, without contributing anything to society. So I was quickly able to climb the ladder of the rank and file of these groups, and I had the advantage that I am a lawyer, and was also a lecturer in the School of Law in the University of Pinar del Rio. So from the outset of my entry into these groups, they adopted me as their legal representative.”
Pedro was made Director of the Centre for Trade Union Studies. He had been a local union representative in his workplace, a lawyers’ practice, but otherwise had no expertise. He hadn’t worked for a union or the CTC. He says this fitted with the model of civil society front organisations the US Interests Section was trying to foster.
“The counter-revolution always tried to create alternative organisations to those of the Revolution. So they started to create independent libraries, independent doctors surgeries, independent pharmacies, independent trade unions, and others using the independent tag including farmers, stock-breeders and foresters. But the human component of these organisations was the same people. There were 4 or 5 people who were the independent doctor, the pharmacist, the union leader. They were not really representative groups. Some of these people belonged to 3 or 4 different organisations, and were on the payroll of every group they belonged to”’
So was Pedro on several?
“Yes. I was on as the United National Council of Cuban Workers, the Independent Libraries, the Independent Committee of Labour Law Advisors, the National Foundation of Independent Co-operative Farmers, and the Centre for Trade Union Studies.”
Had he ever been a farmer, or a librarian?
“!No. No. Well, only on this occasion!”
So did the Centre for Trade Union Studies he directed have any students?
“Well, the Centre for Trade Union Studies, like all the other organisations, was a phantom whose existence we reported just for the purpose of getting more funding. There were 4, 5, 10 people who gathered there, who were interested in learning about what was published in Cuba by counter-revolutionary publications, what Radio Martí [a US anti-Cuba station] broadcast. The least discussed subject was trade union issues! None of them had ever before been a trade union leader.”
So there were no trade union classes, no training, no diplomas, no certificates?
“No. Meetings were held and other activities that only served the purpose of justifying the funding. It was not geared towards training trade union leaders, rather it was geared to training so-called ‘civil society’ for the ‘Transition Period’ for a ‘Free and Independent’ Cuba. It was only urging these groups towards subversion, including by violence. To destroy the system, that was the bottom line.”
Had he actually witnessed plans for violence?
“Yes, of course, attempts to bring in weapons and explosives.”
Did they ever plan industrial actions?
“No, under no circumstances. Strikes were not called for economic demands. They called strikes on a political basis. The only response to their calls came from members of these groups. You could never actually witness strikes or mass mobilisations, because they have no mobilising capacity.”
What about other trade union activity - did they ever target particular workplaces with leaflets about specific trade union issues, say health and safety issues, to give specific advice to workers, for example?
“No, under no circumstances. Because they know that they would not get any kind of support in any workplace for their positions, because they have no strong political identity or platform. They used to call to other [dissident] groups to join in, but there was no unity of interest so they did not succeed. The only thing they managed to do was give out handouts, print leaflets, and distribute books given to them by the US Interests Section. They are afraid of the people, not brave enough to go on the streets with placards with political demands. They know the people would reject them, because people are not willing to go back to the past.”
So did Pedro ever see any serious attempt to build alternative trade unions?
“No, no, never. They have never had a serious or defined purpose with any strong objectives of creating unions to represent interests in our society. It is not necessary because the workers are organised in unions already and they are not yellow unions. The unions are recognised in the Constitution. In line with the UN Declaration of Human Rights, our workers can organise themselves in unions. Our unions really represent the interests of our workers as a class.”
Did they ever seek to register themselves as a trade union?
“Well, I was their lawyer and they never made a request, or even expressed a desire, to be legally recognised under the current legislation. They don’t have any mobilising capacity, They don’t have organisational capacity, nor meaningful membership, any social leadership role, nor independent political objectives.”
So what did their trade unionism add up to?
“The only thing they did was to rely on counter-revolutionary organisations based overseas, some of them labelled as trade union organisations. But these organisations, in Spain, or the United States or any other country, were not even sending logistical support. The important thing was money. They spent the money as they wished. They had a source of income. For example one individual received money and bought faxes, set up a fax system, bought computers plus all the peripherals, tape recorders, cameras, video, electric fans, he bought a set of everything. And he resold them to make more money. There were some Texan radios given to him by the US Interests Section, and he sold them on the street. The leaders of the United National Council of Cuban Workers got sent a lot of material, and sold it on the black market. When they were taken to court, many of these items were used as evidence against them.”
So, the next time you encounter reports about so-called “independent” trade unions in Cuba, bear in mind the experience of Pedro Serrano Urru.