Fact-finding on Cuba - young trade unionists report back

Campaign News | Thursday, 25 July 2013

The Morning Star interviewed delegates on the May Day Young trade unionists brigade to Cuba - by Peter Lazenby

Over the past five years Cuba Solidarity Campaign has sent more than 200 young activists on May Day Brigades.

Alex Halligan, 23, was one of 30 trade unionists who formed the British contingent this year which attended Cuba's massive May Day celebrations.

As with many of the other young activists I interviewed in Havana, it was his first visit to Cuba.

But, he says, the visit was about more than the May Day celebrations - it was a learning experience.

Halligan explains that he learned about the effects of the illegal United States blockade on the Cuban people.

"The blockade is the embodiment of US imperialism," he says.

"It's the pinnacle of what they do. Cuba has not been given a chance to prosper the way it could have done.

"When you see the amazing achievements in the context of the blockade, you think about what they could have achieved if it hadn't been there, stunting the economy and multiple facets of Cuban life. If it could be removed the potential would be massive."

Halligan comes from a working-class background, and he currently works at the Salford TUC Unemployed Workers Centre in Manchester.

"My granddad and my great-granddad were dockers," he says.

"My dad was a shop steward, Unison, working at the Environment Agency. I come from a docking family.

"I started work and joined Unite - it was the TGWU then. First I worked in construction."

Anna Lavery, 27, is also a member of Unite and works as an adviser with RSA Insurance.

"I'm trying to build up the Unite youth network," she explains.

"We're involved in a project for the Miami Five," she says, referring to Cubans unjustly imprisoned in the US for exposing terrorist activities by right-wing Cuban exiles in Miami.

"The visit was inspiring. I've learned a lot about the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, the healthcare system. I want to learn more. I want to come back."

Anthony Curley, 25, was another of the young activists on the trip.

"I became politically active after university," he explains.

Curley is a former Unison member and now a member of Unite, working for Lloyds Banking Group.

"Once I got into a unionised workforce I became a shop steward and it went from there," he says.

"I've always been interested in Cuba. I read up on it a couple of years ago. There was an opportunity to come and I got it. It's my first visit.

"The achievements Cuba has in terms of health and education and participation of trade unions in this country is not common knowledge. I think what they have achieved is outstanding. I will come back."

Speaking of the US blockade, Curley says: "It is just inhuman."

His intention on returning to Britain is to work to persuade union branches to affiliate to the Cuba Solidarity Campaign.

"We need to raise awareness, to eradicate the misconceptions people have got, to understand what the Cuban people have achieved."

Asked about the misconceptions, he says: "There is a lot of fear, especially in our country. My mum was apprehensive about me coming here. It's what's represented in the media. It's presented as authoritarian - that people are not allowed free speech or opposition. But this is all untrue.

"When we went to a Committee for the Defence of the Revolution it was purely democratic, with representatives from a single street going on to the region representing the concerns of people on that street."

Curley adds: "In terms of the Miami Five we need to raise the awareness of the injustice that has taken place, and campaign for their release.

"Also the make-up of the trades union movement in Cuba puts us to shame. It is 98 per cent unionised - far greater than we have in our country and the trades unions in Cuba play a key role in influencing policy."

There were also two young delegates from Scotland.

Suki Sanga, 26, works at Move On, a charity working with young people.

"I was in Stop the War and you begin to link up struggles," she says.

"You see what the United States has done in so many countries abroad. But you learn a lot about how working people can organise.

"It's impressive what has been done in Cuba in terms of education. If you look at what is happening to education in Britain - Cuba has shown what can be done in education. At the same time socialism cannot exist in isolation.

"There are a lot of myths out there about Cuba. It is about taking back what we have learned. We can take back information about free education, the health service. We can take that back and try to get more support from the branches."

Sarah Collins, 25, is a trainee solicitor with East Ayrshire Council and a member of Unison. She became involved in student politics at university.

"To be honest, I didn't know much about Cuba," she says.

"I found out more through the trade unions. I came to Cuba to get a different perspective. I think the far left in Britain dismisses Cuba and the revolution as irrelevant.

"My perspective is far more positive. It is relevant. We can learn from the way that they have organised."

All the young delegates were determined to spread what they had learned to other young trade unionists.

Collins says: "I will be giving talks to Unison about affiliating different branches."

"A lot of us are working through our youth forums," Lavery adds.

"People have not been aware of the issues. That is going to be one of the things we are going to be doing when we get back."

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Halligan says: "Unite has 120,000 youth members. If you trawl roughly their views I think you would find the vast majority are very much in line with the politics of the media and the establishment.

"I think it is important that all of us who have been and experienced it should take it back and educate, and dispel the myths.

"It is important Unite pushes our fellow unions in the US, the Teamsters and others, to campaign for the Miami Five, and the campaign to get other unions to take a stance against the blockade."

The group said they wanted a bigger delegation to next year's May Day Youth Brigade, and that they wanted their unions to fund visits by young Cuba trade unionists to Britain.

The experience left them determined to develop links between young trade unionists in Britain and Cuba - organising exchange visits, recruiting individuals and union branches to affiliate to Cuba Solidarity Campaign and, in Halligan's words, "to counter the myths about Cuba."

Alex Halligan is chairman of Unite's national young members forum, Anna Lavery is chairwoman of East Yorkshire and Humberside Unite young members forum, Anthony Curley is chairman of Unite's North-West youth committee, Suki Sanga is a member of Unite Scottish youth committee and Scottish TUC young members committee and Sarah Collins is a member of Unison Scottish youth committee and Scottish TUC youth committee.

For details on next year's May Day delegation email campaigns@cuba-solidarity.org.uk or call 020 8800 0155.

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