At Cuba’s Heart Is The Joy Of Living Solidarity

Morning Star | Tuesday, 24 May 2016 | Click here for original article

GMB North West & Ireland Region Delegate Ross Holden and RMT Delegate George Waterhouse

GMB North West & Ireland Region Delegate Ross Holden and RMT Delegate George Waterhouse

We climb up onto the old soviet-looking truck heading out of camp. Packed together are bodies tired from lack of sleep, the open air washes away the effects of last night’s rum.

A cold trickle of rain scatters away resting lizards and frogs, washes away the night sweat of humid dormitories. The morning sun gently heats as the merciful rushing wind cools.

We drive past farmers waving with one hand as the other controls their horse and carts, old people playing cubilete in shaded porches and smiling waving children running alongside.

A comrade’s hat is blown off and the truck stops and reverses to retrieve it. Solidarity — that basic human instinct — features heavily in life here. It is drilled into the work we do.

Large spiders and small scorpions flee the curving sweeps of our machetes as we clear the banana groves of weeds.

Twenty-eight young trade unionists took part in this year’s May 1 solidarity brigade from Unite, Unison, GMB, RMT, CWU and Usdaw, organised by Cuba Solidarity Campaign. We were international guests at the May Day rally in Havana and the International Solidarity with Cuba conference the following day.

We stayed at the Julio Antonio Mella camp in Caimito, 25 miles south-west of Havana, the largest contingent among 240 delegates from 34 countries, including Canada, South Africa, Palestine, Chile, Ukraine, Korea and Japan.

We slept in bunk beds in dormitories without air-conditioning. Showers and toilets were basic with limited privacy and the water supply regularly failed.

The food on the camp was always rice with either beans or plantain and meat — generally chicken or beef. There was salad and fruit available although it took some time for delegates to get used to waving away flies.

The morning alarm consisted of a cockerel crowing, followed by a Cuban folk song and ending with a clip of a speech by Fidel Castro. By the time Fidel had finished his speech you were expected to be ready.

Brigadistas undertook a programme of early morning agricultural and manual work, meetings, visits and cultural events.

As part of its latest programme of reforms the Cuban government is promoting co-operative farms, with land being given to co-ops. We visited several to learn about how they function.

On one we saw how the co-operative had developed a production line of brick manufacture, on another was a rabbit-breeding programme and a building full of tobacco drying.

Co-operatives are run democratically, after a new applicant has served a probationary period the rest of the co-op votes on whether or not to accept them.

A memorable experience on one farm was when the co-operative vice president described how discipline is enforced. In his office were three large pictures of Fidel Castro, Raul Castro and Hugo Chavez. He said he sits down workers and tells them that these three socialist heroes are watching them!

May Day was exhilarating, almost overwhelming. We were woken up in the middle of the night in order to be in Havana for 5am.

We queued up to enter the section for international guests in the dark with the faces of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos lit up across the Plaza de la Revolucion. As the sun came up, schoolchildren performed a display with handkerchiefs as a sea of people assembled behind a banner that proclaimed: “The people of Cuba are united behind the construction of socialism.”

On a podium behind us stood President Raul Castro and CTC trade union federation general secretary Ulises Guilarte, who delivered speeches.

May Day is a massive event in Cuba. As we drove around the country every little village and town featured homemade banners proclaiming “Viva el Mayo” and “defendiendo el socialismo.”

More than a million people appeared to be dancing and singing along the route, which is even more impressive given that similar marches take place in every regional city. Socialist slogans were chanted and pictures of Fidel and Raul were held up.

Some were dressed in military uniform and others in carnival-style outfits. The banners represented union branches and people held up giant cardboard pencils to represent education workers, diggers for construction workers and even a large cardboard ambulance was held up by health workers.

It is an inspiring sight that I will never forget.

Camp cultural night saw each delegation put on a stall and performance celebrating their respective nations. Red bandanas with Korean militant union slogans, Palestinian keffiyehs, plays, poems and food and drink from around the world.

Our performance celebrated the four nations represented and was directed by a delegate from the Rhondda who sang a beautiful version of Calon Lan. Beneath a starry plough flag a Belfast delegate sang Amhran na bhFiann.

We joined together in a circle dance for a spirited rendition of The Bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond and finished with Hey Jude, with football shirts and scarves in the air.

One evening we visited a local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR) in Sancti Spiritus. CDRs function as a community organisation that sorts out problems in the neighbourhood, from stopping anti-social behaviour to organising activities for the local children.

The Cubans were horrified when one of our delegates told them she didn’t even know her neighbours on her street.

They put on a street party for us outside. Young children and old people danced with us beneath a CDR banner proclaiming victory for the revolution.

The May Day brigade was a once in a lifetime experience standing with Cubans as they marched through Havana, worked in the fields or sat with a glass of rum in their houses. I’ve been to Cuba many times on holiday but have never encountered such real experiences of Cuban society.

The Cuban people struggle with pride and dignity as the revolution overcomes inevitable contradictions and obstacles placed in its path. Cubans are proud of their revolution and are fighting to continue its successes into the 21st century.

Delegates can take home a sense of inspiration at what can be done and apply it to our workplaces. It was an honour to represent my union on the best delegation I’ve ever had the pleasure to participate in.

George Waterhouse was a delegate on the 2016 Young Trade Unionist May Day Brigade, organised by the Cuba Solidarity Campaign.

Read the report from the 2016 brigade here

If you are interested in the 2017 brigade, please contact Ollie Hopkins, CSC Campaigns Officer

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