NEU helps break the blockade with thousands of instruments sent to Cuba
Campaign News | Thursday, 18 April 2019
The first ever National Education Union conference took place in Liverpool in April, and delegates particpated in three fantastic actions to show solidarity with the Cuban people against the US blockade.
While the US government was announcing measures to intensify the blockade, the UK's largest teaching union hosted Maida Bisset Despaigne, regional secretary of the Cuban teachers union in Santiago de Cuba, celebrated the sending of thousands of instrumnets to Cuban school children, and raised money for the campaign to end the blockade at a Cuban salsa night.
Play for Cuba appeal send-off
The Play for Cuba appeal, which was launched at the 2018, NEU (NUT Section) Conference in Brighton, has seen a monumental effort led by many NEU and CSC members across the country who have spent the last year collecting new and second hand instruments to send to Cuban schools.
A huge lorry carrying a 40ft shipping container filled to the brim with donated instruments, dressed with a Cuban flag was parked outside Livberpool's ACC conference venue at the close of session on Tuesday 16 April. Delegates danced on the Piazza to live Cuban music from Omar Puente and Raices Cubanas. Students from the Queen Elizabeth School from Kirkby Londsdale, also performed a great salsa set at the event, and there was a wonderfully moving couple of songs where Omar Puente invited the young musicians to play along with the Cuban band during the show.
The send off heard speeches from Her Excellency Teresita Vicente, Cuban Ambassador, Kevin Courtney, Joint NEU General Secretary, Kiri Tunks, Joint NEU President, Gawain Little, Chair of NEU International Committee, Sue Piper, NEU Tameside and Play for Cuba Greater Manchester coordinator, and the event was hosted by Rob Miller, Cuba Solidarity Campaign Director.
The Cuban Ambassador said “Today we are witnessing an inspiring act of solidarity” and spoke of how the donations reflect the British people's support for Cuba's culture, identity, independence and sovereignty.
The Play for Cuba send off “has special significance because it was held at a time when the United States government intensified its unilateral blockade, with the objective of overcoming the Cuban Revolution and breaking the people's determination,” the Ambassador said.
Kevin Courtney said: “Cuba is a poor country, but it has the best education system in Latin America, the best healthcare in Latin America.”
He praised the Play for Cuba appeal and the value which Cuba places on music and the arts, in contrast to the sector here, where music is being eradicated in some schools.
Kiri Tunks spoke of the honour of being involved in the Play for appeal and of sending thousands of instruments to Cuba, where arts and culture are so important. But she also highlighted the absurdity of sending instruments to children in Cuba where they will be used in schools, because the funding to teach music in schools here has been cut so much that they are not being used.
Sue Piper said how she was inspired by the huge levels of support and solidarity that she witnessed as a local coordinator of the appeal, and after visiting schools in Cuba on a previous NUT delegation saw first hand the shortages of music instruments and many essential resources in Cuban schools due to the US blockade.
Gawain Little, Chair of the NEU International Committee said: “We say the Cuban people should be able to determine their own future, free from intervention from the US, or anyone else… We're beating the blockade with this act of solidarity with Cuba, sending over 4,000 instruments.”
Rob Miller thanked the NEU and the hundreds of campaigners and supporters across Britain who had helped make the appeal such a success. He explained that the container shipment included over 3000 pairs of ballet shoes, donated by the Royal Ballet. There was a very valuable baby grand piano destined for one of Cuba’s conservatoires, over 240 guitars, 70 saxophones and trumpets, 7 tubas and even a set of bagpipes. There were around 4000 instruments and musical equipment pieces in total.
Education under blockade fringe meeting
Maida Bisset Despaign, SNTECD Regional Secretary from Santiago de Cuba, was invited by the NEU to attend their conference.
She spoke at a well-attended Cuba Solidarity Campaign fringe meeting and at a Socialist Teachers Association evening rally which featured an all-women line up.
Maida said her visit to the conference “will strengthen us all and will make the bonds of friendship and solidarity between our organisations stronger and stronger. We are overjoyed to have been invited and that you think of Cuba as companions and friends.
“On behalf of our Executive and our more than half a million members, we reinforce Jose Marti's idea that “to read is to know how to walk and to know how to write is to know how to rise"; hence the importance of all of us here. We continue to fight for the sake of making our people more and more educated, because as Marti stated ¨a cultured people will always be strong and free¨.
Later at the STA rally, Maida spoke of the achievements of Cuban women over the last 60 years, and quoted Vilma Espin, the founder of the Federation of Cuban Women. “Women have found freedom in socialism, but freedom does not only mean freedom from oppression, but the freedom to be decision makers."
Speaking at the fringe meeting, NEU Joint General Secretary Kevin Courtney said. “The main axis of our work is to reject the illegal US blockade, to recognise the incredible achievements in health and education despite the blockade and to support the teaching of English to volunteer doctors
“I am a socialist. But you do not have to be a socialist to oppose the blockade of Cuba. You don’t have to be a socialist to recognise that Cuba spends the world’s percentage of GDP on education. The blockade is a fundamental attack on human rights of Cubans. I’m really pleased that the new union has agreed to affiliate to Cuba Solidarity Campaign”
Amanda Martin, Senior Vice President of the NEU chaired the fringe. “I was lucky enough to lead latest October half term delegation to Cuba. It was an honour to witness the achievements that Cuba has made in education, despite all the difficulties from the blockade. We must continue to stand in solidarity with the Cuban people and their struggle to end the blockade.”
Four teachers, Rebecca Light, Phil Yeeles, Andrea Hanson and Kristian Jones, who also attended the October 2018 delegation reported back about their experiences at the fringe.
Kristian Jones said: “I was always sceptical about international delegations - if we can’t influence our own government here, why are we visiting other countries, I thought. But after visiting Cuba I now see why the delegations are so important.
“I was reduced to tears by the talent of the Cuban schoolchildren, despite schools in poor condition due to blockade shortage.
“These delegations are so important. Our county can improve on many, many things. And we can learn a lot from this country - we need to learn from Cuba”, he said.
Phil Yeeles reported how he was “particularly struck by the democratic organisations of students – similar to our NUS but with younger students. And a lot more meaningful that school councils”.
Rebecca Light said, “Music is everywhere in Cuba. This isn't an accident - it's because music education is seen on an equal footing to other subjects. It's encouraged, the opposite trajectory to here.
“Cuba’s high spending on education, health and welfare demonstrate their values - it is an example of how the government can prioritise these areas.”
Andrea Hanson said how she was inspired the 1961 literacy campaign, where the youngest teacher was 10 and the oldest person who learned to read and write was 110. “I felt so passionately about everything I saw” in Cuba, she said.
Bernard Regan, CSC National Secretary and NEU Trustee, said: “We all must unite behind the campaign to end the US blockade of Cuba. Whose side are you on? The same side as the 189 countries that voted against the blockade at the United Nations, or with the United States and Israel?”
He spoke of the shortages in Cuba due to the blockade legislation, including Braille machines, because they have been manufactured in the US. Bernard reported how he had seen first hand during the delegations to Cuba the Braille machines in use in schools for the blind and visually impaired, following a joint NEU and CSC campaign to send dozens of Braille machines to the island.
The CSC National Secretary urged all NEU districts to affiliate to CSC and to invite NEU delegates who had visited Cuba to speak at the NEU events and meetings.
Cuban Salsa night
International solidarity with Cuba was displayed throughout Tuesday of the NEU Conference and ended with a Cuban Salsa night, where delegates enjoyed live music and salsa lessons from Omar Puente and Raices Cubanas, Havana Club rum cocktail and three lucky winners won Cuban prizes in a raffle which raised funds for CSC’s campaigning work.
A collection was also held in memory of Claire Gray, an NEU member from Hackney who had attended an NEU delegation to Cuba, who died suddenly last month.
Kevin Courtney paid tribute to Claire. He said that the day before she died, she was collecting instruments in Hackney for the Play for Cuba appeal, so it is fitting to raise a collection for Cuba in her memory. The collection raised almost £250 for Cuba.
The Morning Star front page on Tuesday 16 April was an article on the Play for Cuba appeal. Read the article online here.