Young trade unionists in solidarity with Cuba in 60th anniversary year
Campaign News | Thursday, 23 May 2019
Young Trade Unionists Report 2019
30 young trade unionists from Unite, Unison, GMB, RMT and TSSA, representing over four million workers in Britain and Ireland participated in Cuba Solidarity Campaign’s 14th annual Young Trade Unionists’ May Day brigade to Cuba where they took part in a full programme of solidarity agricultural work, conferences, meetings, visits and exchanges with the Cuban people.
They joined over 300 trade unionists and activists from 30 countries, including delegations form Brazil, South Africa, Vietnam, Ghana, Argentina, Chile and the United States, highlighting the excellent range of international solidarity with the Cuban people.
The 2019 brigade took place in a special anniversary year for the Cuban people: the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution and the 80th anniversary of the CTC (Cuba’s TUC).
The delegation was based between the Julio Antonio Mella International Camp (CIJAM) in Artemisa province and Sancti Spíritus, the capital city of the of Sancti Spíritus province in central Cuba.
Conditions on the camp were basic, with shared dormitory accommodation, basic meals and cold water showers, but the delegates fully embraced the atmosphere of internationalism and solidarity on the camp.
In addition to the opportunity to speak to the Cuban people about their lives and experiences under US blockade, the international camp providing an enriching environment for the young members to share ideas and exchanges with trade unionists and activists from all around the world. The Brazilian delegation spoke passionately about their campaign to free Lula, their former president and current political prisoner, and the Argentinean delegation reported their struggle against their anti-trade union President Macri, amongst other examples of struggle.
Delegates took part in agricultural work based locally to the Artemisa camp which included pruning avocado trees, preparing and filling containers for planting with orange tree saplings, cutting grass and clearing land of rocks and sticks.
Grass was cut by hand using machetes, and transport to the farms was in open top trucks, giving the young members a brief insight into the difficulties of agricultural work under the blockade in Cuba, as many resources are difficult to obtain.
In Sancti Spíritus, the agricultural work was at an ‘organoponico' – an urban, organic farming project which play a major role in providing food for the Cuban population, due to difficulties in obtaining food because of the US blockade.
At the organoponico, the delegates filled raised beds with organic compost. It was hard work in the Caribbean sun, but the young workers enjoyed the camaraderie of working in the fields and took time to speak with the Cuban farmers and trade unionists present.
Political meetings, conferences and visits
The 14th annual brigade was officially by Fernando Gonzalez, Miami Five hero and President of ICAP (Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples).
Two Cuban MPs visited CIJAM for a special lecture on the new constitution and Cuba’s participatory democracy, including Miguel Charbonet Martell, a professor in Chemistry at the nearby Artemisa University, who outlined how Cuba’s National Assembly (Parliament) works:
“We don't earn a salary for being an MP. Only 15 out of 605 earn an MP salary - speaker, Vice President etc. The remaining 590 MPs continue to take their salary from their jobs, and are granted time from their work when they attend parliamentary business,” he explained.
General elections take place in Cuba every five years. Last April’s elections led one of the most representative parliaments on the planet.
The visiting MPs outlined how 53.2% of Cuban MPs are women. More than 40% are black or mixed race and 77.6% were born after the Revolution, with average age being 49.
The brigade visited the Artemisa Martyrs Mausoleum, a monument dedicated to the rebels from Artemisa who died during the 26 July 1953 attacks on the Moncada barracks. The attacks, although militarily unsuccessful, led to the 26 July Movement which successfully overthrew the US-backed dictator Batista on 1 January 1959.
In Santa Clara, the brigade visited the Che Guevara Mausoleum and the Armoured train - the site of the Battle of Santa Clara, where Che’s battalion attacked and derailed a train carrying weapons for Batista - a defining moment in the armed struggle which ultimately led to the successful final triumph Cuban Revolution a few days later.
They also visited the Camilo Cienfuegos Memorial in Yaguajay municipality; a tribute to Camilo, a key leader of the Cuban Revolution who died in October 1959 aged just 27. Two veterans from the revolutionary war also attended this memorial visit.
May Day Rally, Revolution Square, Havana
The British and Irish trade unionists were invited as international guests to participate in the spectacular Havana May Day rally from the tribune at Revolution Square alongside hundreds of international guests from 103 countries.
Standing just metres behind the delegation was the Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, former President Raul Castro, Ulises Guilarte CTC (Cuba’s TUC equivalent) General Secretary, Senior Vice-President Salvador Valdes Mesa, and the Miami Five heroes. They waved and greeted the crowds of up to a million Havana residents who marched under the banner ‘Unity, commitment and victory’ (Unidad, compromiso y Victoria). Many other huge marches simultaneously took place in each of Cuba’s 16 provinces, where almost six million Cubans participated across the island.
This year’s Havana May Day rally was opened by a video clip of Fidel Castro’s ‘concept of Revolution’ speech at the 200 May Day rally.
International Solidarity with Cuba Conference, Conventions Palace, Havana
On May 2 the brigade participated in the International Solidarity with Cuba Conference at the Conventions Palace in Havana. This unique opportunity, as official guests of the CTC, allowed young members to participate in a conference in a prestigious venue where Cuba’s Parliament (National Assembly) meets and where the CTC’s 80th anniversary Congress had recently took place in the week before our visit.
The conference featured many high level Cuban politicians, trade unionists and representatives from Cuba’s mass organisations and was attended by over 1,000 international solidarity activists and trade unionists from 157 countries. Ellie Drake, UNISON North West Region delegate, was interviewed by Radio Havana about her experience on the brigade.
Special guest speakers and guests at the conference included Ulises Guilarte CTC (Cuba’s TUC equivalent) General Secretary, Ismael Drullet, Director of International Relations at the CTC, Ana Teresita González Fraga, Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, Adnan Chavez, Venezuelan Ambassador to Cuba, Teresa Amarelle Boué, General Secretary of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), and Fernando González Llort, President of the Cuban Institute of Friendship with Peoples (ICAP).
Niurka Gonzalez Orbera, SNTECD (Cuban Teacher’s Union) and Arturo Rodriguez (Cuban Industrial Workers Union) were amongst the Cuban general secretaries attending the conference.
Ulises Guilarte CTC General Secretary said: “We are here to build a consensus to articulate a response to the imperialist offensive” and spoke of the need for international solidarity to combat the increasing attacks from the US.
“In Latin America and Caribbean we are at the forefront of these attacks and we are under new threats from Donald Trump.
“To Trump and the hawks from the Cold War - we say, we are not afraid.”
Venezuelan Ambassador Adnan Chavez, gave an update on the latest US-backed coup attempt in Venezuela that had taken place in the days leading up to May Day. On the same subject, Fernando Gonzalez responded to John Bolton, Trump’s National Security advisor’s lie that Cuba has “20,000 troops in Venezuela”.
“We do not, this is false”, he said. “We have 20,000 medical workers in Venezuela, 63% of which are women.
“The Venezuelan people are resisting and succeeding. The US wants us to abandon Venezuela - but we will never abandon them,” he added.
Ana Teresita González gave a detailed update on Cuban foreign policy and the island's relations across the globe and highlighted how 33 heads of state visited the island in 2018, demonstrating the crucial role that Cuba now plays in the region in the world.
On the blockade, she said: “The relentless persecutions on our financial transactions continue. The extraterritorial blockade means that no country in the world is immune to the blockade. It's an attack on the sovereignty of third party countries and as well as an attack on all Cuban families.
“We call on the international community to continue in the struggle to end the blockade - that is our number one priority and it should be the international solidarity movement's priority.”
Jessica Sangha, Unite North East, Yorkshire and Humberside delegate and Asif Mohammed, Unite West Midlands delegate, gave a joint speech on behalf of the British and Irish delegation.
They both delivered impressive speeches in front of 1,000 delegates and Cuban media, and they received huge applause from the conference floor.
Their speech - a collective effort from the delegation – pledged to continue to build international solidarity with Cuba at this crucial time and congratulated the Cuban people on their achievements over the 60 years:
“We can all learn from Cuba. The Cuban people have achieved so much over the last 60 years, but they could achieve even more if the US blockade was lifted”, the delegation’s speech said.
“So our message is clear. End the blockade now!”
The US blockade of Cuba brings hardship to the Cuban people and prevents many essential goods from the island or makes everyday items expensive due to trade via third countries.
Many of the trade union delegates took material aid including pens, paper, stationary, women’s sanitary products and other essentials.
At an event at the Artemisa Casa de Música (House of Music), the talent of the Artemisa youth was showcased with ballet performances, contemporary dancers and many musicians performing.
Frankie Leach, Unite London and Eastern delegate presented a range of material aid to the local youth performers and was given the opportunity to speak on behalf of the delegation: “We have brought with us some small gifts from the British trade union movement for the children of Artemisa, and we send solidarity to the Cuban from people from our delegation”, she said.
Material aid was also presented at CDR (Committees for the Defence of the Revolution) event in Sancti Spirtus, where Logan Williams from Unite Wales spoke to the local community who gathered on the street and greeted the delegation from their houses and balconies.
Logan thanked the Cuban people for their hospitality and pledged solidarity on behalf of the millions of workers from the British trade union movement represented by delegates. The CDR provided cake, snacks and drinks for the young workers, and invited the delegates into their houses, which have an insight into the everyday lives and warm hospitality of the Cuban people.
The delegation returned to Britain and Ireland energised and inspired by the delegation and pledged to continue to build solidarity within their trade unions and community with the Cuban people further:
“Being a part of the 2019 May Day Brigade was such a life-defining experience. Learning about Cuba, its history and its commitment to leading with humanity and empathy really transformed the way I think about socialism and international solidarity. I’m excited and inspired to continue working for a better society now we’re back in the UK”. Ellie Drake, UNISON North West Region
“I felt so incredibly honoured to represent Unite in CSC’s youth delegation, witnessing a million Cubans march in Havana on May Day to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Since then, Cuba’s achievements as a beacon of what a successful socialist state can achieve remain clear for all to see; a world class health, education and political system, in the face of suffering more than 60 years of brutal blockade.” Becky Boumelha, Unite South East Region
“This experience was totally life-changing for me- both politically and personally. It was an absolute privilege to represent UNISON Scotland during the whole brigade but especially at the May Day Parade in Havana. It was so inspiring to be in a country where workers are celebrated. I met such wonderful people during my time there from around the world and felt the unity between us all- in solidarity against the US Blockade of Cuba.” Millie Davidson, UNISON Scotland
“Cuba has suffered for over 60 years due to an unnecessary and illegal blockade from the US, we will not stand by and let this continue - it's an insult to us all not just Cuba. For 27 years in a row the UN has voted for the blockade to be lifted. We will continue to fight until the blockade is ended. The brigade has been a life changing experience! I've come back wanting to change our country and make it better for all. The passion and strength Cuba has is inspiring a country united is a country unstoppable, Viva Cuba!” Jess Sangha, Unite North East, Yorkshire and Humberside Region
"A fantastic opportunity to broaden my understanding of international social movements and the impact that promoting solidarity can have. My recent experience visiting Cuba with the brigade was hugely impactful on my perspective of the world and has engaged a great want to further develop my campaigning skills to benefit a range of activist causes." James Walford, TSSA
“Thank you to Unite West Midlands for the opportunity to be part of the Cuban solidarity campaign 2019. I had the best time with young members in the happiest country and had such an amazing experience on the brigade" Tasmina Khan, Unite West Midlands Region
“The brigade was eye opening for me, to see first-hand how Cuban society works for all can teach us so much. Everything I experienced was at odds with the narrative of mainstream western media and politicians when it comes to life in Cuba” Tom Cochrane, Unite South West Region
“The Cuba Solidarity Campaign May Day brigade was a life changing experience for me. I met lifelong friends and learnt first-hand the positive the impact of socialist policies on communities and how important it is to fight back against oppression caused by the United States. Viva Cuba!” Gemma Dinsdale, GMB
"Being part of the Cuba May Day delegation was a really eye opening experience for me. The Cuban people are amongst the kindest and most generous people I've ever met, in stark contrast to the image painted of them by US media." Ryan McLaughlin, UNISON Scotland
"What a truly humbling experience. A beautiful country full of beautiful people with inspiring enthusiasm for life, culture and heritage.Viva Socialismo! Viva la Revolucion! Viva Cuba! Ryan Kent, RMT
“This has been a trip I’ll never forget. I had an incredible experience and was so happy to have met amazing comrades along the way.” Renato Marques, Unite South East Region
"Attending the brigade was a life-changing experience. Seeing socialism put into practice and the achievements of the Cuban people in healthcare and education and elsewhere under the inhuman blockade regime provides inspiration to get involved in the struggle back home for a people-centred society and in solidarity with the Cuban people as a beacon of light." Graham Harrington, Unite Ireland
"Thank you to Unite NW63 Health Branch for the opportunity to be part of the 2019 May Day Brigade to Cuba in memory to Curtis Higgins. The chance to attend Cuba in the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution was a fantastic opportunity to learn about Cuba’ achievements as a successful Socialist State despite, the cruel US blockade was highly inspirational." Logan Williams, Unite Wales (Delegate via Unite NW63 Curtis Higgins Memorial Prize)
"Going to Cuba was a life changing experience, I met a lot of great people from all over the world as part of the Brigade, and made friends with many of the Cuban people. It was amazing to see how well the Cuban people were able to cope with living under the US blockade. It was quite the experience working alongside the Cuban people, and learning about the history of the revolution in places like Santa Clara and Artemisa." Patrick Benham, GMB Birmingham and West Midlands Region
"The Cuban people are generous, pioneering and resilient. This is reflected by the vast numbers of Cuban doctors active in 67 countries around the world, 30,00 doctors contributing their medical expertise to those in need, such as those in Africa and Latin America. Notably, Cuba was the biggest single provider of healthcare workers to the Ebola crisis in West Africa, emphasising its innovative and progressive nature. I think we all now have a responsibility to educate people on Cuba’s achievements and oppose the fabricated image of Cuba portrayed in the media." Rebekah McNally, UNISON North West Region
“The whole experience of the Brigade was a very special one for me. Seeing first hand what the Cuban people and their representatives had achieved in the face of unrelenting pressure from the United States was something to behold. It stands as a model the world over of how to build socialism no matter how challenging the circumstances. I know it was a trip cherished by all young trade unionists on the Brigade.” Damian Bailey, Unite Young Members Chair / Unite North West Region delegate
"The brigade was a fantastic opportunity for me to experience a socialist republic in the 21st century. Also it gave me the chance to understand how Cuba has continued to survive in the current economic climate, consistently adapting to the economic world around it. It truly was a remarkable experience that has forever changed my view of Cuba and has also highlighted the injustice that the people of Cuba suffer at the hands of the U.S sanctions." Graham Hull, Unite North East, Yorkshire and Humberside Region
"Having been on the brigade this year, I am not the same person I was when we left Gatwick. The Cuban people are truly awe inspiring, the visible happiness and purposeful nature of the people is an experience in itself but combined with hearing from prominent intellectuals on subjects from internationalism to the blockade has left me with both an anger towards the powers that are oppressing these resilient people and desire to spread the truth of what Cuba is really about, from outstanding healthcare I experienced firs- hand to the friendliness, generosity and kindness of the people. Hasta la Victoria Siempre! Jonathan Elson, Unite North East, Yorkshire and Humberside Region
Please contact Ollie Hopkins, CSC Campaigns Officer, on firstname.lastname@example.org for information about the 2020 May Day brigade.