Inspired by May Day’s celebration of workers
Campaign News | Thursday, 14 July 2022
Thirty-one young trade unionists from Britain and Ireland joined 140 activists from around the world in Cuba this spring on the first May Day Brigade for three years
The young members representing unions Unite, UNISON, CWU, ASLEF, RMT, TSSA and USDAW were part of CSC’s 15th annual Young Trade Unionists’ May Day Brigade. Several of them had waited two years to make the trip after the original 2020 brigade had been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After an early start from Gatwick, the group arrived at their base, the Julio Antonio Mella International Camp (CIJAM) in Artemisa province just outside Havana, on the evening of 24 April. There they met Cuban Friendship Institute (ICAP) representatives and joined up with the other volunteers from 15 countries including Chile, South Africa, Canada and the United States.
The camp is named after a young student activist who founded the Cuban Communist Party and was exiled to Mexico for his activism. He was assassinated in 1929 at the age of just 26. Following tradition the first activity at CIJAM was to make a floral tribute at the statue of Mella and plant a commemorative tree.
Activities were split between agricultural work, political and historical talks, visits and cultural events.
Delegates divided into groups to carry out their manual work which included an early morning journey by truck and tractors to work in neighbouring cooperative farms, weeding and tending to yuccas, chillies and guava trees, moving rocks, and cutting grass around the camp. Many were surprised and also quite excited to be handed a machete, the typical tool of Cuban agricultural workers, and let loose on the land! Although the “work was hard and physical” it was “ultimately very rewarding. There was often a treat of fresh mango, coconut or sugar cane water waiting for the tired workers at the end too,” explained one brigadista.
There was also plenty of time to mix with delegates from the other countries, learn about their struggles and share international solidarity. The International Night provided the different delegations the opportunity to share aspects of their culture with performances and traditional food. The British and Irish contingent provided samples of beer, whisky, Irn-Bru, biscuits and sweets.
CIJAM had been used as an isolation centre during the pandemic, and as well as taking material and medical aid with them, the group delivered sheets and pillow cases to replenish the camp’s depleted stocks.
Political meetings, conferences and visits
Delegates were particularly inspired to hear from two of the Miami Five heroes who visited the camp in their official capacities as leaders of two important Cuban organisations. Fernando González, President of ICAP, and Gerardo Hernandez, National Coordinator for the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, had both spent many years unjustly imprisoned in US jails for trying to stop terrorist attacks against their countries. During his speech, Fernando presented the group with an award for CSC and its members and affiliates for 40 years of solidarity and activism against the US blockade.
As part of the political talks about Cuban society, Gerardo was joined on a panel with other representatives of Cuba’s mass organisations, in this case the first secretary of the provincial CTC (Federation of Cuban Workers) and Diana Castillo, National organiser for the Union de Jovenes Comunistas (young communists). Following the panel discussion the groups had the opportunity to split into smaller groups and have more detailed discussions.
There were also several visits including to the Pedro Kouri Tropical Medicine Institute (IPK) where the group met with scientific staff including Dr María Guadalupe Guzmán, one of the team who developed Cuba’s COVID vaccines.
Laura Marshall, from the CWU recalled one of the questions put to the specialists there as to whether there had been much resistance from the people to having the vaccine. “The answer was simply that Cubans trust in the vaccine because there are no vested interests in its production and that they know it is their social responsibility to be vaccinated, in order to protect Cuba and the rest of the world” said Laura.
Delegates also donated some of the medical aid that they had brought to the Institute including syringes and other items.
Neighbourhoods in Transition
A visit to a deprived suburb of Havana which was being targeted for extra resources and investment to improve conditions was also organised. The neighbourhood was one of several to have been consulted on improvements needed (which in this case included upgrading roads, a park, and building a community shop), and welcomed the group with dancing and performances from the local children. The group also donated to a community clinic in the area.
On the eve of May Day the group visited Labiofam which produced medicines and took part in the workers’ lively preparations for the day ahead with speeches and music. “We left that meeting feeling energised and buzzing off a great atmosphere, said Twm Draper from the CWU.
They then attended a joint meeting between the General Secretary of the Agricultural Workers Union and the general manager who answered questions collectively.
“It was quite amazing to see the union and business sitting at the same table, of course this is because when the business say they put workers first, they really mean it in Cuba,” wrote Twm in his brigade report.
May Day Rally, Revolution Square, Havana
The highlight of the trip for most of the delegation was joining a thousand international guests from 60 countries on the tribune in front of the José Martí memorial in Revolution Square to watch the first May Day march for three years.
They shared the viewing platform with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, former president Raúl Castro, Ulises Guilarte General Secretary of the CTC, and the Miami Five heroes who signed several of the brigadistas’ flags and t-shirts. Havana residents marched in defiance against the blockade, for Cuban independence and in celebration of Cuban workers under the banner ‘Unity, commitment and victory’ (Unidad, compromiso y victoria). Many other huge marches simultaneously took place across the country.
“The march started to rapturous applause and a band, this was the start of the party atmosphere. Upwards of half a million people marched through the square waving union banners, flags and singing songs. The most inspiring part of the whole affair was that this wasn't a march for protest which we are so used to, rather this was purely a celebration of working people” said Rob Kitley from ASLEF.
International Solidarity with Cuba Conference, 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 the prestigious venue where Cuba’s parliament and important national conferences take place.
Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel gave the closing address to the conference which laid out the challenges facing not only Cuba but the world. He also drew attention to the changes to the Family Code, currently being discussed, which aimed to give more rights to all family members and to the LGBT+ community in Cuba.
The conference split into several smaller committees to discuss topics including unity in diversity, and the defence of just causes. Michelle Byrne, Unite delegate from Ireland spoke in the session on anti-imperialism: “I spoke about British and US imperialism in Ireland. Six counties in the north are still affected by British rule and as a supposedly neutral country, we have an active US military base at Shannon Airport where planes can carry weapons, political prisoners and refuel for war-related activities,” she said.
Travelling to the east and Santiago de Cuba
The two day journey to reach Cuba’s second largest city, home to many important revolutionary sites gave the group an opportunity to travel through several provinces.
On the way they visited the Che Guevara Mausoleum and the Tren Blindado- the site of the Battle of Santa Clara, where Che’s battalion attacked and derailed a train carrying weapons for the dictator Batista. They broke the long journey with a night in Camagüey in central Cuba.
In Santiago they had the opportunity to visit important historical sites including the Moncada Barracks and Granjita Siboney and learn of the city’s historical significance in the Cuban Revolution. At the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery they also paid their respects at the tombs of José Martí, Fidel Castro and other revolutionary heroes.
Other community visits followed including the children’s project ‘Proyecto Yeye’ which taught dance and music to children with special educational needs and disabilities. In the evening the brigade concluded with a traditional street party hosted by a local CDR providing plenty of chances to dance and share messages of solidarity.
This is a particularly difficult time for the Cuban people. Since 2017, long before the start of the pandemic, the extra sanctions imposed by Trump were already causing shortages in food and medicines. Brigadistas were able to experience this first hand and see just how devastating the effects of the sanctions and COVID-19 had been on the Cuban population.
Many of the trade union delegates took material aid including pens, paper, stationery, women’s sanitary products and other essentials. There was also a focus on medical supplies which were in shorter supply than usual as they had been prioritised for COVID-19 patients over the last two years.
The delegation returned to Britain and Ireland energised and inspired by the brigade and pledged to continue to build solidarity with the Cuba people from within their trade unions and communities.
Join the 2023 Young Trade Unionists’ May Day Brigade
Next year’s brigade will take place across 12 days in late April/early May 2023.
For full details on how to join please contact Natasha Hickman, on firstname.lastname@example.org or call 020 7490 5715.
Cuba Solidarity May Day Brigade 2022 - Brigadista quotes
“The creative resistance I got to enjoy was everywhere - dancing, singing, spoken word, art was everywhere - and the Cubans know how to throw a party!
“I am in awe of their community spirit, the wide commitment to the Revolution, their collective organising and participation in political discussions in workplaces through their trade union and in their communities.”
Michelle Byrne, Unite, Ireland
“Cuba has shown me that unity is strength. When there is teamwork, collaboration and solidarity, wonderful things can be achieved, even against the greatest odds.”
Charlotte Chapman, Unite the Union, East Midlands
“Workers from every industry came together to march carrying banners and signs with references to their field of work, words of support for the Revolution, anti-blockade sentiments, and photos of revolutionary leaders. I stood at the barriers wearing the brigade T-shirt that read ‘Love Cuba - Hate the US Blockade’ and waved my TSSA flag. Several participants in the parade stopped to give me a thumbs-up and take my picture! The rally was, to me, a physical manifestation of Cuba’s high regard for its workers.”
Maisie D, TSSA
“Life under the US blockade has made the simplest necessities seem like luxuries, and yet through socialist principles and genuine solidarity and social responsibility, the Cuban people have managed to thrive since the Revolution in terms of equality, infant mortality and free healthcare. No matter how much of a struggle it is, good comrades will always get you through.”
Ben Davis, Unite the Union
“What an amazing two weeks in Cuba learning about their culture, the impact of the blockade and what true internationalism looks like. Seeing how they celebrate and value their workers was a really special moment and getting to experience this with 32 comrades from other unions made it even more special.”
Twm Draper, CWU Great Western
“A truly once in a lifetime experience, the May Day Brigade was thought provoking, insightful, eye opening, heart warming and inspiring. In the face of continuing adversity and in the stranglehold of the abhorrent US blockade, the country continues to soldier on.”
Rob Kitley, ASLEF, South West
“It was a surreal experience, watching workers being celebrated and honoured in the way they are in Cuba, in comparison to the attitudes towards the working class and trade unions in the United Kingdom. In the future I would recommend that the CWU sends more delegates on the trip, so they can also learn Cuban socialist principles and revolutionary practices, to invigorate our movement in the United Kingdom on their return and to share the remarkable truth about Cuba.”
Laura Marshall, CWU
“I have relished and appreciated every moment I have spent in this comforting and wondrously incredible socialist country and have come away with the knowledge and power I need to continue to stand in solidarity and fight for the rights of the Cuban people and their beautiful country.
“One of the many incredible things I took away from this experience is, despite the dehumanising US embargo Cuba faces, the Cuban people are not defeated.”
Alejandra Navarro-Woods, UNISON North West
“We worked, visited many places, learned a lot, danced, sang, laughed, cried and had amazing experiences from Cuba and its people. We learned a lot about Cuba - its culture, history, the Revolution and the US blockade. The pain and suffering caused by the blockade is severe and far reaching. Yet Cuba lives and has remarkable achievements, particularly in universal healthcare and education. Having spent time on the island, it is clear that Cuba would be thriving if the blockade was ended. The entire experience was inspirational, profound, eye-opening.”
Dan Pearce, Unite the Union, South East
“The most amazing two weeks with even better troops…what a place!
“A blockade which targets every aspect of the Cuban economy yet they are still able to create a system of equality and opportunity for all which we can only dream of. Organised work places and a revolution which shows remarkable people power. Don’t believe the US propaganda.”
Lauren Strain, Unite the Union, Scotland
“This experience was completely life changing and energised me to organise in Britain, not only in my union and workplace but against the illegal and inhumane blockade of Cuba.
“Seeing for my own eyes how they continue the Revolution and the struggle for socialism, the advancements in healthcare, living standards, education and culture has been inspiring. Workers being celebrated and seeing millions of Cubans being involved in rewriting their family code is incredible.”
Micaela Tracey-Ramos, UNISON North West
“I got back from Cuba on Sunday evening and can quite comfortably say it was the best experience of my life.
“My highlight was undoubtedly May Day…I was overcome with emotion seeing workers being celebrated and respected in the way that they are.
We went across the island throughout our two weeks and met so many other inspiring people from Cuba and around the world. I would recommend the experience to everyone. I’ll definitely be returning when I get the chance.”
Nick West, Unite London and Eastern