2023 Young Trade Unionists' May Day Brigade

Campaign News | Thursday, 25 May 2023

This year saw the Cuba Solidarity Campaign (CSC) take its largest ever May Day Brigade to Cuba, with 52 young trade unionists and activists from Britain, Ireland and further afield travelling to the island to demonstrate their solidarity and learn how they can support the ongoing struggle to end the US blockade.

The record-breaking delegation – representing ten different unions and organisations from across the movement in Britain and Ireland, including Unite, UNISON, RMT, ASLEF and Thompson’s Solicitors – undertook a full programme of agricultural work on co-operative farms, conferences, meetings, visits and exchanges with Cuban people.

This year’s brigade looked somewhat different to those that have come before. Due to current economic difficulties in Cuba, it was not possible to host delegates on the Julio Antonio Mella International Camp in Artemisa, as usual. Instead, delegates stayed in Miramar, a neighbourhood in Havana for nine days, before heading to Sancti Spiritus for the last leg of the brigade.

As well as providing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn first-hand about the achievements of the Cuban Revolution and the realities of life under US blockade, our brigadistas also met with activists and trade unionists from all over the world. Over 300 delegates from 28 different countries took part in the brigade, hosted by the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples (Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos, ICAP). From learning about Cuba’s historic contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle from the South African delegation, to discussing the work of the Landless Workers Movement from Brazil’s contingent, the two-week brigade enriched the outlook of our brigadistas and reinforced the importance of international solidarity.

Welcome, introductory conference and agricultural work

The brigade officially opened with a floral tribute to Jose Marti at the Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (Centro de Ingeniería Genética y Biotecnología, CIGB). At the centre where Cuba developed its own Abdala COVID vaccine, delegates were welcomed to the country by the director of the CIGB, Dr Marta Ayala and Fernando Gonzalez Llort, President of ICAP and one of the Miami Five heroes.

Over the next few days, delegates heard from speakers on a number of topics, including the current economic situation, the legislative system in Cuba and the disinformation war currently being waged against the country. Gladys Hernandez, Researcher at the World Economy Research Centre (Centro de Investigación de la Economía Mundial, CIEM) spoke to the brigade about the current economic situation in Cuba, which has been severely impacted by multiple crises – the COVID-19 pandemic, fallout from the war in Ukraine – as well as the intensification of the blockade. Dr Jose Luis Toledo Santander, a member of National Assembly of People’s Power (ANPP, Cuba’s Parliament), outlined Cuba’s legislative system and some of the recent laws adopted by the ANPP. Emphasising Cuba’s participatory democratic model, he referenced the consultation and referendum processes that led to the adoption of a new constitution in 2019 and a new family code in 2022 (which he as described “one of the greatest acts of social justice we’ve made in Cuba”. Michel Enrique Torres Corona, Director of the Nuevo Milenio publishing house and host of the Con Filo television programme, spoke about the role of social networks and the media in defending the revolution and countering the disinformation war being waged against Cuba and how his organisations’ work seeks to tell the truth about Cuba. “You can’t ignore the truth”, he said. “The truth is always revolutionary”.

Delegates also took part in agricultural work on co-operative farms close to Havana in the first few days on the brigade. At the Cooperativa de Crédito y Servicios (CCS) Arides Estevez Sanchez, in the municipality of Playa, yucca fields were tidied, maize was planted and banana trees were harvested. At the Unidad Empresarial de Base (UEB) Latin America, oregano was planted and, fields were cleared ready for cultivation and roots and herbs were prepared for use. After three days working in the Caribbean sun (most of) our brigadistas acclimatised to the heat and, importantly, had learned about the system of co-operative urban agriculture in Cuba which has flourished since the early 90s. Workers told the brigade how they enjoy the fruits of their own labour and how much of the produce goes directly to feed the local population.

Community and cultural visits

Brigadistas met with ordinary Cubans over the two weeks, in their local neighbourhoods, their places of work, in health and education settings and in community centres, both in Havana and in Sancti Spiritus. Given the hardship that US blockade brings to Cuba, the brigade brought a wide range of material aid with them, including stationary, arts and crafts materials, women’s sanitary products, basic medical equipment and even some more advanced medical supplies.

At La Castellana, a centre for children, young people and adults with special educational needs and disabilities in Havana, a quote from Fidel Castro adorned the wall of one of the activity rooms: “Revolution… is to be treated and treat others as human beings.” Staff at La Castellana demonstrated how this revolutionary principle informed their work, with empathy, community and respect at the heart of their provision, with almost 1:1 staff to beneficiary ratios (almost 20 of the 180 staff members there had been treated at the centre themselves), genuine integration with the local community and a holistic approach to the therapy and care they provide. Eamonn Carroll, an Irish delegate and member of the Forsa trade union, presented a range of material aid to the centre on behalf of the delegation as a small sign of their solidarity. After hearing from the director that a number of beneficiaries couldn’t attend the centre in recent days, due to the fuel shortages affecting the island, Eamonn pledged that the delegation would do all they can do campaign for an end to the blockade when they returned home.

A meeting with workers in the National Union of Industrial Workers (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores Industriales, SNTI) highlighted the importance of trade unions in Cuban workplaces and public life. Visiting the Industria Electronica Empresa Camilo Cienfuegos in the Boyeros municipality, representatives of the SNTI spoke about the huge union density in workplaces (high union density, with over 90% membership is common in Cuba), how employers are held to account by their workers and the support unions provide to workers, enabling them to engage in house repairs, or supporting community infrastructure.

Our brigadistas were welcomed to the Hospital Provincial Camilo Cienfuegos in Sancti Spiritus by many of the staff and its director, Dr Aliosky Polo Santana. Dr Santana spoke to the delegates about the socialist principles that guide their work. “All of us together are a team”, he said. “We work for the health of the Cuban people and we work through solidarity and humanity.” Dr Santana highlighted that many of the staff at the hospital were currently participating in Cuba’s famous international medical brigades, with staff present in over 32 countries. Asked if this impacted the hospital’s work, Dr Santana said showing such solidarity beyond their borders is a crucial part of their work. “Cuba shares with the world what we have”, he said. Jess Bailey, Unite NEYH delegate and student nurse, presented medical material aid to the hospital and was given the opportunity to speak on behalf of the delegation. Contrasting the state of the NHS with the impressive health system in Cuba (which does so much with comparatively so little) Jess sent solidarity from the millions of workers in the British trade union movement.

On one of the last nights of the brigade, delegates were invited to a street party hosted by a local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR) in Sancti Spiritus, where they shared in food, drink, conversation and impromptu salsa lessons with the community, giving our young brigadistas an invaluable insight into the everyday lives and the warm hospitality of the Cuban people.

International Solidarity Conference

On May 2 the brigade participated in the International Solidarity with Cuba Conference at the Conventions Palace in Havana, marking the 200th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine. This unique opportunity, as official guests of the CTC, allowed young members to participate in a conference in the prestigious venue where Cuba’s National Assembly meets. The conference featured many high level Cuban politicians, trade unionists and representatives from Cuba’s mass organisations and closed with a rousing speech by Miguel Diaz-Canel, President of Cuba.

Ulises Guilarte, the Genreal Secretary of the Workers Central Union of Cuba (Central de Trabajadores de Cuba, CTC) welcomed delegates to the conference and thanked everyone for their commitment to building solidarity with Cuba. Anayansi Camejo, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs spoke passionately about the importance of international solidarity amongst peoples and the struggles against oppression everywhere. Highlighting the struggles of the Palestinians, the Sahawari people, and the movements for social justice and self-determination in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Bolivia, she drew parallels between Cuba’s own struggle against imperialism. “Cuba is not alone”, she said. “With our friends, we will show that a better world is possible”.

The conference broke off into different sessions, on: anti-imperialism; young workers; women of the world; the challenges of the working class; and building solidarity movements around the world, where a number of our brigadistas spoke.

Closing the conference, President Diaz-Canel emphasised the importance of solidarity for the Cuban people and delivered a rallying cry for all delegates to continue their efforts. “Then, as now and always, we rely on your solidarity. Unity and hope are our present and future; your solidarity reinforces that unity and magnifies hope”, he said. “Human solidarity cannot be blockaded. It remains an indestructible weapon of struggle and combat and an everlasting message of peace that can never be silenced! ... Venceremos! Hasta la victoria siempre!

May Day festivities in Sancti Spiritus

Due to an intense storm the day before, which caused flooding across Havana, May Day celebrations were postponed across the island until 5 May.

Carrying their union flags and the banner of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, our brigadistas joined thousands of people from Sancti Spiritus and all over the world, marching through the streets in a huge celebration of the workers, of socialism, of international solidarity and of the Cuban Revolution.

The British and Irish delegation returned home energised and inspired by their experiences in Cuba, with renewed optimism that the building of a better world for all is possible. After witnessing first-hand the achievements of the Cuban Revolution in the fields of health, education, social justice and internationalism, they’ve pledged to continue to build their solidarity with the Cuban people in their trade unions and in their local communities.

Brigadista testimony

“I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to see parts of Cuba that I wouldn’t have had access to as a tourist, for example visiting the cooperatives, the hospital, and hearing directly from the President and other socialist leaders. It’s been truly humbling to see how the Cuban people have come together to make things work in the face of the U.S. blockade that affects every aspect of daily life there; our brigade had to get used to rationing water and toilet paper as well as eating rice for most meals. The success of Cuban collectivism is evident both on a large-scale, for example in how over 90% of the population is vaccinated against Covid-19 using a Cuban made vaccine despite researchers being blocked from accessing global medical journals, and on a small-scale, for example in the language the Cubans use when describing their achievements…there is more talk of ‘we’ than there ever is of ‘I’. As a wave of strike action hits the UK during the cost-of-living crisis, it seems more important than ever to take inspiration from the strength and solidarity shown by the Cuban people. Being a part of the brigade has inspired me to keep learning about Cuban politics and to do what I can to support Cuba’s fight from the UK. I would fully recommend the brigade to anyone who is thinking of taking part.”
Jess Bailey, Unite NEYH

From visits to community centres and hospitals to having locals teach me how to salsa, the CSC May Day Brigade has given me experiences that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I think that had it not been for the CSC I would not have known the reality of how beautiful and amazing Cuba is, and I look forward to spreading everything I have learned to help people around me understand the struggle of the Cuban people and how we can best show our solidarity.”
Frank Sackey, ASLEF

“Our brigade visited a kids club and an SEN school – both of these showed the real commitment to education in Cuba and how much happier and fulfilled the young people seemed. In the UK the arts in education aren’t deemed as beneficial and are not fully promoted, this difference in Cuba where the arts are valued and deemed as important as other subjects was amazing to see.
Seeing so many people come together to celebrate workers for the May Day celebrations was mesmerising and something I wish we did in the UK. Viva Cuba!”
Amber McDonald, UNISON Eastern

“From start to finish the brigade was unforgettable. I met some of the most interesting characters from all walks of life, and got to experience the unique and inspiring country of Cuba. Learning about the rich history of the Revolution to everyday life for Cubans was incredible. Volunteering on co-operative farms in and around Havana was especially important to me as it is the backbone of Cuban society to be involved with communities, working for and with each other.”
Freddie Yarwood, Unite North West

“A packed two weeks, but every second was incredibly enriching. As a health union organiser, the visit to the hospital in Sancti Spiritus was of particular interest to me and one of the highlights of the trip. Learning about the Cuban healthcare system and how effective it is despite the US blockade was inspiring. A real showcase of how commitment to socialist principles, even in the face of US imperialism, can defend human life and dignity.”
Nazifa Zaman, Unite West Midlands

“Amazing to see the achievements of the Revolution in person, see the harsh realities of what everyday Cubans are trying to deal with and the resolve to simply strive nonetheless. The opportunity to see people with special educational and developmental needs treated with such understanding and care, the education of children a constant priority and to hear that the social programme of the Revolution is critical in every choice made, reminds you of what is possible in a society built upon compassion.”
Liam Edge, UNISON West Midlands

“Cuba was a fantastic experience that truly changed my life. I have made great friends and connections that I know will benefit my activism in UNISON. I would recommend visiting Cuba to anyone. If Cuba can offer its people so much with so little, why can we not do the same?”
Charlotte Pybus, UNISON Eastern

“Despite the challenges it faces under the blockade, it was fascinating to witness Cuba’s ability to make the most of limited resources for socialist ends, whether that be in healthcare, food production or education, and offers an insight into what Cuba could achieve if the blockade was lifted. The brigade also offered a great opportunity to meet like-minded trade unionists from the UK and elsewhere, as well as Cubans from all walks of life and understand their experiences under the blockade.”
Harvey Irving, Unite London and Eastern

“I genuinely had the most amazing, once in a lifetime experience in Cuba and it was truly an eye-opening time seeing socialism in action. The warmth and hospitality shown by the Cuban people filled myself and my comrades with an immense amount of joy. For a nation that has had everything stacked against them, with the illegal US blockade, it has managed to flourish and prosper more than most “First World Countries”. To witness the social, medical and commercial achievements Cuba has produced under the illegal blockade was astounding. There is no reason why a country like the UK cannot provide for its population, when a country so isolated like Cuba provides for each and every one of their citizens. I urge any trade unionist to visit Cuba to experience first-hand the achievements, culture and love showcased by the Cuban people.”
Joseph Kelly, Unite South East

“The May Day brigade surpassed expectations. Seeing and learning about the achievements of the Cuban socialist revolution in person was life changing and shattered propagandistic lies. On every front, Cuba has developed and is continuing to develop its extensive state funded social programmes, from healthcare to education, employment to housing, participatory democracy and more. Cuba’s system is concretely geared toward human needs despite the little they have due to the genocidal and illegal US blockade that has prevented further Cuban development for over 60 years. What I will take from it is that another world is possible, we just have to struggle for it. End the blockade!”
Jordan Milner, Unite NEYH

“The highlight of the brigade for me was the CDR party. Having the opportunity to chat and dance with people outside their homes, share drinks and food, was a really valuable experience in human connection. The lectures and visits were all incredibly interesting, but dancing with people and celebrating is what connects us and makes all our struggles worth it.”
Libs Olley, Unite Eastern

“This experience has been genuinely life changing. While I always felt that building a better world was possible, to see that there is a place in this world that is genuinely striving towards that goal has been inspiring. I have come away from this trip with a new determination to promote international solidarity with the Cuban people, having seen first-hand the incredible progress Cuba has made in the fields of healthcare, education, and social justice.”
Matt Wilson-Boddy, UNISON West Midlands

“This was an incredibly valuable experience for me – thank you CSC for the opportunity! I can’t imagine a better way of experiencing Cuba, especially for the first time. I feel like I was able to experience way more than what a tourist would see, from being welcomed into a neighbourhood for a party to seeing first hand Cuba’s approach to disability and special education needs. I experienced nothing but kindness and shared solidarity from the Cuban people, even given the difficult economic situation that they’re being put through. I’d strongly recommend this trip to anyone with a curiosity about Cuba, socialism, and salsa dancing. The educational side of the trip was balanced with a generous helping of fun (and rum) to create an all-round unforgettable 2 weeks.”
Ellie Kinney, Unite NEYH

“The brigade, and meeting the brigadistas from across the world, has opened my eyes to what international solidarity is. This trip solidified my belief that racial and ethnic barriers should not exist in the first place. Class struggles and internationalism will unite the human race!”
Ray Yihe Yue

“The two weeks spent on this brigade has not only been incredibly enjoyable, but thoroughly inspiring and has left me feeling empowered and in awe of the Cuban people. From the friends I met and travelled with, to the colleagues and comrades I met throughout Cuba, I have been inspired constantly and have so much to take back to Britain. Cuba’s absolute commitment to education, to healthcare, to agriculture, and to culture – by every one of its people, organisations, and state structures – even in spite of current difficulties and escalating 60-year old attacks, is inspirational and something all trade unionists and workers in Britain should endeavour to experience – just to see what we can really achieve with a socialist state.”
Ruaraidh Dempster, Unite Scotland

“Cuba is living proof that a different world is possible, which is why the US continues to enact a barbaric , genocidal and illegal blockade against the nation. The first thing that struck me about the country was the language in which they refer to their healthcare professionals. They are constantly referred to as “heroes” and they genuinely mean it. And the language they use is always collective. Never once were we told “I developed this vaccine” or “this team developed the vaccine” – it was always “we developed five vaccines”. I’m going to miss Cuba. Thanks to Cuba Solidarity Campaign for a fantastic two weeks.”
Lauren Harper, Unite Scotland

My time in Cuba gave me fantastic opportunities to see the achievements of Cuban socialism in spite of the economic problems imposed by the US blockade. What impressed me most was the commitment to life-long care and inclusion of every person in the community. Something that struck me was how, if the counterrevolution were to succeed, all of that people-centred social provision would be swept away overnight and those who rely on it would be left to fend for themselves. This horrific thought hammered home the necessity for all of us to support Cuba's revolutionary government and people and to campaign for an end to the blockade. With the combination of the blockade and world-wide economic crisis, Cuba needs our support and advocacy here in Britain now more than ever.”
Ruben Brett, UNISON South East

“I had a fantastic time on the brigade, it’s a once in a lifetime experience. The education through lectures and institution visits gave me a fantastic insight into how the country works, and the communal social events allowed me to meet great locals and make good friends with my fellow brigidistas. It’s often easy to feel disillusioned in modern Britain, but visiting Cuba relit my hope that building a kinder, more compassionate society is possible.”
Sam Hope, UNISON North West

“It was absolutely incredible to spend two weeks with passionate trade unionists and socialists getting to see the successes of Cuban socialism in action. Cuba is achieving so much in spite of an unjust economic blockade that has been ongoing for over 60 years, and I'd recommend seeing the country for yourself so that you can see that it's not the "failed state" the media and US government portray it as. Cuba has really left a mark on my heart.”
Shane Halliwell, Community

If you are interested in attending the 2024 May Day brigade, please get in touch with Tariq Anderson, CSC Campaigns Officer.

You can read reports from some of our brigadistas on external sites below.

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