“You will be able to convey to your communities the truth of Cuba” – 2024 Young Trade Unionists’ May Day Brigade

Campaign News | Wednesday, 29 May 2024

The 2024 brigade at the José Martí Anti-Imperialist Tribune, celebrating May Day

The 2024 brigade at the José Martí Anti-Imperialist Tribune, celebrating May Day

37 trade unionists – representing Unite, UNISON, RMT, ASLEF, TSSA, PSC, POA, NAPO, GFTU and Thompsons Solicitors – recently took part in the Cuba Solidarity Campaign’s 17th annual Young Trade Unionists’ May Day Brigade. As the country grapples with its worst economic crisis since the Special Period, our brigadistas took part in a full programme of activities and showed their solidarity with Cuba - celebrating May Day in the shadow of the US embassy in Havana, participating in the International Meeting of Solidarity with Cuba and against Imperialism, working on Cuba’s cooperative farms and learning about the issues currently facing the nation, with lectures and visits to sites of historical and contemporary importance. They joined over 330 trade unionists and activists from 33 countries on the brigade, which is coordinated by the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP).

Camp life and agricultural work

Following a break in tradition last year, when the brigade stayed in Havana due to fuel shortages, our brigadistas returned to the Julio Antonio Mella International Camp in Artemisa, with a three-day sojourn to Cienfuegos. Delegations from the United States, Chile, Germany, South Korea and South Africa (to name but a few) filled the camp, united by internationalist principles and a commitment to solidarity with Cuba.

While camp conditions were certainly not luxury – with lukewarm showers, shared dormitory accommodation and basic meals – delegates fully embraced the experience and took the opportunity to learn from comrades around the world. Our brigadistas heard first-hand about the historic struggles of the trade union movement in South Korea, the prospects for an African National Congress victory in the upcoming elections in South Africa and what it’s like to campaign for an end to the blockade in the United States itself.

Transport to the farms – in open top trucks, which often picked up locals on their commute and on one occasion broke down – gave our delegates a brief insight into some of the difficulties facing ordinary Cubans as the blockade intensifies. Polytunnels were cleared of overgrowth by machete, yucca and sweet potato were planted and chilli peppers were harvested at sites in both Artemisa and Cienfuegos.

Learning about Cuba, learning about the blockade

Dr. Gladys Hernandez, from the World Economy Research Centre (CIEM) visited the camp to provide an update on Cuba’s current economic situation. Dr. Hernandez spoke about the ‘multiple crises’ facing the country – the impact of COVID-19 and the slower than anticipated return of tourist numbers, the global economic downturn, as well as the intensification of the blockade had cumulatively had a severe impact. Despite the crises facing Cuba, “it is clear we won’t surrender our sovereignty”, she told brigadistas.

Prominent Cuban sports figures also visited the camp as part of a delegation from the National Institute of Sport, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER). They explained how sport and physical education is promoted by the government at every level of society which has, despite a lack of resources, led Cuba to gain a reputation for developing world-class athletes. They discussed the difficulties imposed on Cuban sport as a result of the blockade – from disabled athletes being unable to import the needed prosthetics and equipment, to the intense pressure many face to leave Cuba and turn professional in the US. “Cuba trains us to be Olympic champions”, one said. “But it’s better to stay and win for our own country. It’s a source of pride.”

The brigade visited the Playa Giron Museum, dedicated to Cuba’s victory over CIA-backed and funded counterrevolutionaries at the Bay of Pigs. The Cuban victory marked the first military defeat of US imperialism in Latin America and, as our brigadistas learnt, proved a watershed in dispelling the myths of US invincibility.

Practical solidarity - material aid and visits to a CDR and a hospital

Cuba is currently experiencing severe shortages in basic supplies as result of the blockade. Our brigadistas brought material aid as gestures of solidarity with the Cuban people, including medical and educational supplies.

At the Martires de Playa Giron hospital in Cienfuegos, the staff took time out of their day to explain how the Cuban health system works, the history of that hospital (which had been used to treat Cuban soldiers wounded in the Bay of Pigs invasion) and answer questions from our delegates.

Liz Holyoak, Unite Wales delegate, spoke as the delegation handed over their material aid. “Our delegates have been sent by our trade unions in solidarity with the Cuban people. We have been collecting medical aid in order to demonstrate our steadfast solidarity – with your healthcare system, your communities and with your revolution… solidarity forever!”

Material aid was also presented at a local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR) event in Cienfuegos. Simmeron Katbmana, PCS and GFTU delegate, spoke to the crowds who had gathered, pledging the brigade’s solidarity and thanking them for their hospitality. “You have welcomed us here and shared what you have and we’d like to share with you what we have,” she said. “There are school supplies and art materials, as we believe in bread for all and roses too.” Delegates enjoyed an evening talking and dancing with local people, who hosted a street party for the brigade.

May Day celebrations

The day before May Day, the delegation visited a nearby workplace to witness local workers receive commendations from the CTC for their length of service and the First Secretary of the agricultural workers union told the crowd that “Cuba is not on its knees. Cubans stand tall together with you.”

Holly Harwood, UNISON North West delegate, addressed the Cuban workers present. “We have been able to come to Cuba thanks to the support of our unions, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity. We stand in solidarity with the workers of Cuba. Seeing the strength and resilience of the people of Cuba in the face of the blockade has inspired us and we will take action in our country to end the blockade. We will also take these lessons back to strengthen our own trade union movement.”

While celebrations themselves were slightly pared back given current fuel shortages, 200,000 people still gathered at the Anti-Imperalist Tribune, in the shadow of the US embassy in Havana to celebrate May Day. Ulises Guilarte, General Secretary of the CTC, addressed the crowd, which included Cuban President Miguel Diaz Canel and former President Raul Castro.

International Solidarity with Cuba Conference, Conventions Palace, Havana

On 2 May, the brigade participated in the International Meeting of Solidarity with Cuba and Against Imperialism at the Conventions Palace in Havana. This unique opportunity, as official guests of the CTC, allowed young members to take part in a conference in the building where Cuba’s Parliament (National Assembly) meets.

The conference was addressed by a number of 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 all over the world. The genocide in Palestine and Cuba’s longstanding commitment to the Palestinian cause was central to proceedings.

Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, Cuba’s Deputy Foreign Minister, addressed how the cruel blockade affects the Cuban people and the growing hostility towards the country from the US government. He reaffirmed Cuba’s commitment to the defence of solidarity, internationalist principles and support for all just causes in the world.

After the closing of the inaugural session, the conference split into three commissions, where participants: Trade Unionism and Workers’ Struggles; Unity in Diversity; and International Solidarity.

The conference was closed by Fernando Gonzalez Llort, Hero of the Cuban Republic and President of the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP) and Miguel Diaz Canel. Fernando conveyed a message of appreciation to those in attendance and those who had participated in the May Day Brigade. “Our working people appreciate the participation of all those who have accompanied us - those who have come for the first time and those who have already visited our country before. You will be able to convey to your communities the truth of Cuba.”

Fernando spoke of the profound importance of international solidarity to the Cuban people: “The solidarity that you offer on a daily basis to Cuba is an invaluable contribution to the economic and social development of our nation, and it is also a strong expression of solidarity between peoples, between workers between social and popular movements. Viva la solidaridad entre los pueblos. Viva Palestina Libre! Viva la paz!”

President Diaz Canel concluded the conference with a wide-ranging speech, touching on Cuba’s current difficulties and the government’s plans to work through the crisis. He thanked those in attendance for their continuing solidarity, highlighting in particular the role of trade union and solidarity organisations in Europe and the US for their role in the International Tribunal against the blockade, which CSC took part in in Brussels in November 2023. “From Martí, Fidel, Raúl and Che we learned the value of solidarity; we learned to give solidarity and to be grateful for the solidarity you give us”, he told delegates. “Long live friendship, peace, solidarity and unity among our peoples and all the workers of the world!”

Brigadista testimony

"It was incredible to see first-hand how Cuba operated under the US blockade. It is an incredibly beautiful country with a completely different way of structuring its economy than what we are used to. I was inspired by the Cuban people and their resilience and determination they have in support of the revolution." Grace Ashworth, Unite North West

"The trip showed me that Cuba is a place that does struggle and does face severe hardship but that doesn’t deter its people from striving forward and actively trying to improve their lives; nor from standing with other nations under attack. I don’t think for the entire time I was there that I heard anyone speak of the struggles they faced in Cuba without a recognition of the plight of the Palestinian people, something which I found incredibly moving.The whole experience reinforced for me how vital it is that trade unions and trade unionists show their support for Cuba." Louis Radforth, PCS Young Members' Network

"It was wonderful to meet like-minded people on the brigade and talk about the progress of socialism from all over the world. Seeing and talking to the Cuban people and seeing them have an active interest in politics and understanding and appreciating their history, and not seeing the struggle of revolution be lost on them, was very inspiring." Nat Rhule, Unite West Midlands

"My two weeks in Cuba were an experience of a lifetime. It was an eye-opener, providing me with a decent political education and a closer look into laid-back Cuban life, revealing what's real there. Before I went, my knowledge of Cuba was limited to what I saw in the media and read in books, but now I have a different perspective. I would love to help more with what I can in campaigning to end the US blockade." TSSA delegate

"I spent the majority of my time on a Cuban camp with shared dorms, little access to WIFI and a camp which was prone to electrical blackouts, but despite these limited luxuries, I had my most profound political experience. Thanks to this trip, I want to start reading Marx, get more involved with anti-imperialist activism (particularly with the Cuba Solidarity Campaign) and I would like to get more involved with my trade union fighting for workers' rights." William Annang, UNISON Eastern

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